The completion of the recent Tokyo Olympics brings to mind the extraordinary events following the so-called ‘Austerity Games’ of 1948 when black American sprinter and three times Olympic medallist Barney Ewell came to our town to take part in the Morpeth Olympics.
Ewell was a triple medallist at the post war London Games, but even that success was not without controversy. He believed he had won the 100m ahead of teammate Harrison Dillard, but was distressed to find the victory given, in the absence of a photo finish camera, to Dillard instead.
He was second once again in a close 200m and even the Gold he won in the 4 x 100m relay was subject to an original disqualification - Ewell’s exchange with Lorenzo Wright being ruled out of the zone but the decision later overruled on appeal.
Born into poverty in Pennsylvania, Ewell’s life was one long battle against the odds – indeed it seems incredible no film has been made of it. In the days of strict no professionalism in sport, he was stripped of his amateur status after the Olympics – for accepting gifts from fans, of all things.
Shortly after this that Ewell came to the UK to race in the local handicap sprints that took place in the North East and Scotland and were then so much part of village shows and fetes, and which provided rich opportunities for betting.
He turned up at Morpeth in 1950, and the black and white photos of the day show huge crowds to watch him taking part in the celebrated Morpeth Olympics, then held at the site of what is now Morpeth RUFC. Indeed, a young Jim Alder MBE recalls seeing him training for the event with reps along Mitford Road to the top of Dogger Bank past where Alder was then living.
Working his way through the heats, Ewell made it through to the final of the 110 yards – but with a massive 10-yard handicap to overcome against those off scratch. Perhaps unsurprisingly given his talent, this he managed in some style with the accompanying photo showing his victorious dip for the line. He would go on to compete in a number of similar races in Scotland, and also in Australia and New Zealand.
Some run, some man.