Mal Whitfield, photo courtesy of USATF.org
Mal Whitfield died on November 18, 2015, at the age of 91. “Marvelous Mal” Whitfield was a five time Olympic medalist, from 400 meters, to the 800 meters, and then, the 4×400 meters.
Mr. Whitfield also served our country as a tail gunner, as well as a US Sports Ambassador, visiting 132 countries!
Here is a tribute to Mal Whitfield, by our own Elliott Denman.
MALVIN GRESTON WHITFIELD:
MARVELOUS ON THE TRACK
AND FAR BEYOND
WRITTEN IN TRIBUTE BY ELLIOTT DENMAN
By ELLIOTT DENMAN
“Some (U.S.) embassy officials still do not recognize the power of sports as a means of breaking down barriers to communication. They resist any notion of its importance, or any personal involvement with sports activities, because they think that their negotiating style of
diplomacy is sufficient for any situation.”
So wrote Mal Whitfield in his all-insightful biography, “Beyond The Finish Line,”published in 2002.
But all those officials cited by the man they called “Marvelous Mal” had it all wrong.
“Marvelous Mal” Whitfield, truly one of the greatest of all American track and field athletes, made it clear – in the 47 years he spent serving his nation, and serving the greater cause of human understanding as a United States Sports Ambassador to Africa, that sports was indeed the greatest barrier-breaker, the finest form of bridge-building, of them all.
He’d served the nation’s Olympic cause marvelously at the London Games of 1948 and the Helsinki Games of 1952, collecting (a) gold medals in the 800 meters at each, coincidentally timed in 1:49.2 in both; (b) another gold medal anchoring Team USA to the 4×400 relay title in 1948, and a silver as anchor back of Jamaica’s world record-breaking team in 1952, and (c) the bronze at 400 meters in 1948, and a sixth-place in the 400 in 1952.
Think of that – six Olympic races, five medals, one Olympic record broken, one equaled, “tripling up” in consecutive Games, a feat unimaginable and not even considered by the current crop now on the world stage.
He was one of the three Olympic track and field immortals out of Ohio State University, following in the golden footsteps of Jesse Owens (1936) and preceding those of Glenn Davis (1956-60.)
All told, these magnificent Buckeyes amassed 10 Olympic gold medals, a silver and a bronze.
Has any American university ever produced three to match this trio of immortals? Answer: almost surely not.
Malvin Greston Whitfield, born October 11, 1924, left us in late evening, Wednesday, November 18, 2015. In his 91 years, one month and one week, he was an All-American in the truest definition of the world.
He was born in Texas (Bay City), reared and schooled in California (Thomas Jefferson High School, Los Angeles), trained as a Tuskegee Airman (Alabama); excelled as a collegian at Ohio State and service team star at Lockbourne (Ohio) Air Force Base; and star club runner for the Grand Street Boys Association team (New York City), an all-star squad organized by brothers Ed and Art Wisner (of New Jersey.)
As a seven-year-old, he’d thrilled at the sight of Eddie Tolan’s and Ralph Metcalfe’s starring roles in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games. Their exploits, soon enough, would inspire him into
track and field, too.
After Ohio State, he continued his Air Force service, flying 27 combat missions as an aerial gunner during the Korean War. As such, he became the first active-duty serviceman who also happened to be an Olympic gold medalist.
He set world records at 880 yards in 1950 and 1952, took golds in the 800 meters and 4×400 relay at the first edition of the Pan American Games in 1951, set world “undercover” records at 500 meters, 500 and 600 yards; starred on the indoor and outdoor circuits on the world scene through the 1956 season, and finally called it a brilliant career after placing sixth in the 800 final at the 1956 Trials, staged at the Los Angeles Coliseum, back of Tom Courtney, Arnie Sowell and Lon Spurrier, who’d be his nation’s delegates to the Melbourne Games, first ever staged in the Southern Hemisphere.
Recalled Italy’s Dr. Roberto Quercetani, often recognized as the greatest international track and field historian, “he had the smoothest running action one can possibly imagine.
As he glided along and ran away from his rivals, usually in the backstretch of the last lap,he seemed to be running downhill. But his temperament led him to relax once victory was assured, He was like a matador in that he liked his opponent to fight back.”
Some of his greatest moments came running in the gold-and-white of the Grand Street Boys in a memorable winter of 1953. When he joined Herb McKenley, George Rhoden and Andy Stanfield (fellow gold medalists at the 1952 Games) to form “the dream team,” they rewrote record books with a 3:15.4 mile relay win at the Millrose Games (for a Madison Square Garden best-ever), followed by a 3:14.4 world record on the flat floor of Buffalo’s 174th Regiment Armory.
In 1954, the Amateur Athletic Union’s guardians of the James E. Sullivan Award, presented annually to the nation’s finest “amateur athlete,” having disregarded the achievements previously of Jesse Owens and Harrison Dillard, finally “saw the light” and announced him as their first African-American winner.
Not even the fact that Whitfield – forever acceding to diplomacy – “had to enter the servants’ freight elevator on the ground floor (of the New York Athletic Club building) to travel up to the floor where the tight little room was set up for the award ceremony,” as he wrote – did not put a total damper on the event.
A very celebrated rival was Dr. Arthur Wint of Jamaica – Olympic runner-up at 800 in both 1948 and 1952. Like Whitfield, Wint was an Air combat veteran, too, having served as a World War II pilot in Britain’s Royal Air Force.
Another most noteworthy contemporary rival and 1952 Olympic 800-meter teammate was NYU’s Reggie Pearman. They clashed all over the map and became the firmest of friends once they’d reached the finish line.
Another was Charles Jenkins, the 1956 Olympic 400-meter champion who’d become the first gold medalist in Villanova University’s storied track and field annals.
The post-competition careers of Pearman and Jenkins would mesh as each of them would join Whitfield in a series of foreign service assignments under the auspices of the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Information Agency.
Whitfield became known as a “diplomat extraordinaire,” a statesman traveling to 132 nations but primarily based in Africa.
These were epic times, a period which saw most of Africa shedding its colonial past and emerging – with varying degrees of turmoil – into full independence.
Sports – all of them, but primarily track and field – were the chief ingredients in his portfolio and he used his global renown to break the barriers and build the bridges that would pay such remarkable dividends in the years to come.
The programs he helped set in place led directly to Africa’s earliest progressinto the Olympic arena and paved the way for many of the glories that the continent’s star competitors would amass in the years to come.
In 1984 – at a time the Soviet Bloc was calling for a boycott – his personal diplomacy kept almost all of Africa in the Los Angeles Games. As Gerald E. Thomas, then U.S. ambassador to Kenya,
put it, “it hasn’t escaped me that a major reason for the almost unanimous participation of African nations and their success in winning medals can be attributed to your magnificent efforts.”
Kipchoge “Kip” Keino, Mamo Wolde, Miruts Yifter, Filbert Bayi, John Akii-Bua, Mike Boit, Peter Rono, Marie Mutola – and so many more – owe major debts of gratitude to the “bridges” created by Mal Whitfield.
Keino would often say “Mal Whitfield is the Father of Organized Athletics in Africa.”
With all those years spent away from his homeland, the Mal Whitfield story was often forgotten by his fellow Americans.
But, the word, nevertheless, did get out.
“He did more than the (more formally designated) ambassadors, he was dynamite,” once said Rev. Bob Richards, the only man ever to take two Olympic pole vault titles (1952 and 1956.)
“He is a true legend, they don’t make them like him anymore,” said the four-time Olympic diving champion (1952 and 1956) Pat McCormick.
Bob Mathias, the 1948 and 1952 Olympic decathlon champion, once said, “in 1952, (when) we were together in the Helsinki Games where Mal was champion material on the track, I soon found out that
he was a champion off the track as well because of his love for his colleagues and his charisma for people.
“He has left a lasting impact on the lives of those he has touched.”
And this, forever remembered, from President Ronald Reagan:
“Whether flying combat missions over Korea or winning gold medal after gold medal at the Olympics, or serving as an ambassador of goodwill among the young athletes of Africa, you have have given your all. This country is proud of you and grateful to you.”