His nickname was “Marvelous Mal.” And those who gathered Wednesday at Washington National Cathedral to remember the 91-year-old Olympic track star, Air Force tail gunner and U.S. sports ambassador came from every chapter of his big-screen life: a comrade from the renowned African American Tuskegee Airmen, a Kenyan running protege turned Olympic gold medalist, old State Department buddies, and his daughter, CNN news anchor Fredricka Whitfield, his 83-year-old widow, and other relatives.
Marvelous Mal was the headline-ready moniker for Malvin Greston Whitfield, a three-time Olympic gold medalist middle-distance runner, a former Tuskegee airman, and former U.S. Foreign Service officer, who died Nov. 19. Shortly after the memorial service at the cathedral, Whitfield, who joined the military during World War II and served as a tail gunner on dozens of bombing missions during the Korean War, was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.
“Mal was a great man. He was an ambassador [for] his country,” said Kipchoge Keino, a two-time Olympic gold medalist runner, during his eulogy. The two men became friends in the early 1960s when Whitfield visited Kenya to help train him and other African runners. “We will miss him for what he did. May the Lord rest his soul in peace.”
Whitfield seemed to survive everything thrown at him, including segregation, competition and combat.
He was born in Texas on Oct. 11, 1924, but moved as an infant to Los Angeles. His father died when he was 4, his mother died when he was 12. After gaining court-ordered custody — and avoiding an orphanage — his sister Betty Clark raised him in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, which turned out to be a fortuitous place to grow up. The legend goes that Whitfield first got the track bug when he sneaked into Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the 1932 Olympics and watched African American sprinter Eddie Tolan win the 100-meter race.
During World War II, he joined the Army Air Forces and then enrolled at Ohio State University, while also serving as a member in a unit of the 332nd Fighter Group, known as the Tuskegee Airmen. He had become a fan — and friend — of Jesse Owens, track’s most legendary African American runner, who had encouraged Whitfield to attend his alma mater in Ohio.
At Wednesday’s service, Carl Johnson, 90, a retired Tuskegee airman from Ashburn, Va., sat in one of the first several pews to pay his respects for a friend he hadn’t seen for decades. In an interview, Johnson said he still remembers the little details of their time at their Ohio base — the name of the colonel whose airplane Whitfield was assigned to. And the fact that Whitfield ran every moment he could.
“He was running track at Ohio State at the same time,” Johnson said, in disbelief that he juggled his running obsession with military service. “He was a darn good track man. He trained hard.”
Whitfield vaulted to track fame in 1948 when he won two gold medals at the London Olympics — one for running the anchor leg of a 4-by-400-meter relay team, and another for setting an Olympic record in the 800 meters with a time of 1 minute 49.2 seconds. (He also earned a bronze in the 400 meters.)
He competed in the 1952 Olympics in Finland, and won another gold medal for the 800 meters, tying his record from the previous Olympics. Marvelous Mal, who stood about 6 feet and weighed about 168 pounds, could not outdo himself.
But Whitfield’s success as a black athlete during a period of history rife with discrimination and Jim Crow laws makes his biography all the more stunning. Fredricka Whitfield said her father rarely discussed the tension of that era openly. Looking back on the 1948 London Olympics for a BBC documentary, Malvin Whitfield said the games offered a rare reprieve from the racism back home, according to a 2005 Daily Telegraph story.
“Do you think anybody white would have time to stop and shake hands with a black fella on the street?” Whitfield asked. “We were able to sleep, eat and socialize in the same places on this white American ship. It was the first time I ever saw the elimination of segregation.”
In 1954, Whitfield became the first African American to win the James E. Sullivan Award, given to the nation’s most outstanding amateur athlete. Given the stats, it’s hard not to see why: From 1946 to 1955, Whitfield dominated in the 800 meters. He won 66 of 69 major middle-distance races throughout the world, according to the website of his foundation.
In the mid-1950s, Whitfield was tapped by the State Department to be a sports goodwill ambassador to athletes around the world. His foundation’s website says he traveled to more than 132 countries.
Neil Walsh, a former State Department official who worked with Whitfield, called his friend a “giant” and a “force of nature” during his eulogy Wednesday.
“If anyone can fit the description ‘bigger than life,’ it was Mal Whitfield,” Walsh said. “Every day I worked with Mal was an adventure. Over decades, Mal built a bridge a trust between the United States [and other countries]. He opened doors . . . in times of stress and suspicion.”
Fredricka Whitfield said the thing she remembers most about her father was his modesty. She still can’t believe that it was only in the last part of his life that she learned that her father was a Tuskegee airman. She’d just interviewed him on CNN, reflecting on his 1948 appearance at the London games. In response, someone from Tuskegee Airmen Inc. called her, alerting her to Marvelous Mal’s membership. She had no idea.
“They called and said, ‘We’ve been looking for your dad,’ ” Fredricka Whitfield said. “I wanted to drop the phone. I didn’t know my dad was a Tuskegee airman. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ ”
She said she then called her father.
“He laughed and cried on the phone,” she said. “But he didn’t give me a clear explanation.”
He eventually opened up, telling her and others that he didn’t want to dwell on the hardships of being an African American in the military.
“He said it was the toughest years of his life. He encountered so many inequities and indignities,” she said. “Once he found the willingness to share that part of his life, he talked about the importance of his relationships with fellow comrades, how they helped each other cope with the difficulties of substandard equipment. It was beautiful how he opened up.”
On Wednesday afternoon at Arlington National Cemetery, scores of mourners gathered in Section 8A next to the burial grounds’ main street, Eisenhower Drive.
An Air Force band and an Air Force honor guard gathered in formation. Three rifle volleys boomed from a firing party. A flag was presented to Whitfield’s 83-year-old widow, Nola Simon Whitfield.
And several tourists stopped to watch the media frenzy, probably unaware that the man being given standard military honors was not only a serviceman, but an Olympian, too.