By Darci Miller | Nov. 19, 2015, 1:55 p.m. (ET)


Mal Whitfield, a middle-distance runner and five-time Olympic medalist who served in the U.S. Air Force and was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, died Wednesday night in Washington. He was 91.

At the London 1948 Olympic Games, Whitfield, then a 24-year-old Air Force sergeant, became the first U.S. serviceman to win a gold medal while on active duty. He won gold in the 800-meter and as a member of the 4x400-meter team, and added a bronze medal in the 400-meter. His win marked just the second time since 1912 that a U.S. runner won an individual race longer than 400 meters.

Four years later, at the Helsinki 1952 Olympic Games, Whitfield defended his 800-meter title and won silver in the 4x400.

Whitfield trained for the 1952 Games while serving as a tail gunner during the Korean War, where he flew 27 bombing missions. He was honorably discharged from the Air Force in 1952 and continued racing, winning 66 of 69 800-meter races from June of 1948 to the end of 1954. That year he became the first African-American recipient of the Sullivan Award, given to the top amateur athlete in the U.S.

Upon his athletic retirement, Whitfield toured the world as a Sports Goodwill Ambassador for the U.S. Department of State and later became the head of the Physical Education and Sports Department at the University of Nigeria. He was elected to the National Track & Field Hall of Fame in 1974 and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1988.