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Alice Coachman: 1948 pioneer, hero, inspiration

By Alan Abrahamson | April 18, 2012, 3 p.m. (ET)

Alice Coachman
American flags are presented to 1948 Olympic athletes Dr. Sammy Lee, Alice Coachman, Mal Whitfield and Ray Lumpp during the 100 Days Out Celebration.

In New York on Wednesday, 100 days before the start of the London 2012 Olympics, Alice Coachman was treated like the hero she is, the first African-American -- indeed, the first black woman from any county -- to win an Olympic gold medal.

There she was on the set of NBC's Today show, alongside the likes of other U.S. 1948 gold medalists: Ray Lumpp, a play-making guard on the basketball team; Dr. Sammy Lee, the diver and the first Asian-American gold medalist; and Mal Whitfield, the best 400- and 800-meter runner of his time.

For 10 years, Alice Coachman dominated the high jump. War kept her from the Olympics. Finally, she got to go, in 1948, and she won. The king of England, King George VI, presented her with her gold medal.

"It was all fine," she said on national television, "fine to have the king to award me the gold medal."

Except -- it wasn't all so fine back then, and Alice Coachman's story is a reminder of just how far we as Americans have come in matters of pluralism and tolerance and diversity, and yet how far we have to go, and how sports and the Olympic Games can sometimes help us get there.

The story will be told time and again between now and July 27, the Opening Ceremony of 2012, about how those 1948 Games were the "Austerity Games."

As David Miller, an experienced British sportswriter and author and longtime observer of the Olympic scene, put it in a piece commissioned for the Olympic newsletter Sport Intern, the 1948 Games all but saved the movement -- London coming to the International Olympic Committee's rescue, "rising from bankrupted, war-torn ravages to host an altruistic, economy festival."

The American team that went to London -- for the most part -- got there by steamship. They stayed ready by jogging on the promenade; the rowers rowed on special equipment nailed to the deck. At night, they put on skits and danced for their own entertainment. Alice Coachman was a featured dancer to "St. Louis Blues."

The scale of the spectacle was far different than now, and markedly so coming so soon after the end of World War II.

An Olympic Village was deemed to be too expensive; male competitors stayed at Royal Air Force camps; female competitors in London colleges. Athletes were given increased rations, the same as those received by, say, miners; that meant 5,467 calories per day instead of the normal 2,600.

Artificial track and field surfaces wouldn't be build until the late 1950s. Runners ran on cinders. High jumpers threw themselves not into a pit of cushions but sawdust.

As the Games went on, 74 Americans would win gold medals. But only one African-American woman won a gold medal in track and field.

Both Coachman and the high jump silver medalist, Britain's Dorothy Tyler, cleared 1.68 meters, or 5-feet-6 1/4.

Coachman cleared it on her first try. Tyler didn't make it until her second.

Thus Coachman won gold.

In an oral history project recorded a few years ago and now available here online, Coachman had said her coach had been chewing her out the day before the competition, worrying she wasn't properly prepared to win.

Don't worry, Coachman said. I'm ready. I have the lemon I use to stay hydrated between jumps. And, she said, "I was talking to the man above, telling him, 'If it's your will, let it be done.'"

So it was.

After winning gold, that same coach, Coachman said, now with a big smile, "All that cussing she did, honey, before -- she took me [and said], 'Where do you want to go tonight? … I'll take you anywhere you want to go tonight and you can do anything you want to do!'"

When the American team arrived back in the States, the party was still on. In New York, Coachman said she got to meet Count Basie and his wife, and have a good time with them for a few days.

After that, though, reality set in.

They held a celebration for Coachman in Albany, Ga., her hometown.

Black people sat on one side of the stage, she recalled; whites, on the others.

Both sides cheered for her.

But the mayor of the town -- who was white -- would not shake her hand.

Asked in the oral history project how she felt about that, she said, "It wasn't a good feeling. You had to accept it. It was done then, you know. You represented the USA. You had to represent the black, the white, the Jews and the gentile. You represented the USA. As this lady told you, you went to England, this was entirely different.

"To come back home, to your own country, your own state and your own city and you can't get a handshake from your own mayor -- it wasn't a good feeling. But it had to be done. That's the way it was."

She went on to say that some people in town sent her flowers, even jewelry, in celebration of her win. But those gifts were sent anonymously -- whites apparently afraid of retribution if it were known that they were sending gifts to a black woman.

"That's the way it was then."

Now, of course, it's unremarkable that black athletes are winning medals for Team USA.

The president of USA Track & Field, Stephanie Hightower, a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team, is black. Among other key leaders, so, too, is the organization's chief of sport performance, Benita Fitzgerald Mosley, a 1984 gold medalist in the 100-meter hurdles.

It would belabor the obvious to say that while we have made real progress in bridging the racial divide in the United States we still have many miles to go. Sports, and the Olympic Games, offers a means by which people of goodwill can see that the color of your skin doesn't matter a bit; what matters is your heart, your soul and your will.

When Alice Coachman won her medal, the king of England presented it to her but the mayor of her town wouldn't even shake her hand. Now a black man is president of the United States; black women are in senior positions of authority at the United States track and field federation; and, at 88, Alice Coachman is on national TV and everyone wants to shake her hand.

Just to say thank you.