A five-time Olympic medallist who spent 40 years as a sports coach and goodwill ambassador in Africa is to be celebrated for the USA Black History Month in February with a double episode of the Global History of Sport in the Cold War podcast – along with a new take on the “world’s greatest boxer”, Muhammad Ali.
American runner “Marvellous” Mal Whitfield won gold in the 800 metres at both the 1948 London Olympics and four years later in Helsinki, and also took silver and bronze in other events in both Games. Born in Texas, Whitfield joined the US Air Force in WWII, and became a “Tuskegee Airman” in the renowned African-American air crew unit, before embarking on his post-war sporting career.
Inspired to run by legendary black athlete Jesse Owens, it was Owens himself who encouraged Whitfield to go to his own sports college, Ohio State University. Whitfield later became a State Department goodwill ambassador and sports coach. Over his 40 year career he coached in 20 African countries, sending 5,000 athletes to the US on scholarships, and visited 132 countries as a diplomat. ‘Marvellous Mal’ died at a veterans’ hospital in Washington in November 2015, aged 91.
Whitfield’s journey from athlete to ambassador, at a time when racism was rife in US society, is told by Kevin Witherspoon, History Professor at Lander University, South Carolina. Witherspoon calls Whitfield the “father of African athletics” and ranks him alongside such sporting giants as Owens, Ali and Jackie Robinson.
“He’s often forgotten,” said Witherspoon, “but more than anyone else he made the transition from athlete to diplomat. There are a lot of internal battles that must have taken place at the heart of Mal Whitfield. I don’t think he ever took it as his mission to change people’s minds about racism in America. His mission was teaching people about sports, the benefits of sports, and serving their own countries”.
The second episode of the podcast explores Muhammad Ali through the lens of Cold War politics.
Having risen to prominence at the 1960 Olympics, Ali was heavyweight champion of the world when he was called up to serve in Vietnam in 1967 – and refused, on religious grounds. “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong”, he famously said before being tried for draft evasion, stripped of his title and banned from boxing for three years. Ali returned to the ring in 1970 and embarked on a series of fights that quickly established him as one of the greatest boxers of the 20th century: the “Rumble in the Jungle” with George Foreman and the “Thriller in Manila”, the third of his battles with Joe Frazier.
Ali’s refusal to fight in Vietnam places him at the crossroads of race relations, the Cold War and American politics, argues Elliott Gorn, Professor of American History at Loyola University, Chicago. Influenced by the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, and a convert to the Nation of Islam, Ali spent the years of his boxing ban campaigning against the Vietnam War on the unconventional grounds of race in the US.
Ali said: “There are places in Louisville where I can’t live, where I can’t get a sandwich. How can I go 10,000 miles to fight people when our fight is here? My enemy is not those people in Vietnam – my enemy is here in America”.
“He was truly hated by most white people in America”, said Gorn, “but he insists he will not go into the Army. This is absolutely a Cold War conflict, and he refuses to go and is vilified… After years of war, Americans started to get tired of it, and there’s the beginning of a re-evaluation of Muhammad Ali; ‘maybe he knew something we didn’t know’”.
The Global History of Sport in the Cold War is an international collaborative project on the cultural, social and political impact of sport in the Cold War between the University of Cambridge, New York University, UC San Diego, the German Historical Institute, Moscow and the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC. The podcast is hosted by independent British journalist Vince Hunt. The Black History Month double feature will be available online on 25 January and 8 February at the Wilson Center Digital Archives and on Soundcloud and iTunes.