Medalist Willie Davenport: from Hurdling to Hurtling in the Olympic Cause

updated 02/25/1980 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/25/1980 01:00AM

Only one athlete in history has won a medal in both the Summer and Winter Olympics—an American named Eddie Eagan, who took a gold in boxing in 1920 and another in bobsledding in 1932. Now Willie Davenport of Baton Rouge, La. is trying to become the second, and he is certainly doing it the hard way.

Davenport first won two Olympic medals as a hurdler. This week at Lake Placid he will tuck his wiry runner's legs onto a four-man bobsled and aim for the record books. Actually, he is already there. He and fellow bobsledder Jeff Gadley are the first black Americans ever to compete in a Winter Olympics, though others tried before them and failed. "There is a myth that black people can't make it in the winter games," says Davenport, "but it's just a myth, like the one about whites not being able to sprint."

Given the presence of both Davenport and Gadley on the team, there is some question which can claim to be bobsledding's Jackie Robinson. "I tell Jeff that I'm the first black man," says Davenport, 36, who rides third in the sled, one seat ahead of Gadley, "because I cross the finish line first." That, of course, is precisely what the U.S. sledders will try to do against the heavily favored Swiss and East Germans. Willie, for one, seems to think the Yanks have a chance. "I'm optimistic we can win a gold," he says. "The reason is, we have a home-field advantage." Then reality sets in. "I guess this is all kind of crazy," he admits, "especially since I had never seen a bobsled until two months ago."

Born in Alabama, the oldest of seven children, Davenport moved with his family to Warren, Ohio when he was 5. In high school he started as a sprinter, but switched to the hurdles after taking a sick teammate's place in a meet. Three years in the Army followed. Then he enrolled at Southern University in Baton Rouge, and in 1968 won the gold medal in the 110-meter high hurdles at Mexico City. He was the first black to climb the victory stand after the clenched-fist protest of sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith. Rather than follow their example, Davenport stood quietly at attention, then went celebrating that night with his medal still hanging around his neck. "My feeling was the individual does what he wants to do," he said later. "I just divorced myself from the situation completely."

Defending his title four years later in Munich, Davenport finished a disappointing fourth and later suffered a crippling muscle tear that threatened his career. Remarkably, at 32, though an antique as a hurdler, he qualified for the U.S. team that went to Montreal in 1976 and came back with an unexpected bronze medal.

Last year, while serving on an Olympic committee, Davenport talked to former U.S. bobsledder Al Hachigian, who suggested that a hurdler's leg strength would be useful during the crucial pushoff at the top of a run. Davenport could not resist trying for Lake Placid. "Willie's a man with a lot of experience," says Hachigian, "and it shows. What's this—his fifth Olympics? It gives him a cool." In October Davenport and his three teammates worked out with weights at the U.S. Olympic facility in Colorado Springs, then headed for Plattsburgh, N.Y., where they trained by pushing a bobsled around a hockey rink. When he came to his first actual run in December, Willie was terrified. "You know the ad, 'Don't squeeze the Charmin'?" he asks with a grin. "Well, I was squeezing the hell out of the Charmin all the way down. I was scared the first time, and I'm still scared."

So is his wife, Marian, 36, but she knows better than to try to discourage him. Married 10 years, the Davenports live in a three-bedroom ranch house just outside the Louisiana capital, where Willie works as a $23,000-a-year mayoral aide on youth affairs. He hopes to parlay his born-again Olympic fame into some lucrative endorsements. "At my age, they may be for Geritol," he admits, "but I don't want to be exploited." Though Willie says that this is truly his last Olympics, Marian for one remains skeptical. "I do not believe it," she sighs patiently. "I'm just waiting for him to find another event."

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