The Olympic moment of WSU Hall of Famer Lee Orr
As rain fell in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium in 1936, Lee Orr, a Washington State College student not yet 20 years old, didn’t realize the magnitude of the events surrounding him.
“I was pretty young and didn’t know what was going on,” he said.
It had been over seven decades since Orr raced against Jesse Owens at the ’36 Olympic Games when, in 2008, the soft-spoken Orr recalled his Olympic experience in Germany.
A year after the interview, Orr passed away; however, the story he told lives in sports lore.
Owens’s four gold medals and his historic achievement was recently depicted in the movie Race. In the movie an off-screen announcer names the 200-meter finalists, ending with: “Lee Orr. Canada.”
Those who saw the movie witnessed Owens’s accomplishments on the big screen. Orr saw them and interacted with Owens in real life.
“I warmed up with him on the track and talked with him as we were jogging around,” Orr said. “He was a very nice gentleman.”
Orr also was in close proximity to another historical figure.
“He had a place to sit and watch that was directly in front of where the noncompeting athletes sat,” Orr remembered. “Hitler sat right in front of us.”
The path to the 200-meter final began when Orr finished second in a first round heat, only behind Owens. In his quarterfinal, Orr ran an Olympic-record equaling time of 21.2 to advance to the semifinal round.
Orr finished second in the semifinal to Mack Robinson, older brother of Jackie Robinson.
Orr was then assigned lane six for the final. It proved to be a disadvantageous position.
“In the final, I had an outside lane, but I couldn’t hear the starter very well,” Orr recalled. “I was bouncing around and got a poor start.”
Orr finished fifth and Owens, in lane three, secured his third of four gold medals, clocking an Olympic record time of 20.7.
Orr also raced in the 100-meter and once again raced against Owens in the 4×100-meter relay, finishing fifth as Owens captured his fourth gold medal leading the United States to victory.
Orr’s Olympic journey began at Washington State College.
Born in Saskatchewan, Canada in 1917, Orr moved to Monroe at the age of three. His track prowess at Monroe High School led to three state championships in the 220-yard dash.
His high school success continued as a WSC student athlete, where he ran varsity caliber times as a freshman. However, in 1936, freshmen were not allowed to compete at varsity level.
Still, Washington State coach Karl Schlademan believed Orr had a legitimate shot competing at Berlin.
“Coach decided that I could qualify, so I tried out for the Canadian team,” Orr said.
Orr qualified for the Canadian Olympic Trials at Montreal, where he was selected to the team after his impressive performance.
After the Olympics, Orr returned to Washington State and his career earned him induction to the school’s athletic hall of fame in 1978.
Orr said he had not considered the significance of the 1936 Olympics until late in life.
“I had a lot of natural ability and I enjoyed doing it, and I worked hard at it,” he said. “I didn’t know what I had accomplished until recent times.”