Hubbard's Cupboard: Coachman's huge leap for racial equality lit up London '48

The man with incredible tales from past Games
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The Independent Online

London 2012 will be remembered, among other things, as the Games when female fists flew for the first time in the boxing ring and Saudi Arabia was forced to allow women athletes into a sporting arena.But as the women's high jump begins today comes a reminder that it was in this event in the London Games of 1948 that an even more significant breakthrough was achieved.

Alice Coachman, from the firmly segregated Deep South in Georgia, became the first black woman from any nation to win a gold medal. A fine sprinter as well as a high jumper, Coachman, born in 1923, did not find sport easy. In the southern states' schools black athletes could not compete in organised sports events due to strict segregation.

Coachman had to develop her athletics skills running barefoot in fields and dirt roads. She would improvise for the high jump, leaping over rags and ropes.

At 16 she won a scholarship for Tuskegee Preparatory School, entered the women's national championships and broke the high jump record, competing barefoot. She qualified for the United States Olympic team with a record 5ft 4in. Her first jump in London was an unbeatable 5ft 6 1⁄8in.

Yet while on her return to her hometown, Albany, she displayed her medal in a motorcade, when she arrived at the Municipal Auditorium for the official welcome the crowd was segregated and she was not allowed to speak. However, she was honoured at Atlanta 1996 when named as one of the 100 greatest-ever Olympians.