How prejudice almost derailed black Olympian pioneer

The racial prejudice of a US athletics team coach could have prevented a history-making performance, if natural talent hadn’t come out on top.

In the context of the current Black Lives Matter protests, it’s a very good time to revisit an interview Passion for Sport conducted in 2004 with Olympic gold medallist Madeline Manning Mims, one of the USA’s pioneering black athletes.

When she triumphed in the women’s 800m in the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games, Madeline became the only US athlete to win this event. More than that, aged just 20, she was the youngest winner for the next 40 years. She went on to win silver in the 4 x 400m relay at the 1972 Munich Olympics, competed in the 1976 Montreal Games and has gone on to a flourishing chaplaincy and speaking career, and recording as a gospel artist.

Yet it could all have ended differently, if the prejudiced plan of one of the team coaches had come off.

Passion for Sport’s reporter Solomon Izang Ashoms spoke to her at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, where Madeline was working as a chaplain, and asked her about her experiences as a black athlete running a distance dominated at the time by white competitors.

“I was one of the youngest on the US team, and it was quite overwhelming for me. The US was battling with a lot of racial prejudice at the time – and I was pioneering in a field led by Caucasians. The Europeans and the US girls were all white – I was the only black girl in there.

“Some people didn’t understand the importance of me being there. I would get threatening letters and telegrams saying ‘You shouldn’t be there, and why don’t you move out the way and let a white girl do it’. There was outcry from American blacks for representation and recognition in our country, so I had a lot on my back at that time.

“What kept me steady and balanced was to know that God created me to be there – he believed in me so I decided to run for his glory. It was a change in direction for my sports development.”

When Madeline and one of her team mates qualified for the 800m final in Mexico, it was a clear opportunity for a 1-2 for the USA, as she explains.

“I told her I would go out fast, get the lead then slow the pack down, and for her to come up next to me and we would control the race. She went and told her coach what she was going to do. He was prejudiced and told her ‘Stay in the back, and let her go out and run out – when she gets tired you can come through and win the race’. Which was stupid, because when she didn’t come up I realised ‘You’re on your own now’ and ran my own race. I was so close to breaking two minutes (which I later did). I was trying to wait for her.

“I was happy when I came through the line – I could hear my mum shouting ‘Thank you Jesus! That’s my baby!’ My team mate came up and I said ‘where were you?’ I was furious. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ I asked her. Her coach wouldn’t let her come out on to the track until late on. She came fifth.”

In the interview, Madeline spoke about the difficulty other athletes had shared with her about forgiving someone who has done you wrong, and she admits “… it took me some years to process through and forgive him. I forgave him by faith: ‘it’s not my problem, it’s his problem’ I told myself. I refused to hold onto it any more – the Lord really took the pain away, and when I next saw him I didn’t feel anything. He was surprised that I spoke to him, and now we do speak.

“It has helped to heal him – he is a better person because I walked in love toward him.”