Recognizing Mal Whitfield and the Trailblazers of Sports Diplomacy

Posted by Trina Bolton
December 16, 2015
Mal Whitfield, US Air Force and Olympic 800-meter champion in July 1952 [Department of the Army].

Although the world recently lost a legend, “Marvelous” Mal Whitfield, his legacy of spreading global goodwill through sports lives on. As the State Department continues to reach new audiences through sports diplomacy, it is important to look back to those who first strengthened relations between the United States and other nations through sports.

Whitfield’s list of life accomplishments goes on for miles. A veteran of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, he won gold in the 800-meter dash at both the 1948 and 1952 Olympics, becoming the first American to do so while serving on active duty. In addition to these Olympic feats, Whitfield set six world records and contributed to the Olympic victories of several U.S. relay teams. In 1954, he became the first African American to receive the Sullivan Award, a prestigious recognition for exceptional national athletes. Building on his illustrious performance on the track, he wanted to go above and beyond the finish line to do more for the world. 

In 1955, Whitfield was appointed one of the first U.S. government global sports ambassadors. Under the United States Information Agency (USIA), which later became part of the State Department, Whitfield traveled to over 132 countries to share his training expertise with young athletes and coaches through clinics and community activities. Through his tireless promotion of physical education in Africa, Europe, and Asia, he inspired generations of aspiring athletes. In the process, he encouraged American diplomats to feel more comfortable in their new environments overseas. Whether in Nigeria or Somalia, he promoted understanding between Americans and the people of other countries at the grassroots level.

On the American Foreign Service Association’s memorial page, retired Foreign Service Officer colleague, Bruce Byers, reflected on Whitfield: “In a time when our Foreign Service Officers are relying increasingly on electronic means to reach out to others, Mal's work on the basketball court and the running field reminds us that there is nothing stronger in attracting and encouraging youth than face to face experiences.”

Mal Whitfield at the training track at the Helsinki 1952 Olympic Games [Department of the Army].

A Sports Illustrated article from 1955 describes Whitfield as the “Diplomat in Short Pants.” He paved the path for the current U.S. Department of State’s Sports Diplomacy Envoys, key players in supporting the Department’s foreign policy outreach efforts. Working with our U.S. Embassies, the Sports Diplomacy Division of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs sends current and former American professional athletes overseas to hold sports clinics for young people, participate in cultural activities, and engage people who often have no other connection to Americans in a dialogue on the importance of leadership and inclusion. Through his groundbreaking work, Whitfield passed the baton to our current U.S. Department of State Sports Envoys, including Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Tony Sanneh, Cal Ripken, Jr., Sam Perkins, and Lorrie Fair, to name a few.  

By playing shoulder-to-shoulder with people in every corner of the world, we continue to use sports as a positive way of connecting people. In the words of Whitfield, our Sports Envoys “make the impossible possible.” They travel far and wide to draw in audiences we would not otherwise be able to reach, so today we celebrate Whitfield and others who bring their winning attitude, energy, and spirit to the area of diplomacy. 

About the Author: Trina Bolton serves as a Program Officer in the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs(ECA).

For More Information:

  • Read more DipNote entries on sports and Sports Diplomacy here.
  • Learn more about the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs Sports Diplomacy Program.
  • Follow the Bure au of Educational and Cultural Affairs @ECAatState on Twitter.

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Comments

Bruce B.
|
Virginia, USA
December 17, 2015
Thank you for publishing this wonderful summary of Mal Whitfield's contributions to diplomacy. It is good to know that his work is carried on today by other American athlete's who travel overseas on behalf of the State Department to meet young athletes and help organize clinics and sporting events. This is a valuable part of our diplomacy that is little known, especially among our elected representatives in Congress. It deserves more attention and recognition.

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