Olympic legend Jackie Joyner-Kersee with Dr. LeRoy Walker in 2005. (Roslan Rahman / July 4, 2005)
5:09 p.m. CDT, April 24, 2012
The day Dr. LeRoy Walker, then 74, became the first black president of the U.S. Olympic Committee in October of 1992, I noted how Walker’s willingness to speak his mind discomfited some USOC officials.
After what he had experienced as a child of the Jim Crow South, Walker knew when to bite his tongue.
But Walker thankfully never did it if that meant compromising something he believed in.
So he told the Atlanta Olympic Organizing Committee their transport plan wasn’t going to work, advice that fell on deaf ears because the good folks who ran that show wanted to prove they could do the job only with local knowledge (and out-of-town bus drivers.) Walker might have been born in Atlanta and living in North Carolina, but to some in ACOG he was the guy who grew up in Harlem and just one of them damn Yankees who looked down their noses at southerners.
The Atlanta Games have been unfairly criticized on many accounts, but the jibes directed at the transport were fair. It was a fiasco partly because – just as Walker warned – the out-of-town drivers never got proper training to learn their way around the city.
“I guess I’ve lived too long and come too far to not speak my mind,” he told my Los Angeles Times colleague, Randy Harvey, not long after Walker had criticized the USOC-backed idea of having NBA and NHL players in the Olympics.
Walker expressed that opinion at the Barcelona Games in August, 1992, when the Dream Team had captivated the world before getting in a pissing match that involved covering logos belonging to a USOC sponsor that was not the sponsor of many individual athletes. Michael Jordan, with whom Walker had played golf, was among the loudest protesters against the logo restriction.
By an odd coincidence, a variation on that controversy, involving paying the multimillionaire players for some of the USOC sponsorship money their Olympic presence helps bring in, was making news two decades later as Walker died Monday at age 93.
It was also a coincidence that I learned of Walker’s death an hour after finishing a story on Max Siegel’s selection as the new chief executive of USA Track and Field. Siegel had become the only African-American with that job among the 38 current heads of U.S. federations in Olympic sports.
Walker had been president of the U.S. track federation when it was known as TAC/USA. He had been just about everything else in the Olympic movement as well, including a track coach in several Third World countries.
I remember the pride Walker felt in the number of developing nations who won Olympic medals in Barcelona, where he had been head of the U.S. delegation (known as chef de mission). He clearly saw a future in which sports would belong to the whole world, with many countries filling the vacuum created by the demise of the Soviet Union and its satellites.
“We are going to have a world games now,” he said then. “The breadth of achievement in this Olympics is impressive.”
The breadth of Walker’s achievement was equally stunning, and I would be remiss not to sum it up properly. The best way to do that is simply to use the story I wrote on the eve of his election as USOC president. It follows:
Charles Foster and his North Carolina Central teammates would know they were in trouble when they saw their track coach come to practice in a rust-colored suede jacket.
“We tried our best to trick his wife into getting that jacket away from him,” said Foster, fourth in the high hurdles at the 1976 Olympics. “He seldom wore it, but when he did, we could all look forward to seeing our lunch.”
LeRoy Walker never told the team why he wore the suede jacket certain days. Yet everyone got the fashion statement’s message, which was more than just to expect a gut-wrenching practice.
“It was his way of underlining that, with hard work, you could be better than you think you are, regardless of what you had achieved or how many times people told you that you couldn’t achieve something,” Foster said.
That philosophy has carried Walker, 74, through an impressive progression of achievement that will reach its latest – but probably not last – stage Sunday, when he is elected the 23rd president of the United States Olympic Committee by its board of directors.
After all, he has added a few more items to his resume since a 1970 newspaper profile was headlined, “No More Worlds to Conquer.”
In the 22 years that followed, Walker has been:
– Chancellor of North Carolina Central University.
– President of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA).
– Head coach of the 1976 U.S. Olympic men’s track and field team.
– President of the U.S. track and field federation (TAC/USA).
– Treasurer of the U.S. Olympic Committee from 1989 to now.
– Senior vice president/sports of the Atlanta organizing committee (ACOG) for the 1996 Olympics.
– And, sometime late this afternoon, the first black president of the 92-year-old USOC.
“Whether he says it or not, I think this is the highlight of his career,” said Foster, who worked under Walker at ACOG.
The four-year term will allow Walker to preside over the USOC as the Olympics celebrate their centenary in his hometown of Atlanta.
Walker, who succeeds interim president William J. Hybl, will resign his ACOG position upon being elected. That move is to avoid any possibility of the conflict-of-interest problems that forced Hybl’s predecessor, Robert Helmick, to resign 13 months ago.
“We’re nearly getting over the Helmick incident,” Walker said, “but what we are dealing with now is paranoia over conflict of interest. It was a serious, unexpected hurt, but we need to start on a positive path and make the American public forget about it.”
Walker is the only nominee for that undertaking. The lack of opposition is a testimony less to indifference over a foregone conclusion than to the quality of his credentials, especially with the world about to come to Atlanta.
As an insider with both ACOG and the USOC, Walker is expected to help overcome differences between the two groups, particularly in the areas of marketing. As a man who has coached or been a consultant to the Olympic track teams of Israel, Ethiopia, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago and Kenya, and has given clinics in China, Syria, Lebanon and Haiti, he can be expected to help the Atlanta Olympics achieve a universalism that was sorely lacking in the jingoistic Los Angeles Games of 1984.
“If I had tried to write a scenario for this – to have a guy born in Atlanta, then to have Atlanta get the centennial Games, then to have this guy be the top person representing the U.S. – well, that would sound like mythical stuff,” Walker said.
In reality, though, the story is not without a downside. Walker, who has two middle-aged children, is giving up a six-figure job at ACOG to take the unpaid position with the USOC.
His son, LeRoy Walker Jr., figured that move disproves one of his father’s old saws.
“I always used to tell him, ‘Your grandmother didn’t raise any foolish children,’ ” said Walker Sr. “Then, when I told him about the USOC position and gave him a big spiel about why I wanted to do it, he said, ‘You’re leaving a big salary for no pay at all? I think maybe grandma raised one.’ “
Walker Jr., 50, a former IBM executive who has started his own business, understands his father’s motivation.
‘He thinks this is an opportunity to provide leadership and set some direction in an area that is one of his special loves,” Walker Jr. said.
And, truth be told, the scenario that has brought Walker to this point is nearly mythic.
The grandson of slaves, he was the youngest of 13 children and the first in his family to attend college. His father, a railroad fireman, died when Walker was 9. To lighten the burden on his mother, Walker moved to Harlem to live and work with his brother Joe, 25 years older, who owned barbecue restaurants and a cleaning business.
“My mother and Joe told me, ‘You determine your destiny. Don’t let somebody else tell you what you are capable of doing,’ ” Walker said.
Walker was recruited to play football, basketball and track at Benedict College in South Carolina. He thought of being an orthopedic surgeon, but circumstances led him first to a coaching job at Benedict.
He moved on briefly to Prairie View A & M and then, in 1945, to North Carolina Central, spending the next four decades there as coach, physical education and kinesiology teacher and university administrator. Among the Olympic athletes Walker coached at NCCU was two-time hurdles gold medalist Lee Calhoun. Of the hundreds he coached, Walker said, fewer than 12 did not graduate on time.
“That was because we had two daily practices, and the second one was in the library,” Walker said.
“He was the toughest teacher I ever had,” Foster said. “I remember my first assignment in his Physical Education for the Exceptional Student class: He had me create a table-tennis match for the blind.”
Walker challenged himself similarly, taking breaks from NCCU to earn a master’s degree in biomechanics from Columbia University and a Ph.D. from New York University. Walker switched from one graduate school to another after learning a professor at Columbia had questioned the ability of a black man to do the work.
Given that history and his later efforts to ensure integration of athletics, it seems ironic Walker twice would be criticized for not being militant enough. The first came when he did not actively support the black protest at the 1968 Olympics; the second, when he postponed retirement after being chosen interim chancellor of North Carolina Central over two others recommended by the school’s trustees.
“I hope,” Walker said, “that my being chosen the first black president of the USOC gives some credence to what I have always said: In spite of all the things that might have happened to you, in spite of the problems your parents might have had, you have to believe there are enough fair people in this world that you can achieve a top position on general merit.
“My theme at the university was excellence without excuse and shared responsibility.”
In his first year as NCCU chancellor, Walker refused to accept the prevailing excuse that until students paid their debts, the university could not give them actual diplomas during the graduation ceremony. He issued each graduate the diploma and set the mood for a three-year term as chancellor that would be widely judged as a success.
“My father sticks to his convictions,” Leroy Walker Jr. said.
That was evident at the recent Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, where Walker was chief of the U.S. delegation, a job known as chef de mission.
In an interview with the New York Times, he questioned the very idea of a “Dream Team” of pro basketball players with just one collegian and lamented they were not spending more time in the Olympic Village.
In an interview with the Tribune, he called (some) U.S. athletes “crybabies” for making excuses about defeat.
“I’m not against pros; you can’t disenfranchise an entire group, pros or collegians,” Walker said last week. “And I don’t care where they live, but I would like to see them get more out of the Olympic experience. Medals and elite athletes are not all the Games are about.”