DURHAM, N.C. – LeRoy Walker, the first African-American to lead the U.S. Olympic Committee and the first Black man to coach an American Olympic team, died Monday. He was 93.
Walker’s death was confirmed by Scarborough & Hargett Funeral home, but no cause of death was given.
The grandson of slaves raised in the segregated South before he moved to Harlem, Walker led the U.S. Olympic Committee from 1992 to 1996, both shepherding the summer games staged in Atlanta and leading the group when the 2002 Winter Olympics were awarded to Salt Lake City.
The Atlanta Games were widely panned across the globe, and Walker warned his countrymen the U.S. was not likely to host another games for a long time after Salt Lake City. He repeated his warnings after a bribery scandal threatened to derail the 2002 Winter Games, and so far, his prediction has been true.
But Walker still loved the Olympics, especially track and field. He coached Olympic teams from Ethiopia, Israel, Jamaica, Kenya and Trinidad & Tobago before his home country gave him a chance to be the first Black head coach of a U.S. Olympic team when he led the track squad to Montreal in 1976.
That team brought home 22 medals, including gold in the long jump, discus, decathlon, 400-meter hurdles and both men’s relays.
Current U.S. Olympic Committee Chairman Scott Blackmun said Walker’s impact on the U.S. Olympic movement and track and field will be felt for generations to come.
“We join the entire Olympic family in remembering and appreciating the vast contributions he made to the worldwide Olympic Movement,” Blackmun said. “He devoted himself to the betterment of sport and we were fortunate to have called him our president.”
Walker’s love for athletics came accidentally. After earning 11 letters in football, basketball and track and field from Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, Walker was hired to coach football and basketball at North Carolina Central University. He instituted a track program during the offseason of those sports, eventually deciding that coaching track was what he was meant to do.
At the university, Walker coached 40 national champions and 12 Olympians. But he just didn’t concentrate on athletics. Walker earned a doctorate from New York University in 1957 and, in 1983, he was named chancellor at North Carolina Central.
Even with all the accolades, Walker still wanted to be called “coach.”
“When you call me that, it means you’re my friend. That means you’ve known me for a long time. As coaches, we’re in the community somehow,” Walker said in a 1996 interview with The Associated Press. “So I like the word coach. It gives a different connotation than a Ph.D. degree.”