Farewell Marvelous Mal Whitfield
Whenever we sit to tell the legends of our pioneer Olympians, there is one American name that always pops up. In the midst of our legendary Arthur Wint, George Rhoden, Herb McKenley and Leslie Laing was the American Mal Whitfield.
Classy and competitive, Whitfield pushed our superheroes to the limit and earned for himself a place in track and field history.
Whitfield passed on last week at 91 and left behind an enormous legacy of success in the sport.
When Arthur Wint and Herb McKenley sprinted to gold and silver medals in Jamaica's maiden voyage to the Olympics in 1948, the 23-year-old Whitfield was third. He and Wint, as the premier 800-metre men of the era, went one-two in the two-lap event. Wint was in great shape, but the American produced an Olympic record to prevail.
He and Wint were down the field when George Rhoden and McKenley went one-two in the 1952 Olympics over 400 metres, but he again bettereed Wint in the 800. That was his better distance and he set world records in it and its imperial equivalent, the 880 yards.
Through the end of 1954, he won 66 of his 69 races in the two-lap run, collecting two National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) titles for Ohio State University and five US national titles along the way.
In fact, only Alberto Juantorena of Cuba and Wint have better Olympic 400-800 performances than Whitfield's 1948 bronze-gold performance. The Jamaican took gold and silver in 1948 and that stood as the high bar combination until the big Cuban won both events at the 1976 Olympics. It's a combination that few even attempt these days.
Whenever we tell the story of what was for ages Jamaica's greatest sporting triumph, Whitfield's name will appear again. In the last race of the 1952 Games in Helsinki, Wint, two-time 200-metre finalist Les Laing and McKenley gave Rhoden a one-step lead in the 4x400-metre relay final.
Battle of champions
McKenley was spectacular, running an unprecedented 44.6-second leg to close a 15-metre lead. The anchor leg pitted Rhoden, Olympic champion at 400 metres, against Whitfield, Olympic champion at 800 metres.
Chanting exhortations to himself, Rhoden summoned a 45-flat stint from his leg, but couldn't shake the man called 'Marvellous Mal'. With neither anchorman yielding, the one-step margin remained and both Jamaica and the United States broke the world record.
To put those splits in perspective, recall this was long before synthetic tracks and featherweight sports attire and footwear. Instead, McKenley, Rhoden and Whitfield ran on cinder tracks weighing several pounds.
Whitfield kept on winning gold medals through to the 1955 Pan-Am Games. He was a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, travelled the world as a sports ambassador, and later helped many worthy causes though the Mal Whitfield Foundation.
He maintained a long friendship with our Helsinki Heroes and visited Jamaica from time to time. Just like them, he was class personified.
n Hubert Lawrence has made notes at track side since 1980.