Willie Davenport

Willie Davenport Biography

Track and Field Athlete, Athlete, Military Leader (1943–2002)
American track star Willie Davenport won a gold medal at the 1968 Summer Olympics and competed at the 1980 Winter Games with the U.S. bobsled team.


Willie Davenport was born on June 8, 1943, in Troy, Alabama. He won gold in the 110-meter high hurdles at the 1968 Olympics, and claimed several national championships in that event as well as in the 60-meter hurdles. Named to the 1980 U.S. Olympic bobsled team, Davenport became one of the first two African Americans to compete at the Winter Olympics, as well as only the fourth American to compete in both the Summer and Winter Games. He died in Chicago, Illinois, in 2002.

Early Years

Track and field athlete and military officer Willie D. Davenport was born on June 8, 1943, in Troy, Alabama. After his family moved to Warren, Ohio, he became a star for the Howland High School track team. Despite setting a state record with his time in the 120-meter hurdles as a senior, Davenport did not draw much attention from college track and field programs, and enrolled in the U.S. Army as a paratrooper after graduating in 1961.

Track and Field Stardom

Willie Davenport ran track at local sports club while stationed in Mainz, Germany, from 1961 to 63. Relatively unknown to the track and field community, he pulled off a surprise upset with his victory in the 110-meter high hurdles at the 1964 U.S. Olympic Trials. Unfortunately, he suffered a pulled thigh muscle before the start of competition at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan—an injury that led to his early exit in the semifinals.

After earning his discharge from the Army in 1965, Davenport enrolled at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He quickly emerged as a standout for the powerhouse track program, winning the national championship in the 110-meter high hurdles from 1965 to '67, and the 60-yard hurdles in '66 and '67.

At the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, Davenport made up for his prior missed opportunity by equaling an Olympic record in the 110-meter high hurdles to win a gold medal. However, his performance was overshadowed by the famous "black power" salute of teammates Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal podium for the 200-meter event.

Davenport tied the 110-meter high hurdles world record of 13.2 seconds in July 1969, and notched seven world indoor best marks that year. He also reigned as national champion in the 60-meter hurdles from 1969 to '71, demonstrating an ease in his craft that earned him the nickname "Breeze."

"He would just flow over them like the wind," said John Smith, an Olympic teammate of Davenport's. "He was just that efficient as a hurdler."

Davenport finished a disappointing fourth in the 110-meter high hurdles at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, West Germany. A return to the Olympics for a fourth time seemed unlikely after he ruptured a tendon in his knee at the 1975 AAU outdoor championships, but he bounced back with an impressive bronze medal-winning performance in his signature event at the 1976 Games in Montreal, Canada.

Bobsledding History

Not long after, Davenport and fellow track and field athlete Jeff Gadley were accepted to the U.S. bobsledding team for the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York—making them the first African Americans on a Winter Olympic team, and Davenport only the fourth American to compete at both the Summer and Winter Games. Although the U.S. team finished well out of the running in 12th place, Davenport was proud of his historical accomplishment.

Post-Competitive Career

Davenport was inducted into the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame in 1982, the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 1988 and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1990.

Davenport held several positions after stepping away from the track, serving on the National Fitness Leaders Association, the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, and the National Black College Alumni Association. He also coached the All-Army men's and women's track teams to four undefeated seasons from 1993 to '96.

Davenport became a colonel in the Army National Guard was working as chief of the National Guard Bureau's Office of Sports Management when he suffered a fatal heart attack at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on June 17, 2002.

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