Best Of Tucson®

1940 Olympics

Joe Batiste, 19, had his sights set high when he went to the 1939 Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) track and field championships. The phenomenal athlete from Tucson High School dreamed not only of doing well in the Lincoln, Neb. meet, but also of winning a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.

Coached by Don Van Horne, Baptiste was entered in the 110-meter high hurdles. Even though earlier in the year, Batiste had set a national interscholastic record as a high school student, the clear race favorite at the AAU meet was defending champion Fred Wolcott, of Rice University.

In the preliminary round, Wolcott beat Batiste by running a blistering-fast time. The finals, though, would be different.

The race, run in front of 8,000 excited fans, was excruciatingly close, with Batiste nipping Wolcott by an inch. His time of 14.1 seconds beat the recognized American record--but with a tailwind of almost 10 mph, his time would not be considered the new standard.

Upon hearing the news of his son's upset victory, Ernest Batiste back in Tucson told the Arizona Daily Star: "He told me he was going to tear 'em up ... and boy, did he!"

As a reward for his performance, Batiste was selected to join a small group of American track and field athletes touring Europe, with meets in Great Britain, Switzerland and France.

In Paris, Batiste had his best performance of the tour. He won both the high hurdles and high jump, and was a member of the winning relay team.

The Americans were scheduled to compete in Greece--but Nazi Germany invaded Poland, and the tour was cut short.

Returning to Tucson, Joe Batiste was greeted by Mayor Henry O. Jaastad and other local officials, and then honored with an impromptu parade through downtown.

War had spread across Europe by the time track and field athletes gathered in Fresno, Calif., for the 1940 AAU meet. Numerous records were expected to fall on Fresno's fast surface.

That is exactly what happened in the high-hurdles final, as Wolcott set a new American record of 13.9 seconds, with Batiste coming in third. Wolcott also won the 200-meter low-hurdle race while equaling the world-record time of the immortal Jesse Owens. In that race, Batiste finished second.

Members of the 1940 USA Olympic team would have been selected from this meet--but the games would never be held because of the fighting in Europe. Instead, Joe Batiste and the rest of those who had high finishes would have to be content with having participated in the "American Olympic Games."