As this year’s Olympic Games commence in London, I couldn’t help but remember learning about an Olympic sprinter from the 1930s named Mack Robinson.
In today’s world of multi-million dollar contracts, appearance fees, and endorsements, it’s easy to forget what many world-class athletes had to endure, even at the peak of their careers, not so very long ago. Where today’s Olympic track & field stars can become mega-celebrities like Bruce Jenner or Carl Lewis, for an African-American track star in the 1930s, there were no riches or lasting fame.
According to Matthew “Mack” Robinson, running came “naturally.” From 1936 through 1938, few people in the entire world could run faster or jump farther. One of the greatest track and field athletes of his time, Robinson’s accomplishments have been somewhat obscured by those of Jesse Owens and Mack’s own younger brother, baseball legend Jackie Robinson.
Mack, a track star at Pasadena Junior (now City) College, set national junior college records in the 100 meters, 200 meters, and long jump. He also qualified for the US Olympic team in the 200 meters in 1936, beating out the 1932 Olympic gold medalist for a spot on the squad.
With no coaching, and running in the same pair of spikes he had run in all spring and summer, Mack chased Owens to a world record in the 200 meters at the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin, running a 21.1 to Owens’ 20.7 and winning the silver medal. Both runners eclipsed the previous Olympic record in the event. Owens and Robinson famously ran this race in front of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi propaganda machine, defeating the supposedly superior Aryan Nation on their home soil.
Mack went on to attend the University of Oregon, where he won collegiate and Amateur Athletic Union titles. However, helping to support his family soon became his top priority. He left college to return home to Pasadena, and he was often seen wearing his Olympic sweatshirt as he swept city streets as a City of Pasadena employee. For decades he worked in a variety of city jobs, and later in life, led the fight against street crime in Pasadena.
I had the pleasure of meeting Mack’s wife and one of his sons in 1997 when Mack was inducted into the California Community College Sports Hall of Fame, joining his brother Jackie who had been inducted in 1984. Mack was ill and unable to travel at the time, but his wife Delano regaled the audience with stories of Mack’s character and single-minded commitment to his family and community.
Mack Robinson passed away in 2000, leaving behind a wife, eight children, 25 grandchildren, and eight great- grandchildren, as well as a lifetime of service and dedication to the City of Pasadena – dedication the city did not forget. The Pasadena Robinson Memorial, honoring Mack and Jackie, was dedicated in 1997, and Pasadena City College named its stadium for the brothers as well. The U.S. Congress also named a Pasadena post office for Matthew “Mack” Robinson.