When Mel Pender passed the baton to Ronnie Ray Smith, Pender had done his job. He was a captain in the US Army, and a reliable leader. And that’s what he did. He put his team in the lead, and his teammates did the rest. Pender, with Charlie Greene, Ray and Jim Hines, won the gold medal in the 4×100 meter relay at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. With a time of 38.24 seconds, the Americans set a world record.
Pender’s close friend, Greene, was 23 years old. Ray was the kid at 19. Hines was 22. But Pender was nearly 31 when he finally won his gold medal, an old man by sprinter’s standards. While many athletes in the United States who approach world-class speeds got their start in track in high school or earlier, Pender never got those opportunities, growing up economically disadvantaged in Lynnwood Park, a community in Decatur, Georgia.
The first time Pender ever ran competitively was at the age of 25, in Okinawa of all places. It was 1960, and Pender had been sent to the American army base in the western-most islands of the Japanese archipelago. When officers noticed the speedy halfback on the Army Ranger football team, one of them ordered Pender to participate in a friendly competition between the American military and Japanese athletes training for the Olympics.
As Pender explained in his recently released autobiography, Expression of Hope – The Mel Pender Story, he hadn’t a clue. “Coach, what are you talking about? Run track? I asked. I never ran track in my life! I wouldn’t know the first thing to do? I continued.” Pender writes that when he first saw track shoes for the first time, with the long spikes and the flapping tongue, he thought they were “ugly, ugly, ugly.”
But that was the beginning of a new life for then Sgt Pender, who would go on to compete at both the 1964 and 1968 Olympic Games.
According to Mexico City teammate and 200-meter bronze medalist John Carlos, what Pender accomplished was “phenomenal”.
For him to do what he did at his age was exceptional! Mel was twenty-seven years old in 1964 and thirty-one in 1968. The competition we faced then was beyond world class, and everything he received is very much deserving. I was twenty, I think. We ran against each other in meets, and with each other in meets, all over the world. I don’t know of many, or anyone, who accomplished what he did in that day and time in history.