TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
The Summer Olympics were postponed earlier this week because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s likely the Olympics will be held in Tokyo next summer.
Herb Douglas, the oldest living African-American Olympic medalist, feels the postponement was the right move with the impact of the coronavirus. Douglas, a Pittsburgh native who resides in the Wynnefield section of Philadelphia, turned 98 years old on March 9.
“I feel as though for their safety they had to postpone it ,” Douglas said. “[It was a] good idea. This is not only in the United States or Canada. This is the world. I actually think because athletes at the Olympic games it’s individual. I know some athletes they train just like they’re going to work. Athletes have that mentality in the Olympic movement.”
Douglas got an opportunity to compete on the big stage in track and field. He participated in the 1948 Olympics in London. As a 26 year-old track and field standout, he placed third in the long jump. He jumped 24’9 to win a bronze medal. Douglas believes the athletes should be prepared for 2021.
“They’re going to put all their effort into next year,” Douglas said. “Then some of them will reach a better peak the following year. They’ll have ample time with the stress of the [corona] virus of going places trying to train.”
Douglas understands the setback the athletes faced with the postponement.
“I went through it,” Douglas said. “I may have been better in ‘44 when they postponed the Olympics than in ‘48 because of the war [World War II]. But the Lord blessed me and kept me in good shape.”
Douglas wasn’t just a pioneer in track and field. He was one of the early African Americans to work for a major corporation. In 1963, he joined Schieffelin & Co. (now Moet/Hennessey USA) where he became the third African American to reach the level of vice president of a national company. He worked for them for 30 years.
“My dad really helped me when I worked for him,” Douglas said. “It was an opportunity for me to get into corporate America. That’s why at 98 years old my wife and I enjoy a comfortable life.”
In addition to the Olympics, this was supposed to be a big year for track and field in Philadelphia. The Penn Relays were going to honor the 100th anniversary of participation by Historically Black Colleges and Universities during this spring’s track and field carnival. Unfortunately, the Penn Relays were cancelled in the light of coronavirus.
Douglas was a member of the 1942 440-yard relay team from Xavier University of Louisiana. The team clocked a winning time of 41.7 seconds. Xavier was the first HBCU to win a relay championship at the Penn Relays. Xavier’s team included Douglas, William Morton, Clarence Doak and Howard Mitchell.
“It was a big day for Xavier,” Douglas said. “It was like winning an event in the Olympics. We came up from Xavier [New Orleans, Louisiana.]. Three of us on our relay team were from Pennsylvania and one was from West Virginia. I’ll always say I got an opportunity because of Ralph Metcalfe.”
Metcalfe was in the Army in World War II when Xavier University of Louisiana made history at the Penn Relays. He was the track coach and put together that outstanding relay team. Prior to his career as a coach, Metcalfe was a four-time Olympic medalist. He was the head coach from 1936-41. He resigned from Xavier to serve his country right after the invasion of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Giles Wright, an assistant at Xavier, replaced Metcalfe and the relay team he recruited went on to greatness at the Penn Relays. Metcalfe passed away in 1978 at age 68 after being selected four times to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat from Illinois’ first Congressional District. Metcalfe had a big influence on Douglas.
“He was a stellar athlete who became a Congressman,” Douglas said. “He layed the foundation. He had a successful life in politics. I went to Xavier because of his leadership.”
After two years at Xavier, Douglas returned home to help his father, who was blind and had a parking garage business in Pittsburgh. Right after World War II in 1945, he went back to college. He decided to attend the University of Pittsburgh. He played football and set a school record in the long jump (24-4.88), which lasted 23 years. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1948.
He credits his mother father for much of his success.
“Well, God has blessed me,” Douglas said. “It all begins in the home. My mom and dad lived on a very steep hill. I used to run to the store to buy for my mother. She would buy just enough. My mom lived to 96. My dad could walk two to three miles a day with his guide dog. He lived to he was 91 years old, 11 months and 10 days. He exercised every day running the garage business for 30 years. That’s where I got my basic foundation from mom and dad.”
Thanks to his parents, Herb Douglas has become a living legend.