The Big Ten is no stranger to Olympic success. One of the greatest Olympians of all time, Jesse Owens, the “Buckeye Bullet” competed for Ohio State and broke three world records and tied a fourth at the Big Ten outdoor track championships in 1935. Owens, of course, went on to compete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, winning four gold medals and securing his name in Olympics history.
Less well known, but remarkably important is George Poage, former track star at the University of Wisconsin, first African American to run for the Badgers, first African American Big Ten conference champion (in two events, the 440-yard dash and the 220-yard hurdles), and the first African American athlete to medal in the Olympics.
The 1904 Olympics were held in St. Louis in conjunction with the World’s Fair and UW athletes performed strongly for team USA. Emil Breitkreutz took home a bronze in the 800 meters, Frank Waller took home two silver medals in the the men’s 400 meters and the 400 meter hurdles, but it was George Poage who etched his name into the history books, winning his two bronze medals in the 220-yard and 440-yard hurdles.
Despite his great success in the 1904 Olympics, George Poage faced tremendous challenges as an African American at the turn of the 20th century. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Poage taught English and coached sports teams in St. Louis, farmed in Minnesota and then moved to Chicago where he worked for the postal service for 30 years. In 1998, George Poage was elected to the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame.