LeRoy Walker: America's first black Olympic coach

 

LeRoy Walker, who died on 30 April aged 93, was the first African-American to lead the US Olympic Committee and the first black man to coach an American Olympic team. The grandson of slaves raised in the segregated South before he moved to Harlem, Walker led the US Olympic Committee from 1992 to 1996, both shepherding the summer Games staged in Atlanta and leading the group when the 2002 Winter Olympics were awarded to Salt Lake City.

The Atlanta Games were widely panned round the world, and Walker warned his countrymen that the US was not likely to host another games for a long time after Salt Lake City. He repeated his warnings after a bribery scandal threatened to derail the 2002 Winter Games, and so far, his prediction has been true.

But Walker still loved the Olympics, especially track and field. He coached Olympic teams from Ethiopia, Israel, Jamaica, Kenya and Trinidad & Tobago before his home country gave him a chance to be the first black head coach of a US Olympic team when he led the track squad to Montreal in 1976. The team brought home 22 medals, including gold in the long jump, discus, decathlon, 400 metres hurdles and both men's relays.

The current US Olympic Committee chairman, Scott Blackmun, said that Walker's impact on the US Olympic movement, and track and field ,will be felt for generations to come.

"We join the entire Olympic family in remembering and appreciating the vast contributions he made to the worldwide Olympic movement," Blackmun said. "He devoted himself to the betterment of sport and we were fortunate to have called him our president."

Walker's love for athletics came accidentally. After excelling in American football, basketball and track and field at Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, Walker was hired to coach football and basketball at North Carolina Central University. He instituted a track programme during those sports' close seasons, eventually deciding that coaching track was what he was meant to do.

At the university, Walker coached 40 national champions and 12 Olympians. But he did not merely concentrate on athletics. He earned a doctorate from New York University in 1957 and, in 1983, he was named chancellor at North Carolina Central. But even with all the accolades, Walker still wanted to be called "coach".

"When you call me that, it means you're my friend," he said. "That means you've known me for a long time. As coaches, we're in the community somehow. So I like the word 'coach'. It gives a different connotation than a PhD."

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