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The Legend of UVA’s First Olympic Medal

UVA Law student James Rector (second from right) finishes second to South Africa’s Reggie Walker (far right) in the 100-meter finals at the 1908 London Olympics.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In July 1908, at the peak of his training, James Alcorn Rector (Law 1909) stood a hair under 6 feet tall, weighed 176 pounds and possessed a physique “of the clean-cut, rather slim-looking rangy type that always makes the best athletes,” proclaimed UVA’s Alumni Bulletin.

A scion of two Southern political families, Rector, 24, prepped in the East and was by all appearances a blue-blooded man about The Grounds, being groomed for law and leadership. He was also one of UVA’s first sports idols—if not the original one—and the odds-on favorite to win the 100-meter dash at the 1908 London Olympics.

“[U.S. Olympic coach] Murphy picks him to win and if nothing goes wrong he will win,” said the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“I have never felt more confident of success in my life,” Rector said in a letter to his father, written from training camp in Brighton, England, and quoted in the Daily Arkansas Gazette. “I am going out not only for a victory, but for a new world’s record as well.”

Rector got neither. In what was considered a major upset, he lost by three feet in the final to an unheralded South African, a 19-year-old file clerk named Reggie Walker. Rector took the silver.

How could the “Virginia Flyer,” as he was dubbed by a cheerleading state press, fail to bring home the gold? Rector was the top American, and Americans had won the 100 meters in the three previous Olympics. Walker was the first African to win gold in any event. 

The Legend of Rector, now mostly forgotten but reappearing periodically over the decades, is told as a narrative of selfless sportsmanship. Apparently, UVA’s first Olympic medalist was done in by an act of athletic noblesse oblige.

It’s a tale that fits what we know about the man, and it might even be true.

As the story goes, shortly after arriving in London, Rector was approached by Walker’s coach, who asked him if he would show his young sprinter the trademark “crouch” start used by Americans.

Rector said he did, to his own detriment. Walker beat him off the line in the final. Rector caught him, but expended too much energy in the process, and didn’t have enough left to hold him off down the stretch.

The victory by a colonial subject “thoroughly revived the spirits of the Britishers present,” reported the Sporting Mail. Walker was hoisted onto the shoulders of cheering supporters and carried off the track.

Rector returned to the starting line, put on his robe, changed out of his running shoes and walked back to his dressing room at London’s White City Stadium. 

At the time he said nothing about having coached Walker.

“I was beaten as fairly as ever a man were, and I shall never race again,” he said after returning to Virginia.

Rector was born into high expectations, coming into the world in 1884 on a cotton plantation owned by his maternal grandfather, James L. Alcorn, who served as governor of Mississippi from 1870 to 1871 and as a U.S. senator from 1871 to 1877.

James Rector

Rector’s paternal grandfather, Henry Massie Rector, was governor of Arkansas from 1860 to 1862. Rector’s father, Elias William Rector (Law 1872), served as speaker of the Arkansas House of Representatives from 1891 to 1893 and twice ran for governor.

Raised in Arkansas, Rector was known as “Indian,” a family nickname, in his home state. He prepped at the prestigious Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, where he starred in baseball, football and track and was valedictorian of the class of 1906. He enrolled in law school at UVA that fall and played the same three sports before coach Henry “Pop” Lannigan persuaded him to concentrate on track.

Rector thrived under Lannigan’s coaching. As his victories mounted and his times dropped, his reputation grew. But so, in certain circles, did skepticism that he was the real deal.

Coverage of Rector in Virginia and Arkansas newspapers invariably played up his Southern heritage and the regional belief—possibly exaggerated by Southern scribes always on alert for Yankee slights—that the snobbish Ivy League set considered coaches and athletes from below the Mason-Dixon to be backward and inferior.

Virginia officials didn’t help their credibility with Northern critics by claiming a world-record time for Rector of 9.4 seconds in the 100-yard dash. Supposedly, Rector set the mark at the Southern Intercollegiates in Charlottesville in May 1908. The meet was not sanctioned by the Amateur Athletic Union, and witnesses reported that a “slight, quartering wind” aided Rector. The AAU did not recognize the record, and it most likely was inaccurate, considering that no one would run 100 yards that fast, officially, for another 21 years.

Rector’s chance to prove himself to the skeptics would come at the Olympic trials in Philadelphia. When he announced that he would not run because his father was ill, the Times-Dispatch sporting editor, E.J. Griffith, wrote a panicked column.

The 100-meter dash was the “most spectacular and most coveted” of all track events, Griffith wrote. Virginia’s world-record holder must run!

“It is the devout hope of every Southerner with a drop of sporting blood in his veins—and what one has not got plenty?—that the news of his son’s record will act as a tonic upon Mr. Rector Sr. and will induce him to feel willing to let the sprinter cross the Atlantic.

“To let his son lead a field of the world’s best athletes—this much Mr. Rector owes to the South.”

Fortunately for all concerned, Rector Sr. rallied. UVA students gave Rector “quite an ovation” as he boarded a train to Philadelphia, the Times-Dispatch reported.

Rector wasted no time making his presence known at the trials. In his first heat, he tied the meet record of 10.8 seconds in the 100 meters, the Olympic distance. Put back three feet after a false start in the final, he lost by just six inches.

The committee picking the team had seen enough. Rector was scheduled to run the 200 meters, but Lannigan was urged to pull him from that race “and not to take a chance, as they were unanimous that Rector was their first choice for the Olympic team in the 100-meter event,” the Alumni Bulletin reported.

Now officially headed to London, Rector announced that after the Olympics he would retire from the “cinder path,” as tracks were called, being surfaced with partly burned wood and coal.

Rector wanted to devote his full attention to law school and felt he could no longer pour his best into both his studies and athletics. There was more to it than that, though.

“It is not an easy game,” Rector told the Daily Arkansas Gazette, which called him “a type of the nervous athlete.”

“He is high strung. He trains under a tension and puts his whole life and being into whatever he enters.”

Rector was “wearied of the struggle he must maintain,” the article said.

“On Northern fields I have been under the most stringent scrutiny,” he told the newspaper. “They focused their glasses on me after I started out to reach the top as a sprinter, looking for defects that were expected to be located in a Southerner heralded in their presence as a mark holder. Each successive public exhibition had to be greater than the others or the former work would have been forgotten. To keep striving under difficulties is not an easy task, and when I won the final trials that qualified me to meet the world’s best, I decided that after this opportunity, win or lose, I was done with running.”

Rector (far right) was captain of the track team. Corks & Curls

The 1908 London Games in which Rector competed were the fourth Olympiad and, in terms of organization and participation, widely considered the first “modern” games.

They were also the first in which fervent jingoism reared its head, according to BBC reports. The rivalry was particularly intense between the British and the Americans, the former self-conscious about empire decline and the latter eager to assert itself on the world stage. Athletics was a proxy for those geopolitical shifts. But, according to one scholar, ill will also stemmed from “Irish-American nationalism, biased British officiating, competing sporting ideologies, as well as sensationalist reporting on both sides of the Atlantic.”

Anglo-American relations got off to a bad start when the American flag was missing from the display of national banners at the stadium. Then the athlete leading the U.S. parade in the opening ceremonies refused to dip Old Glory when passing in front of King Edward.

Rector’s views on the controversy were not recorded, but apparently he did not think much of John Bull’s sprinters.

“I find the Englishmen slow,” he wrote in a letter home that was quoted in the Times-Dispatch.

He certainly would not have expected to have anything to fear from Walker, a colonial. Though he had won the national title in the 100 meters, Walker was left off the South African traveling team because cash was short and he was considered too inexperienced. A sportswriter in Walker’s home region of Natal began a campaign to raise money to send him to London.

Unlike the strapping Rector, Walker wasn’t much to behold, standing just 5-foot-7 and weighing 130 pounds. But if the reports from South Africa were accurate, he’d run 11 flat in the 100, just a fifth of a second slower than Rector.

Shaving a fraction of a second off his start could make all the difference. In the story Rector apparently first told to a reporter from the Trenton Evening Times in February 1912, a man claiming to be Walker’s coach approached him shortly after they arrived in London. Rector did not identify the man. Legend long held that Walker was coached by Sam Mussabini, the famous British coach portrayed in the film Chariots of Fire. But Deborah Marie Pitchford Coetzer, a scholar who wrote a thesis on Walker, said researchers have proved that Walker was coached by another man, a veteran British trainer named Sam Wisdom.

A former plumber, Wisdom was 58 years old in 1908. If Rector’s account is true, it would have taken considerable nerve for Wisdom to sidle up to the American favorite and make his unusual request.

“He told me the youngster under his charge knew little about the game but had the native ability to become a great runner,” Rector said in 1912. “He complained that his starting was bad and asked me to lend a helping hand. I agreed.

“The next day I was introduced to Reggie Walker. He had a wretched crouch for the start. He began with a long step and ruined his stride. I showed him my start, the short first step and low crouch, and he took great pains to study my style.”

In those days, runners dug holes for their feet at the starting line and pushed off for leverage. Starting blocks wouldn’t emerge for another 20 years.

Rector left for two weeks of training with the U.S. team in Brighton. He didn’t see Walker again until the day they raced. They had each run 10.8 seconds in preliminaries, tying the Olympic record.

“I soon noticed that Walker had mastered my start,” Rector said. “When the race was on he got away from the mark with me. It was the first time I hadn’t shaded my competition at the start. We ran neck and neck and he beat me by half a stride.”

Reggie Walker (right) got the jump on James Rector (second from right) at the start of the 100-meter final. Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

That was that. Rector returned to Virginia and resigned from the track team. The only way he would run again, it was reported, is if Walker came to the U.S.

Griffith of the Times-Dispatch took up for Rector, saying one race did not make Walker the better man. It was reported that President Roosevelt asked Rector to race Walker again. It was also reported that Rector had retired because of a heart condition.

Rector said there was nothing to those reports. 

“My health was never better,” he said in January 1909. “My heart is as strong as any man’s.”

Indeed, the same article stated that, if needed, Rector could get ready for any race in three days, without giving up cigarettes.

He never had to. Walker never came to the U.S., instead embarking on a victory tour in England. He turned professional, making him ineligible to compete in another Olympic Games, and wrote a textbook on sprinting in 1910. He served three years in World War I, later worked as a coach, and died in 1951.

It’s unclear if Walker’s book mentioned being coached by Rector. One contemporary press account said it was coach Wisdom who “made a runner out of Reggie Walker.”

Did he really get help from Rector? The high-strung sprinter, who was frequently asked if he might make a comeback, waited four years to tell his tale, unburdening himself on the eve of the next Olympics. The sporting press took him at his word. 

It’s unclear if anyone ever asked Walker about it. Knights of the keyboard loved nothing more than a tidy tale, particularly if it furthered a heroic narrative. Quote-polishing, or even fabricating, was an accepted practice. (Or possibly Rector’s mother really said: “Go to it, son! The Alcorn and Rector blood means invincibility. You have metal in your heels. Three cheers for my boy. Troy must be taken. You are my Ulysses.”)

That Trenton Times story, headlined “How Jimmy Rector lost to Walker,” said Rector had an “interesting” story to tell. The Lawrentian, the alumni journal of the Lawrenceville School, also ran an account of Rector’s story in 1914, relying heavily on the 1912 account. In the 1912 story, Rector calls Walker a “great runner” but says he’s satisfied he could have beaten him if he had not shown him his crouch start. 

In the 1914 story, Rector sounds less confident. It quotes a letter from Rector to the author, assessing his chances if he had faced the South African again: “A serious doubt lurks in my mind as to whether or not I could have ever won from Walker,” Rector wrote.

Coronet magazine revisited the tale 33 years later. Rector, by then retired from his law practice and living in Hot Springs, Arkansas, was described as being “gray and sixtyish, yet walks with a springy stride.” The tale, the writer said, was one Rector rarely told, and he wasn’t quoted contemporaneously in the piece.

“Rector was second,” the article said. “Yet his championship of the heart lives on in the tradition of fair play that has made American athletes respected throughout the world.”

Rector died in 1950 at 65. An obituary in the Arkansas Democrat merely mentioned that he was a retired lawyer, a grandson of pioneer governors of Arkansas and Mississippi, and a star sprinter who had “represented the United States in one Olympic competition.”

“Generally accepted,” the Arkansas Gazette’s 1984 term, might be the best last word on Rector’s story. The official report of the 1908 Olympics, some 864 pages thick, settles nothing. But the book’s recaps of the 100-meter races are intriguing evidence, if one knows the supposed story behind the story.

“A beautiful start,” is how the account of Walker’s second-round victory begins.

Of Walker’s win over Rector in the final, the report concludes: “He was perfectly trained for the day of the race.”

Ed Miller is Associate Editor of Virginia Magazine.