Bobby Joe Morrow, the 1956 Olympic sprint champion who lost his way

<span>Photograph: AP</span>
Photograph: AP

Four men have won the sprint triple at the Olympics and, chances are, you know three of them: Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis and Usain Bolt. Then there is Bobby Joe Morrow, who died last Sunday at the age of 84. When Morrow won the 100m, 200m, and the 4x100m at the Melbourne Games in 1956 he was, briefly, as famous as any of the other three. He was a guest on the Ed Sullivan show, same episode as Marcel Marceau, and Arthur Godfrey and His Friends, he made the cover of Life magazine and was even named by the US Chamber of Commerce as one of nine Great Living Americans, right alongside Cecil B DeMille and Norman Rockwell.

Sports Illustrated made him its sportsman of 1956, the same year Floyd Patterson became the youngest heavyweight champion in history and Mickey Mantle won the triple crown for the Yankees. Morrow was 21 years old, tall, handsome, and “the Beau Ideal of the US Olympic team”. He grew up on a farm in San Benito, way down in south-east Texas, his father was an elder in the Church of Christ, and the family were “prosperous, unostentatious, and deeply religious”. The way they told it, his only vice was ice cream. It made him something “a little larger than a fine sprinter”. He was the “sort of American which most of the world has had too little opportunity to know”.

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Almost 50 years later, Sports Illustrated travelled back to San Benito to profile Morrow again. Second time around it found him “a bitter and all-but-forgotten man”. Reading all this back now, alongside the few scant paragraphs that have been published in the papers since his death, it feels like Bobby Morrow’s wasn’t a story about the rewards of fame but the costs. But then he would likely scoff at that, just as he seemed to at almost everything else that was written about him.

He could always run. In his last year of high school he covered 100 yards in 9.6sec, hand-timed. He was something to see, in those days. “He was the most beautiful runner anyone ever saw,” said his first wife, Jo Ann Richey. “So relaxed, so graceful, like when he was chasing rabbits back on the farm.” Morrow’s coach at Abilene Christian University reckoned he “could run a 220 with a root beer float on his head and never spill a drop”. He was, his friend William Martin wrote in Texas Monthly, “as beautiful as a high speed human could be”. In Melbourne he became the first man since Owens to win three gold medals in the sprints, set an Olympic record in the 200m and anchored the 4x100m team to a world record.

Thane Baker (centre) hands the baton to Bobby Joe Morrow in the first heat of the 4x100 in Melbourne.
Thane Baker (centre) hands the baton to Bobby Joe Morrow in the first heat of the 4x100 in Melbourne. Photograph: SF/AP

Morrow intended to defend his Olympic titles at Rome in 1960, when he was 25. But he strained a muscle before the trials and, running injured, finished last in his 100m heat. Still, the head coach invited him along to the team’s training camp and told him that if his leg got better they would find a space for him on the relay team. It did, but they didn’t. The day before the team were due to fly to Rome they said they still hadn’t made a decision, and that he should come along to the airport the next morning. When he did, they finally told him he wasn’t going. Richey said the humiliation he felt was a cause of their divorce years later.

They had twins, and Morrow, who had quit a bank job so he could train full-time, found he was struggling to support them. He had railed against the Amateur Athletics Union’s strict rules limiting earnings, and the hypocrisy of the men who enforced them, like the International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage. He saw how the officials – “a bunch of guys whose job was to hand out soap and towels, because they had to find something for them to do” – enjoyed first-class flights and accommodation while the athletes were living on $15 per diem.

Morrow met the US attorney general Robert Kennedy to petition him about it, and then testified at a senate hearing on the subject. Nothing changed, except that he got even angrier about the way he had been treated.

So Morrow started looking for other ways to make money. A conman named Max Nunn roped him into a snake oil business selling a “mineral potion” called Stim-o-Stam. “All the friends I sold stock to lost their money,” he told William Martin, “people that didn’t really have money, that had to go out and borrow it to put it in.” He fell in with the infamous Church of Christ fraudster Billie Sol Estes, too. Then he was caught up in a third scandal when he was recruited by a phoney organisation called the Higher Education Crusade.

“Again, somebody was using my name to do their dirty work,” he told Martin. “I didn’t have any control over it but, of course, my name was connected with the company as representing them. I felt lousy, really. I seemed to be always getting involved with crooks.”

Bobby Joe Morrow (left) is handed an Olympic portrait of himself during the 2006 inauguration of the stadium that bears his name in San Benito, Texas.
Bobby Joe Morrow (left) is handed an Olympic portrait of himself during the 2006 inauguration of the stadium that bears his name in San Benito, Texas. Photograph: Lynn Hermosa/AP

So he started to shun publicity, to skip the reunions, and forgo the public appearances. By the time he spoke to Martin, Morrow had remarried, and was living back on his family farm. Still, he said he was sorry he had ever won the medals, that he would have been happier if he’d been “just another man in the street”. He was inducted into the National Track and Field hall of fame in 1989, and San Benito high school named its football stadium after him in 2006.

You like to think that, in the end, he found a measure of happiness in his obscurity – but perhaps that, too, is just a bit of wishful thinking, another of the stories we tell ourselves about our heroes.