U.S. sports official, university chancellor, educator, and track coach, LeRoy Tashreau Walker (born 1918) became the first African American elected to serve as president and chief executive officer of the United States Olympic Committee in 1992. As such he directed U.S. participation in the 1996 Olympic Centennial Games held in Atlanta, Georgia.
LeRoy Walker was born on June 14, 1918, in Atlanta, Georgia, the grandson of slaves and the youngest of 13 children in a close-knit family. His mother, Mary, always told him not to worry about the difficulties and to just keep pushing and honing his talents; recognition by others would follow. After his father, a fireman on the railroad, died when LeRoy was nine, his older brother, Joe, chose the littlest Walker to live with him in Harlem. But Walker returned to Georgia for his senior year of high school.
As a youth he worked in the family's barbecue restaurant and window cleaning businesses to earn money during the Great Depression. A strong father-figure, Joe taught an iron work ethic and never permitted him to rationalize in spite of prejudice. This attitude of perseverance provided Walker with inner strength to deal with subtle Northern discrimination and Southern racial segregation.
At Benedict College, an historically African American church-related college in Columbia, South Carolina, Walker earned 11 letters in football, basketball, and track and field. He graduated in three and one-half years in 1940, majoring in science and romance languages. Only Meharry and Harvard medical schools were open to African Americans, and because he missed the registration cycle, Walker decided to work with people through a program in health and physical education at Columbia University. He studied under Jesse F. Williams and received an M.S. degree a year later.
After one-year periods as chair of departments of physical education and of recreation and head track coach at Benedict and Bishop Colleges, Walker went to Prairie View University in Texas. While there he also directed the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) as a military training officer at night after teaching and coaching by day. Walker then accepted a one-year appointment as a football and basketball coach at North Carolina Central College in Durham in 1945. After gaining valuable professional experience, Walker returned to graduate school at New York University, receiving his Ph.D. in 1957.
At North Carolina Central, Walker had started a track and field program as an off-season training program for his football and basketball players. This event led to a successful career as a legendary track coach. He coached 11 Olympic medalists and sent track and field athletes to every Olympic Games from 1956 to 1980. His top reputation began when Lee Calhoun won back-to-back gold medals in the 110-meter hurdles in the 1956 and 1960 Summer Games.
Much publicity was received during the 1960 Rome Games. Walker was coaching two teams at the same time. It was dramatic for him when Ethiopia's Abebe Bikila won the first of his back-to-back Olympic gold marathon medals while running without shoes. Later he was an Olympics consultant for the following national teams: Trinidad-Tobago in Tokyo (1964), Jamaica in Mexico City (1968), and Kenya in Munich (1972). In 1976 Walker was selected as the head men's coach for the U.S. track and field team at the Montreal Olympic Games.
Walker became the first African American president of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance (AAHPERD) when he was elected at the Seattle convention in 1977. He provided strong leadership during his three-year executive committee term as an advocate to implement quality AAHPERD programs. Another theme was "unity through diversity," and he promoted minority involvement on national, district, and state levels. Earlier, Walker had assisted with efforts to integrate the National Education Association (NEA), which did not allow African American members.
In 1974 Walker was appointed as vice-chancellor for university relations at North Carolina Central University (NCCU). He moved up to become chancellor in 1983, serving as chief executive officer (CEO) for one of the 16 campuses of the University of North Carolina system.
Walker's coaching and administrative skills led to other positions. He chaired the men's track and field committee for the Amateur Athletic Union (1973-1976), served a term as president of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, and was the president of the Athletics Congress (1984-1988), the U.S. governing body for track and field.
As a member of the important Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics (the first major study in 66 years) in 1991-1992, he made strides toward key reforms, using a formula of "one-plus three," recommending to the NCAA: greater presidential control plus financial integrity, academic standards, and the innovative "independent certification" of programs.
On October 11, 1992, at age 74, Walker became the first African American elected by the United States Olympic Committee to serve as its president and CEO. Walker resigned his paid position as senior vice-president for sports with the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) to take the voluntary post.
Called "an inspired choice" by sportswriters, Walker's milestone election was a tribute to his dedication to excellence and ethical standards. Outgoing president William J. Hybl stated that Walker was "uniquely qualified" because of his coaching of Olympians; wealth of leadership experience, including service as a past president of a major national governing body; and esteemed image among the USOC membership.
The Amateur Sports Act of 1978 gave the USOC the authority to promote and coordinate amateur athletic activity in the United States, to recognize certain rights for American amateur athletes, and to provide for the resolution of disputes involving national governing bodies. New challenging trends for the USOC cited by Walker included more sports governing bodies; needs for infrastructure, such as training facilities; demands of high stakes sponsors; fund-raising for the U.S. effort for the Summer Olympics in 2000 in Melbourne, Australia; revisions in committee and program structure; and increased public ownership via open disclosure of budget details for 1993-1996.
A critical issue that faced the USOC's executive board and the governing bodies was the mounting pressure for more U.S. Olympic gold medals. Walker opposed the commercialism of "Dream Teams" selected from professionals without college tryouts. He cited the fact that 64 nations won medals in the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Games, including nations in conflict or with few resources. Further, he felt the Olympic Village experience should be shared by all competitors.
The 1996 Olympic mascot, "lzzy" (formerly "Whatizit"), received much press coverage. Designed to create worldwide "Olympic fever," the futuristic lzzy succeeded "Cobi" (Barcelona's dog mascot in 1992) and "Hodori" (Seoul's baby tiger mascot in 1988). The Olympic Motto is "Citius, Altius, Fortius," meaning "Swifter, Higher, Stronger," as related to improving athletic performance.
Walker received many honors and awards in his long career. He was the first African American to receive the James J. Corbett Memorial Award (1993), the top honor granted by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of America. In carrying out his duties as USOC president and CEO, Walker occupied an office on the NCCU campus in Durham, where he was chancellor emeritus. In 1996 Walker was named the first President Emeritus of the United States Olympic Committee. He was widowed with two children, LeRoy Jr. and Carolyn.
Walker wrote the following books: A Manual in Adapted Physical Education; Physical Education for the Exceptional Student; Championship Techniques in Track and Field; and Track and Field for Boys and Girls. He is also noted in the following; Charles Belle, "Business In The Black: Onward and Upward," Sun Reporter, The (November 14, 1996).
His career is profiled in Who's Who Among Black Americans. A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete by Arthur R. Ashe, et al. (1988), contains several citations concerning Walker. For details regarding Walker's career highlights see AAHPERD Leaders: The First 100 Years, an oral history project of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education by Sharon L. Van Oteghen and Allys M. Swanson (1994).
The Olympian (November 1992) featured Walker with a cover photograph and a biographical article by Mike Spence focusing on his milestone election as president of the U.S. Olympic Committee. Articles in popular periodicals include "Dr. LeRoy Walker Poised To Take USOC Presidency," Jet (June 29, 1992); "An Inspired Choice," Sports Illustrated (October 19, 1992); "New USOC Head: Dr. LeRoy Walker Named President of USOC," Jet (October 26, 1992); "USOC's Walker Nixes Idea of Baseball Dream Team," Jet (November 2, 1992); "LeRoy Walker Receives Top Collegiate Honor," Jet (June 14, 1993), and a photo essay in Ebony (June 1994).