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Mal Whitfield, Tuskegee Airman, Olympic gold medalist, sports ambassador

Oct. 11, 1924 - Nov. 18, 2015

When Mal Whitfield sneaked into the Los Angeles Coliseum in the summer of 1932, he saw a black sprinter win a gold medal. The experience ignited a dream for the then-8-year-old from Watts.

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 black fighter-plane pilots who fought in World War II, he also earned the distinction as the first active-duty American serviceman 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.

His Olympic dream was sparked by Eddie Tolan, who won the 100- and 200-meter dashes at the 1932 Games.

Whitfield attended 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, and earned his bachelor’s degree in 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 Association title in 1948 and the Amateur Athletic Union title from 1949 to 1951.

In 1954 he became the first black man 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.

He eventually advised athletes in more than 130 countries. Many of the runners he mentored went on to earn Olympic medals, including Kipchoge Keino of Kenya and Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia.

He was elected to the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1974 and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1988.