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LeRoy Walker dies at 93; first black to lead U.S. Olympic body

LeRoy Walker, the grandson of slaves, led the U.S. Olympic Committee from 1992 to 1996, shepherding the Summer Games in Atlanta. He also was the first African American to coach an American Olympic team.

April 25, 2012|Los Angeles Times staff and wire reports
  • LeRoy Walker coachestrack team runners at North Carolina Central University in 1972.
LeRoy Walker coachestrack team runners at North Carolina Central University… (Associated Press )

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 in Durham, N.C. He was 93.

Walker's death was confirmed by Scarborough & Hargett Funeral home, but no cause was given.

The grandson of slaves, Walker led the U.S. Olympic Committee from 1992 to 1996, shepherding the Summer Games staged in his native 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.

Walker coached Olympic track and field teams from Ethiopia, Israel, Jamaica, Kenya and Trinidad and 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 effect 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 was born June 14, 1918, in Atlanta, the youngest of 13 children of Willie and Mary Walker. When he was 9 his father, a railroad fireman, died and he was sent north to live with an older brother in Harlem.

He returned to the South to attend Benedict College in Columbia, S.C., where he earned 11 letters in football, basketball, and track and field. After earning a master's degree from Columbia University, he 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.

But he didn't concentrate solely on athletics. Walker earned a doctorate from New York University in 1957 and, in 1983, he was named chancellor at North Carolina Central.

Throughout his life, Walker carried with him instructions his mother gave him for his trip north as a child.

"I'll never forget what she told me," Walker said in a 1993 interview with The Times. "She said, 'If anything gets in your way, look it in the eye, grab hold of it and find a way to achieve in spite of it.' One of the things that was drilled into me was to not let circumstances determine what I could begin to be."

Walker is survived by a son, LeRoy Jr., and a daughter, Carolyn Walker Hopp.

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