100 in 100: Iredell County’s Louis ‘Pinky’ Clarke, Olympic gold medalist

The Statesville sprinter won gold at the 1924 Summer Olympics

North State Journal’s 100 in 100 series will showcase the best athlete from each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. From Alamance to Yancey, each county will feature one athlete who stands above the rest. Some will be obvious choices, others controversial, but all of our choices are worthy of being recognized for their accomplishments — from the diamond and gridiron to racing ovals and the squared circle. You can see all the profiles as they’re unveiled here.

Iredell County

Louis “Pinky” Clarke

The 1924 Paris Olympics will best be remembered for rivalries and relationships between English sprinters Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell and their American counterparts, Jackson Scholz and Charley Paddock, all of whom were immortalized by the Academy Award-winning film “Chariots of Fire.”

Pinky Clarke might have made an appearance in that movie, too, had the U.S. Olympic Committee not decided during the trip across the Atlantic to substitute Paddock for him in the 200 meters. Though a reason for the change was never announced, it is believed to have been made because Clarke was Jewish. Paddock went on to win the silver medal in the event.

Despite that disappointment, Clarke didn’t come home empty-handed. The then 22-year-old Statesville native was added to the American 4×100 relay team, on which he combined with teammates Frank Hussey, Loren Murchison and Al LeConey to win the gold medal in a world record time of 41.0 seconds. Sweden won the silver medal with a British team that included Abrahams taking bronze.

Clarke ran the second leg of the race and, according to a newspaper account, came from behind to give the U.S. a lead it never relinquished.

“I never had an opportunity to win an Olympic (individual) event, but making the team is the tough thing,” the first North Carolinian ever to compete in the Summer Games said in a 1955 interview. “Regardless of what you do in the Olympics, you know that you are good enough to make the team.”

Clarke earned his spot on the team through his performances at Johns Hopkins University, where he became a track star almost by accident. He was a benchwarmer on the Blue Jays’ baseball team when a member of the track team noticed his speed on the bases and talked him into switching sports.

It turned out to be a smart move. Clarke went on to win an NCAA championship in the 100-yard dash in 1923 and set what was then an indoor world record in the event with a time of 9.8 seconds in the semifinal heat of a meet held at Baltimore’s First Regiment Armory in February 1924. Seventy years later, he was honored as a member of the inaugural class inducted into the Johns Hopkins Athletic Hall of Fame.