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Friday, November 20, 2015

Mal Whitfield, RIP

An obituary for Mal Whitfield, the 1948 Olympic champion in the 800 meter run, appeared today in the NY Times. Whitfield was a heroic figure whose inspirational life story serves almost as a rebuke to today's self-indulgent college protesters.

The relevant excerpts, in italics:

Mal Whitfield, Olympic Gold Medalist and Tuskegee Airman, Dies at 91

Mal Whitfield, a sleek middle-distance runner who won three Olympic gold medals for the United States, at one point as a Tuskegee Airman, and later became an American good-will ambassador promoting athletics abroad, died on Thursday in Washington. He was 91…

Orphaned as a child in the Watts section of Los Angeles, Whitfield went on to set records and achieve celebrity while running for Ohio State University. In 1954 he became the first African-American to receive the coveted Sullivan Award as the nation's outstanding amateur athlete….

During World War Two, he was a member of the celebrated and racially segregated Tuskegee Airmen, part of the Army Air Forces. In Korea, he once trained for the Games between bombing missions, running on runways at night with a .45 caliber automatic strapped to his side. 

Whitfield was still a staff sergeant when he set an Olympic record in the 800-meter event at the 1948 London Games with a time of 1 minute 49.2 seconds.

He won another gold medal in the same Olympics anchoring the United States’ 4x400-meter relay team, and a bronze medal in the 400 meters.

Four years later, at the Helsinki Olympics, he won the 800 again — in the identical time — and added a silver medal in the relay. He just missed making the Olympic team in 1956….

With World War II on, he joined the Army Air Forces after graduating from Thomas Jefferson High School in 1943. He enrolled at Ohio State after the war, in 1946, while stationed nearby as a member of the 100th Fighter Squadron, a unit of the 332nd Fighter Group, popularly known as the Alabama-based Tuskegee Airmen. With that double duty, he said, he would wake up at 5 a.m. and go to bed at 12:30 a.m.

When the Korean War broke out, Whitfield was recalled to the service and served as a tail gunner on 27 bombing missions. But he continued to train for track, running at night while carrying his sidearms.

He was honorably discharged in 1952 and went back to Los Angeles to complete his bachelor’s degree at California State University, Los Angeles.

Whitfield went on to become a sort of roving ambassador for sport.

It's hard to read an obituary like this, in the midst of all the current college protests, and not reflect that people tend to act as they are encouraged to. In Whitfield's day, people were encouraged to act heroic, and they did. Whitfield was a shining example of that. 

Today, people are encouraged to act self-indulgent, and, for the most part, they comply.

When Whitfield was training for the 800 meters on those runways in Korea, he didn't ask for a safe space. He just strapped on his .45 and ran.

When Whitfield was with the Tuskegee Airmen, he didn't worry about microaggressions from the white soldiers. He was too busy dealing with macroaggressions from the North Koreans and Chinese.

And not only did Whitfield not benefit from affirmative action, he lived under the opposite system, segregation. The only reason the Tuskegee Airmen existed was because in those days blacks were not allowed to be part of regular units.  

Rest in peace, Mal Whitfield. 


KittieDanger said...

RIP Mal Whitfield, very good history of an amazing man that overcame the odds.

John Craig said...

Kittie --
I didn't write much of that, but thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. I am impressed by this man. May he RIP.


John Craig said...

Birdie --
Yes, I was too. As a long time track fan I was vaguely familiar with his name, but I hadn't known any of the other stuff. I found it inspirational.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Whitfield was a very admirable man.

On a lot of right wing websites they sneer at the Tuskegee Airmen and ALWAYS point out that they did lose a few. So petty and mean-spirited.

BTW that myth that the Tuskegee Airmen never lost a plane originated in good faith, as wartime propaganda. Over time it took on the patina of gospel truth and black repeated it.


John Craig said...

Ladybug --
I agree with much of what the right wing websites say on other subjects, but all of the Tuskegee Airmen were heroes regardless of whether they ever lost planes. Anybody who puts his life on the line for his country is a hero, period. And they did it in a time when they were discriminated against, which makes it doubly admirable. I looked them up before putting up this post and yes, there was some misleading propaganda, but that does not diminish their heroism. To deny that is just unrealistic (and not being realistic is usually the province of the Left).

Runner Katy said...

Thank you for this post! RIP Mr. Whitfield. I hope his passing may inspire change in others to be more like him.

John Craig said...

Runner Katy --
Thank you, but I'm afraid Mr. Whitfield's passing will inspire exactly zero people to be like him, given the current social climate.

As a runner, I'm sure you can appreciate how good he was. His WR in the half mile was a 1:48.6, set on a cinder track, which is far slower than a modern Tartan track. And he had to train at night, in between two jobs. Amazing runner, and a hero to boot.