Mel Patton, a standout sprinter of the late 1940s who won two gold medals at the 1948 Olympic Games in London and for 13 years reigned over his sport as the unofficial “fastest man in the world,” died May 9 at his home in Fallbrook, Calif., near San Diego. He was 89.
His death was announced by his academic and athletic alma mater, the University of Southern California. The cause was complications from cancer and diabetes, said his wife, Shirley Patton.
At the London Olympics, “Pell Mel,” as he was known to sportswriters, won a gold in the 200-meter dash and a second gold as anchor man of the 4 x 100-meter relay team.
From 1947 through 1949, Mr. Patton, who competed for Southern Cal, was widely recognized as the world’s top sprinter, winning the NCAA 100-yard title three straight years.
He tied the world 100-yard record three times, at 9.4 seconds, before winning the title of “world’s fastest man” on May 15, 1948, at a track meet in Fresno, Calif. His time of 9.3 seconds smashed an 18-year world record that Mr. Patton had shared with Jesse Owens and other runners. Mr. Patton’s record would stand until 1961, when Frank Budd of Villanova University, who died April 29, ran the 100 in 9.2 seconds.
At a meet in Los Angeles in May 1949, Mr. Patton broke Owens’s 14-year-old record in the straightaway 220-yard dash, with a time of 20.2 seconds. (The 220 — and its metric near-equivalent of 200 meters — is usually run around one curve.)
During the same track meet, Mr. Patton ran the 100-yard dash in 9.1 seconds — a time not equaled until 1963 by Bob Hayes — but the record was disallowed because a trailing wind of 6.5 mph was above the allowable limit.
Favored to win the 100-meter title in the 1948 Olympics, Mr. Patton finished a disappointing fifth. The race was won by his U.S. teammate Harrison Dillard.
Mr. Patton later said that a rare London heat wave and “maybe a bit of English cooking” caused him to lose weight and thus contributed to his lackluster performance.
As the weather cooled, Mr. Patton bounced back to win the 200-meter race in 21.1 seconds on a rain-softened clay track, running a half-second slower than his best time in the event.
Mr. Patton ran the anchor leg of the 4 x 100-meter relay, easily winning the race. But the U.S. team was initially disqualified because officials ruled that the first two runners had passed the baton outside the proper zone. The ruling was reversed, giving Mr. Patton and his teammates the gold medal.
At 6 feet tall and a slight 146 pounds, Mr. Patton was sometimes called the “whippet from the West Coast.” He was a graceful and stylish runner, but he was a nervous and intense competitor who sometimes threw up before or after his races. He socialized with no one before competing, not wishing to lose his concentration.
From his coaches in high school and college, he learned such running fundamentals as how far to lean, where to place his hands and how high to hold his hips in the starting blocks.
“After that, it is just a matter of practice,” he said in an oral history interview for the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles. “You make sure that you are toeing straight ahead, rather than toeing out, lifting your knees up forward, and using your arms.”
Keeping the toes pointed straight ahead, he said, can give a runner an extra inch per step.
Melvin Emery Patton was born in Los Angeles on Nov. 16, 1924. He was not a noticeably outstanding athlete as a child, and at age 8 he was struck by a truck, shattering his left leg.
He won a school race when he was 12, later joined his high school track team and never lost a race. His high school coach forbade him to swim or dance because he believed those exercises would “take the tone out of his legs.”
Mr. Patton served two years in the Navy during World War II, then enrolled at USC, where he earned money by working as a janitor. His college coach, Dean Cromwell, had guided the careers of such earlier sprint champions as Charley Paddock and Frank Wykoff. Cromwell also coached the U.S. Olympic track team in 1948.
Mr. Patton, who refused offers to advertise cigarettes because he did not smoke, ended his amateur running career in 1949, the same year he graduated from USC. He later received a master’s degree in physical education, coached track at Long Beach State University and Wichita State University, worked in marketing for Northrop Corp. and directed an athletic program for Saudi Arabia.
He was named to the National Track & Field Hall of Fame in 1985.
Survivors include his wife of 68 years, Shirley Roos Patton of Fallbrook; two children, Susan Martin of Fountain Valley, Calif., and Gary Patton of Simi Valley, Calif.; five grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
In 1999, more than half a century after Mr. Patton’s only Olympic appearance, he described in his oral history interview how he felt standing on the Olympic podium with a gold medal hanging from his neck.
“The thrill of a lifetime,” he said. “It was like the old saying that they put an olive wreath on your head. The moral of that story was that you were a champion for a day, and at the end of the day the olive wreath wilts and it’s a new ball game.”
Staff writer Matt Schudel contributed to this report.