Watching Mal Whitfield run around the track in those grainy films from the late forties and early fifties, he didn’t appear robust enough to compete or complete a race. But he not only completed many of the world competitions, he excelled. Whitfield, a great middle-distance runner and Olympic gold medalist, died on Thursday in Washington, D.C. He was 91.
According to his daughter, Fredricka Whitfield, a news anchor at CNN, her father died at a Department of Veterans hospice center.
In winning race after race, Whitfield was a smooth and determined runner, his stride as long and sleek as a greyhound, particularly in races from 400 to 800 meters.
Emblematic of his grace and winning style was his victory in the 800-meter Olympic race in in London in 1948. His winning time of 1 minute 49.2 seconds established an Olympic record.
Setting records and breaking barriers was a common feat for the indomitable Whitfield. This relentless determination was perhaps forged early when as a child he was orphaned. He was born Oct. 11, 1924 in Bay City, Tex. And raised by his older sister, Betty, in the Watts section of Los Angeles.
Whitfield’s fascination for track occurred in 1932 when he sneaked into the Olympic Games at the Memorial Coliseum, not too far from his home. He was thrilled watching Eddie Tolan of Detroit defeat Ralph Metcalfe of Chicago in 100-meter dash. “From that moment on,” he often reported, “I knew I wanted to run in the Olympic Games.
Wanting to run and actually doing it turned out to be the same thing for the determined and disciplined Whitfield. After graduation from Thomas Jefferson High School in 1943, he joined the Army Air Forces. He became a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen and assigned to 100th Fighter Squadron, a unit of the 332nd Fighter Group. Meanwhile, his training for track continued.
When the war was over, he enrolled at Ohio State University, though he was still in the service. He was a staff sergeant in 1948 when he won his first gold medal. There was also a gold medal for anchoring the U.S. 4×400 relay team, and he won a bronze medal in the 400 meters.
Four years later at the Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, Whitfield, a slim 6 feet 1 and 165 pounds, won the 800-meter race, equally his time in London. A silver medal was his in the relay. In 1956, he narrowly missed making the team.
The Korean War took Whitfield out of racing togs for a moment and into a uniform again. As a Tuskegee Airman he was a tail gunner on 27 bombing missions. This commitment did not curtail his training, and he often sped around practice runs with a pistol on his hip.
Honorably discharged from the military in 1952, Whitfield enrolled at California State University, Los Angeles where he completed his bachelor’s degree.
When the running was over, he spent almost 50 years promoting sports and physical education in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East in conjunction with the U.S. Information Agency, according to one biography online. When he was functioning as a goodwill ambassador for the government, he set aside time for his own foundation.
In 1974 he was elected to the National Track and Field Hall of Fame and in 1988 to the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame. Much of his athletic fame and career beyond the track can be read in his autobiography, Beyond the Finish Line.
Besides Ms. Whitfield, he is survived by another daughter, Nyna Konishi; his wife, Nola Whitfield; a son, Malvin Jr., known as Lonnie; a son and a daughter from a previous relationship; eight grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.