LeRoy Walker was a man of Olympian achievement

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Olympic legend Jackie Joyner-Kersee with Dr. LeRoy Walker in 2005.

Olympic legend Jackie Joyner-Kersee with Dr. LeRoy Walker in 2005. (Roslan Rahman / July 4, 2005)

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."

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