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Leading off the race into Olympic history

This was first published in the Feb. 6 edition of the Daily Dispatch.

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series of columns dedicated to both Black History month and the Olympic Games

He was a salutatorian. He was a Big Ten conference champion. He was an Olympian — and they were all firsts.

In honor of Black History month and the 2008 Olympic Games, I salute George Poage.

Poage was born in Hannibal, Missouri on Nov. 6, 1880. Poage moved with his family to LaCrosse, Wisc., where in 1899, he became the first black to graduate from LaCrosse High School — as the salutatorian.

Poage joined the University of Wisconsin track and field team as a sophomore, becoming the first black athlete to wear a Badger uniform. He graduated with a degree in History in 1903 and was employed as a trainer for the football team to work off his payment for graduate classes.

While a graduate student, Poage became the first black to win an individual track championship in Big Ten conference history. He won the 440-yard dash and the 220-yard hurdles in 1904. 1904 was also an Olympic year — the first Olympic Games to be held in the U.S.

As St. Louis hosted the World’s Fair, the city also welcomed all of the world’s nations as the ‘04 Olympics coincided with the Fair. Poage, sponsored by the Milwaukee Athletic Club, qualified for these Games, but blacks wanted to boycott them because of segregated facilities for the spectators. However, the Games went on as scheduled and Poage made history.
When Poage toed the line for his first race, he became the first black to ever compete in the Olympics. He would go on to win bronze in both the 200 and 400-meter hurdles.

After the St. Louis Games, Poage struggled to find a way of life — even with a graduate degree. He taught at Sumner High School in St. Louis for 10 years before moving to Chicago where he was hired by the Postal Service. Poage worked for the Post Office for 30 years before passing away in April of 1962.

Poage’s precedent paved the way for great Olympic hurdlers such as Edwin Moses, who competed in the 400 hurdlers. Moses, who won gold in the ‘76 and ‘84 Games, won 122 consecutive races over a 10-year span while setting world records in his event four times.

It’s a feat that is still unmatched.

Poage’s achievement on the collegiate level made Jesse Owens possible. The ‘Buckeye Bullet,’ Owens won four Big Ten championships along with four NCAA titles as an Ohio State student. He would go on to disapprove Hitler’s inferiority philosophy in the Berlin Games.

In every aspect of life, someone had to blaze the trail for everyone else. However, it is in sports that those trailblazers are more recognizable. More of us are more in tune with Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball than — say — Russell Simmons becoming the first to turn hip-hop into an enterprise.

So for the future black Americans who will represent the U.S. in the ‘08 Games and beyond, George Poage was the man who began the race for you

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