Mal Whitfield

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Mal Whitfield
Mal Whitfield USA Athlete, Olympic Games, London, 1948.jpg
Whitfield at the 1948 Summer Olympics.
Personal information
Birth name Malvin Greston Whitfield
Nickname(s) Marvelous Mal
Born (1924-10-11)October 11, 1924
Bay City, Texas, United States
Died November 18, 2015(2015-11-18) (aged 91)
Washington, D.C., United States
Height 6 ft 0 in (183 cm)
Weight 168 lb (76 kg)
Sport Track and field
Event(s) 400 metres, 800 metres
Achievements and titles
Personal best(s) 400 m: 45.9 (1953)
800 m: 1:47.9 (1953)

Malvin Greston "Mal" Whitfield (October 11, 1924 – November 18, 2015) was an African-American athlete, goodwill ambassador, and airman. Nicknamed "Marvelous Mal", he was the Olympic champion in the 800 meters at the 1948 and 1952 Summer Olympics, and a member of the 1948 gold medal team in the 4 × 400 meters relay. Overall, Whitfield was a five-time Olympic medalist (three gold, one silver, one bronze). After his competitive career, he worked for forty-seven years as a coach, goodwill ambassador, and athletic mentor in Africa on behalf of the United States Information Service.[1]

Early life[edit]

Whitfield was born in Bay City, Texas. He moved to the Watts district of Los Angeles when he was 4; at that age, his father died, and his mother died when he was 12, after which he was raised by his older sister. He sneaked into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum during the 1932 Summer Olympic Games, where he watched Eddie Tolan defeat Ralph Metcalfe in the 100 meter race, an event that spurred his own Olympic goals.[1]

Whitfield joined the United States Army Air Forces in 1943 as a member of the Tuskegee Airmen. After World War II he remained in the military, but also enrolled at Ohio State University. In the early 1950s, he also served in the United States Air Force during the Korean War, where he served as a tail gunner and flew 27 combat missions.[2] He won the NCAA title while at Ohio State in the 800 m in 1948 and 880 yd (800 m) in 1949. After leaving the university, he won the AAU title from 1949 to 1951 at 800 m, in 1953 and 1954 at 880 yd (800 m) and in 1952 at 400 m. He also won the 800 m at the 1951 Pan American Games in Buenos Aires, Argentina.[3]

Olympic career[edit]

At the 1948 Olympics in London, Whitfield won the 800 m and was a member of the winning 4 × 400 m relay team. He also earned a bronze medal in the 400 m. At the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, he repeated his 800 m victory. He also earned a silver medal as a member of United Statese 4 × 400 m relay team. He set a world record in 880 yd (800 m) of 1:49.2 in 1950 and dropped it to 1:48.6 in 1952. In 1954, Whitfield won the James E. Sullivan Award, given annually by the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States (AAU) to the outstanding amateur athlete in the country. He was the first black athlete to win the award. Whitfield narrowly missed making the 1956 Olympic team while a student at California State University, Los Angeles, and he retired from track competition shortly thereafter.[3]

Sports ambassador[edit]

After graduating, he worked for the United States Department of State and the United States Information Service, conducting sports clinics in Africa.[4]

In his 47 years in Africa, Whitfield trained and gave consultation to dozens of athletes who represented their countries as Olympians and All-Africa Games champions. He coached in 20 countries and lived in Kenya, Uganda and Egypt.[1] Whitfield also arranged sports scholarships for over 5,000 African athletes to study in the United States.[5] During his career as a diplomat, he traveled to over 132 countries and played a key role in training and developing African athletes. United States President Ronald Reagan wrote of him: "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 given your all. This country is proud of you, and grateful to you." Shortly after his retirement from government service in 1989, Whitfield was invited to the Oval Office, where President George H. W. Bush recognized his service to the nation and the world.[6]


In 1954 Whitfield won the James E. Sullivan Award for amateur athletics.[1] Whitfield was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1974, and Ohio State Varsity O Hall of Fame in 1978. Among track and field athletes, only Jesse Owens had been inducted before him.[2][7]

Personal life[edit]

Whitfield wrote the book, Learning to Run, which was translated into French.[8][4] His memoir was published by his foundation and titled, Beyond the Finish Line.[9] He was the father of Nyna Konishi, Lonnie Whitfield, CNN anchor Fredricka Whitfield[10] and accomplished high jumper Ed Wright.[11] In 1989 Whitfield founded the Mal Whitfield Foundation for the promotion of sports, academics, and culture. The foundation has distributed 5,000 athletic scholarships.[12]

Whitfield died at at a Department of Veterans Affairs hospice center in Washington, D.C. on the night of November 18, 2015, aged 91.[13]


  1. ^ a b c d Litsky, Frank (November 19, 2015). "Mal Whitfield, Olympic Gold Medalist and Tuskegee Airman, Dies at 91". New York Times. Retrieved November 19, 2015. 
  2. ^ a b "Three-Time Olympic Track Champion Mal Whitfield Dies at 91". Team Retrieved November 19, 2015. 
  3. ^ a b "Mal Whitfield". Sports Reference. Retrieved November 19, 2015. 
  4. ^ a b Garnett, Barnard (October 31, 1968). "US Ex-Olympian Trained African Olympic Stars". Jet 35 (4): 57–59. 
  5. ^ "Marvelous" Mal Whitfield Biography – Page 3
  6. ^ "Marvelous" Mal Whitfield Biography – Page 2
  7. ^ "Men's Varsity "O" Hall of Fame". Ohio State Buckeyes. Retrieved November 19, 2015. 
  8. ^ Whitfield, Mal (1967). Learning to Run. East African Pub. House. OCLC 639849. 
  9. ^ Whitfield, Mal (2002). Beyond the Finish Line. Whitfield Foundation. ISBN 0972443908. OCLC 51464414. 
  10. ^ Navy SEALs in Afghanistan; Dance fever. July 6, 2005. CNN. Retrieved July 12, 2008
  11. ^ "Cal's Wright has genes of an Olympic champion". SFGate. 
  12. ^ "The Mal Whitfield Foundation". 2004. Retrieved November 19, 2015. 
  13. ^ Schudel, Matt. "Mal Whitfield, three-time Olympic gold medalist, dies at 91". Washington Post. Retrieved 22 November 2015. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Walter, John C., and Malina Iida. Better Than the Best: Black Athletes Speak, 1920–2007. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010. ISBN 9780295990538

External links[edit]