In The Olympics, he won three gold medals, one silver and a bronze. He served in the U.S. Army as a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen. And he worked abroad for four decades, sharing his knowledge with thousands of budding runners.
Yes, in everything that Mal Whitfield did, he truly was
“I have had a chance to see what the world is like,”
Whitfield once told Sports Illustrated. “I may have had to take a detour or two
in my life, but I can honestly say that somehow I’ve achieved everything I
started out to do.”
Born in Texas, Whitfield moved to Southern California as a
youngster and then was raised by an older sister after his parents died.
Whitfield first became interested in track after sneaking into the stadium and watching events during the Los Angeles 1932 Olympic Games.
Whitfield joined the army as an 18-year-old and was a part
of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II. Following the war, he remained in
the service and also enrolled at Ohio State University.
At the London 1948 Olympic Games, Whitfield won gold in the 800-meter run and the 4x-400-meter relay, becoming the first active-duty service member to win an Olympic gold medal. He also won a bronze in the 400-meter run.
Whitfield then served in the Air Force during the Korean War, running on airstrips to stay in shape in between flying combat missions. At the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games, Whitfield repeated as the 800-meter winner and earned a silver in the 4×400-meter relay. In 1954, Whitfield became the first Black American to win the James E. Sullivan Award, presented annually to the nation’s top amateur athlete.
But as impressive as his running accomplishments run, they
might pale in comparison to the impact he made after his athletic career.
Working on behalf of the United States government, Whitfield
worked as a goodwill ambassador, helping to train thousands of athletes and
arrange for them to compete collegiately in the United States.
Whitfield passed away in 2015 and was buried at Arlington
National Cemetery. He was 91.