When Mal Whitfield sneaked into the Los Angeles Coliseum in the summer of 1932, he saw an African American sprinter win a gold medal. The experience ignited a dream for the then-8-year-old from Watts.
“From that moment on,” Whitfield recalled decades later in Sports Illustrated, “I knew I wanted to run in the Olympic Games.”
FOR THE RECORD: In the Nov. 21 California section, the obituary of Olympic runner Mal Whitfield said that he set a world record in the 800 meters at the 1948 Games. He set an Olympic record in that race.
Whitfield, who earned the moniker “Marvelous Mal,” went on to become the premier 800-meter runner of his era, winning gold medals in the event at the 1948 and 1952 Summer Olympics.
A member of the Tuskegee Airmen, the segregated and much-celebrated group of African American pilots who fought in World War II, he also earned the distinction as the first American serviceman on active duty to win Olympic gold.
Whitfield, who later spent more than three decades as a sports ambassador for the U.S. State Department, died Thursday in Washington, D.C., his daughter, CNN anchor Fredricka Whitfield, told the Associated Press. He was 91.
Malvin Greston Whitfield was born in Bay City, Texas, on Oct. 11, 1924, and moved to Los Angeles with his family when he was about 4. By the time he turned 12, both his parents had died. He was raised by his sister Betty.
His Olympic dream was sparked by Eddie Tolan, who won the 100- and 200-meter dashes at the 1932 Games.
Whitfield attended Jefferson High School in South Los Angeles, leaving in 1943 to join the Army Air Forces and fly bomber missions during World War II. During the Korean War he was an Air Force tail gunner on 27 missions.
He fit both college and running into his Air Force years. He prepared for the 1952 Helsinki Olympics while serving in Korea, training on the airstrip between bombing runs. He was a sergeant when he began taking courses at Ohio State University, but he did not earn his bachelor’s degree until 1956, at Cal State L.A.
At the 1948 Olympics, he won the 800 meters in 1 minute 49.2 seconds, setting a world record — his first of six. He won his second gold as a member of the 1,600-meter relay team and also collected a bronze in the 400 meters.
In the 1952 Games, he matched his time from the previous Olympics to win the 800 meters again. Running in the 1,600-meter relay, he added a silver medal to his record.
In all, Whitfield won 66 of 69 800-meter races between 1948 and the end of the 1954 track season, including the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. title in 1948 and the Amateur Athletic Union title from 1949 to 1951. At the 1951 Pan American Games in Buenos Aires, he again triumphed in the 800 meters, securing his place as the era’s best runner at that distance.
In 1954 he became the first African American to receive the James E. Sullivan Award, given annually to the nation’s outstanding amateur athlete.
He was honorably discharged from the military in 1952. In 1955, after retiring from competition, he accepted a post as sports goodwill ambassador under the State Department’s educational exchange program and continued to promote athletics for the U.S. Information Agency.
Nearly everywhere he went, amateur athletes flocked to him for advice on how to be a champion.
“If I could get all the athletes who want to train in America to come over,” he told Time magazine in 1955, “I could fill every university from New York to San Francisco.”
He eventually advised athletes in more than 130 countries but particularly in Africa, where he lived for a time.
“Many of the runners he mentored went on to earn Olympic medals, including Kipchoge Keino of Kenya and Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia.
“I have kids coming from Burundi and Chad who have never heard of McDonald’s but can quote Mal Whitfield,” Jim Minnihan, who worked with Whitfield at a pre-Olympics training camp the medalist spearheaded in LaGrange, Ga., told USA Today in 1996. “They all look at him as the godfather.”
In 1989, Whitfield established the Washington-based Whitfield Foundation to continue promoting athletics around the world with scholarships, training programs and equipment donations.
Elected to the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1974 and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1988, his is survived by his wife, Nola; five children; eight grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.