“Brother of baseball icon Jackie Robinson. Silver medalist behind Jesse Owens. Considered inferior in his own country. But Mack Robinson was a born winner whose legacy continues to this day.” —University of Oregon
Today, at the close of Black History Month, I want to talk about one of the nearly forgotten greats of American sports, Matthew MacKenzie “Mack” Robinson.
In many ways, Mack Robinson got the short end of the stick much of his life. He was born to a family of sharecroppers in racist Georgia in 1912 and he lost his father at a young age; when the Robinsons moved to California, the racism didn’t improve. He had the opportunity to go to the 1936 Olympics, and took silver in the 200-meter sprint final, breaking the previous Olympic record, as racist Adolf Hitler looked on. But Robinson’s big achievement was overshadowed by the more famous black American athlete Jesse Owens winning gold in that race. Then, though Mack won first in other important competitions, he suffered from severe racism in America and was fired from his job as a street sweeper at one point when the local government fired all its black employees. Mack’s legacy was further overshadowed by his exceptional brother Jackie Robinson, who was the first black man to play in Major League Baseball.
Mack never won the gold medal in the Olympics which he so wanted, and he spent much of his life in relative obscurity in Pasadena, California. But for all that, Mack never let any of his problems kill his spirit or stop him from doing good. His political and social advocacy in his community and elsewhere helped countless young men and women, including his own children. Mack Robinson was a born winner—he never let life beat him.
As Adolf Hitler watched at the 1936 Olympic 200-meter final:
”Robinson, wearing the same spikes he’d used to compete for Pasadena Junior College that spring, dug his toes into the divots in the cinder track, looked into the turn ahead of him, and at the sound of the starter’s pistol leapt forward, every sinew in his body straining to pick up every ounce of speed his chiseled frame could muster, legs churning, knees lifted high, arms pumping, elbows back as his wrists brushed past his hips with each blur of a step, around the curve and down the home straight with the roar of 100,000 Germans reverberating inside his head and Dutch sprinter and future SS volunteer Tinus Osendarp on his heels, until he crossed the finish line.
Twenty-one-point-one seconds—approximately the amount of time it took to read the previous paragraph—was all Robinson needed to run 200 meters, equaling the Olympic record he had set in the semifinals. But one step ahead of him, with a new world record of 20.7 seconds, [was Jesse Owens].”
As Mack himself put it, “It’s not too bad to be the second best in the world at what you’re doing, no matter what it is. It means that only one other person in the world was better than you. That makes you better than an awful lot of people.”
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