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J. Oliver MacDonald

Sport: Track & Field

Born: February 20, 1904

Died: April 14, 1974

Town: Paterson

J. Oliver MacDonald was born February 20, 1904 in Paterson. Oliver was a swift runner who specialized in the 110, 220 and 440. In 1922, he enrolled at Lafayette College. After a year at Lafayette, Oliver transferred to the University of Pennsylvania’s school of dentistry. He joined the Penn track team and became one of its top sprinters.

The Penn track team was the nation’s best. Besides Oliver, it featured Lawrance Brown, George Hill, Ben Owens, and Albert and Benjamin Rose—all word-class athletes.

At the 1924 U.S. Olympic Trials in Cambridge, MA, Oliver was one of the favorites in the 400 meters. In the final heat, five runners crossed the finish line within a few feet of each other. Oliver came in 5th at 48.5 seconds, but was added to the Olympic team because of his consistently good times all spring.

That decision turned out to be a good one. At the Summer Games in Paris, three of the runners who finished ahead of Oliver in during the trials turned in poor performances, including Coard Taylor—the gold medalist in Cambridge—who turned his ankle. For the 4 x 400 relay, they decision was made to put in the “B’ team of Oliver, Bill Stevenson, Alan Helffrich of Penn State, and Commodore Cochran.

Oliver ran the third leg as the U.S. team beat Canada in the semifinals and won gold in world-record time. In the finals, one second ahead of Sweden and Great Britain. The Brits were minus their best runner, Eric Liddell, the “Flying Scotsman” featured in the film Chariots of Fire. The deeply religious Liddell refused to run in the final because it was held on Sunday, and his team finished third. Earlier in the weeks he demolished the world record in the 400 meters.

Oliver was just the eighth Penn athlete to win Olympic Gold. The first seven were Alvin Kraenzlein, Ted Meredith, George Orton, John Taylor, Walter Tewksbury, Irv Baxter and Nate Cartmell. Bill Carr won two gold medals in 1932; no Penn athlete has won a gold medal since.

Oliver returned to Penn and continued to run for the track team. He finished second in the 220 at the 1925 AAU Championships. At the 1927 Penn Relays, Oliver was a member of the winning 4 x 110 relay team, along with Warren Tuxill, Bernie Lowery, and Folwell Scull.

Oliver graduated shortly after the competition. He opened a dental practice in his hometown, and later moved his office to Haledon. Oliver was a leading member of the Passaic County Republican Party and was chosen as a delegate for the 1936 Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

In the 1960s, Oliver gave up dentistry and became a real estate broker near his home in Flemington, where he also served on the city council. He passed away at age 70 in 1974. In 2010, Oliver’s 1927 4 x 110 team was added to the Penn Relays Wall of Fame.


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