In 1980, when U.S. hurdler Willie Davenport (1943–2002) and decathlete Jeff Gadley joined the U.S. bobsleigh team, they broke the Olympic color barrier, becoming the first African Americans to compete in the Winter Games. A five-time Olympian, Davenport had previously won gold and bronze medals in the 110-meter high hurdles at the Summer Games.
The eldest of seven children, William D. Davenport was born June 8, 1943, in Troy, Alabama, where he was known as Willie. By the time Davenport entered high school, the family had moved to Warren, Ohio, and he joined the track team as a sprinter at Howland High School. He never intended to tackle the hurdles, but one day the coach placed him in the event because the team's regular hurdler was sick. Davenport won the high hurdles that day and went on to set an Ohio state record in the event during his senior year.
After graduating in 1961, Davenport enlisted in the U.S. Army and became a paratrooper. From 1961 to 1963, he was stationed in Mainz, Germany, where he joined a local track club and continued running and training. Davenport, a novice, was a complete unknown when he traveled to Los Angeles in September 1964 for the Olympic trials, and Hayes Jones and Blaine Lindgren were favored to win the 110-meter hurdles. A college-trained athlete, Jones held five AAU championship titles—all in the 110- and 120- meter hurdles, and Lindgren had won the gold at the 1963 Pan Am Games. At the trials, Davenport pulled off an underdog victory in the 110-meter high hurdles, beating Jones by 18 inches with a time of 13.6 seconds. Lindgren came in third.
In 1965, after an honorable discharge from the U.S. military, Davenport enrolled at Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In addition to studying physical education, he joined the track team and finally received proper training under the guidance of coach Dick Hill. Davenport dominated the hurdles and helped the Jaguars win the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship three years in a row. During his time at Southern, he earned the nickname “Breeze” due to his ability to glide over the hurdles with ease.
At Southern, Davenport attempted to take his speed and hurdling ability to the football field, but his butterfingers overshadowed his hustle. “He couldn't catch a cold if he was naked in Alaska,” former Southern quarterback Bob Bennett recalled to Wright Thompson of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Davenport did find playing time as a defensive halfback when the San Diego Chargers picked him in the 16th round of the 1969 draft. His lack of ability as a receiver kept him from the pro league, however.
During his college career, Davenport won hurdles at every distance—from 45 to 120 yards. “What makes Davenport great is that he works over the hurdles,” Villanova coach Jumbo Elliott explained to Sports Illustrated contributor Skip Myslenski. “He doesn't just float over.
This gives him more efficient time on the ground to do the running.” From 1966 to 1971, Davenport won five U.S. indoor championships in the 60-yard hurdles. The only year he did not place was 1968. He was the U.S. outdoor champion in the 110-meter hurdles for three years running (1965–67) and tied for first in 1969. While running in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1969, Davenport tied the 110-meter high hurdles world record with a time of 13.2 seconds. He was also successful in college despite a rocky relationship with his coach, who grew frustrated by his lax training regimen. Davenport did not like to train every day and often skipped practice. He even quit the college team for a period in 1968.
In 1968, Davenport headed to the Olympics in Mexico City and put up a time of 13.3 seconds in the 110-meter high hurdles to win gold. He would later describe this as the most perfect race of his career, although he told reporters he was so nervous that he did not hear the official tell the runners to get set. Instead, Davenport saw the other runners get into position on their blocks, so he followed suit. The next thing he knew, they were off and he felt fast and confident. “From the first step—when I raised up from the block, before my foot even put down for the first time—I knew I'd won the race,” he told McKinney in the Baton Rouge Advocate.
Davenport graduated from Southern in 1969 and took a job as a teacher in East Baton Rouge. He also married Marian Calvey, with whom he had a son, Mark Davenport, before divorcing. He also had two other children—Willie Davenport Stewart and Tanya Gibson Morris—from relationships prior to his marriage. From 1971 to 1974, he coached track at Southern and earned his master's degree in education in 1974. During the 1970s, Davenport worked with youth and fitness programs sponsored by the city of Baton Rouge, and the following decade found him directing a sports and physical fitness program for the state.
In 1972, Davenport returned to the Olympics, which were held in Munich, West Germany. He was understandably rattled before his race: Arab terrorists had kidnapped and killed 11 Israeli athletes from the Olympic village in what became known as the “Munich Massacre.” Davenport made the finals in the 110-meter hurdles where he finished in 13.50 seconds, but he took fourth—missing bronze by .02 seconds. Fellow Southern track teammate Rod Milburn won the gold, setting a world record with his time of 13.24 seconds.
During the 1976 Olympics, held in Montreal, Canada, Davenport made it to the finals in the 110-meter hurdles. The race was close, with the top three crossing the finish line within eight one-hundredths of a second. Davenport's time of 13.38 seconds won him the bronze. Cuba's Alejandro Casañas took silver with a time of 13.33 seconds, and France's Guy Drut took gold with a time of 13.30 seconds. “Because of the injury, I was more inspired than I normally would have been,” Davenport later told Kevin Knight of Track & Field News. “Of course, a lot of thoughts went through my head, mainly whether I could compete again or not. But I was just really inspired because all the medical people said I would not be able to do it anymore.”
After the 1976 games, Davenport's sprinting career was over, as was his Olympic run. But a new opportunity presented itself when Gadley suggested that he consider bobsledding. Gadley and Davenport were joined by driver Bobby Hickey and Jeff Jordan. After extensive workouts and preparation at the U.S. Olympic training station in Colorado Springs, Colorado, the team of four headed to the trials. There were eight U.S. teams vying for two slots and Davenport's team made the cut. Davenport served as one of the team's “pushers,” meaning he was responsible for getting the sleigh to a competitive speed at the start of the race. After years of explosive running coming off the starting blocks on the track, he was built for the job.
The 1980 Winter Olympics took place in Lake Placid, New York. The U.S. team had not medaled in the bobsleigh since taking bronze in 1956, and as the games commenced, they were dogged by poor equipment. Although European bobsleigh technology outpaced them, Davenport's team finished 12th and the other U.S. team finished 13th. “It was like we were driving Model T's and the rest of the world was in Rolls Royces,” the athlete later complained to Ted Lewis of the Times-Picayune. “I thought we were the best team, but we didn't have the best equipment.”
Despite finishing in 12th place, Davenport achieved a historic victory during the Winter Olympics: he and Gadley were the first African Americans to compete there. Although they opened the door for black athletes in the games, 22 years would pass before U.S. bobsledder Vonetta Flowers became the first black athlete to win gold at the Winter Olympics. In addition to helping to integrate the games, Davenport was also one of the rare athletes to compete in both the Summer and Winter Games; prior to his appearance at the 1980 games, only three other Americans had competed in both venues.
In the 1980s, Davenport returned to the military, serving as post commander with a reserve force stationed at Camp Withycombe in Oregon. Later, the Army National Guard made him an ROTC instructor and recruiter at Southern, his alma mater. By 1992, Davenport was assigned to the National Guard Bureau in Alexandria, Virginia, working with young people to get them interested in joining the ROTC. He visited groups of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts as well as 4-H Clubs, the YMCA, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and the Civil Air Patrol.
In addition to his work in the military, Davenport coached the All-Army track team—both men and women—from 1993 to 1996. In each of those four years, the team was undefeated. He also worked his way up through the ranks of the Army National Guard and earned the designation of colonel. He eventually served as chief of the National Guard Bureau's Office of Sports Management, which was based in Falls Church, Virginia. The program prepared Guard athletes to compete in sports at the top tier. Davenport made a special effort to recruit National Guard enlistees for bobsleigh and guide them to a place on an Olympic team.
Davenport died in Chicago, on June 17, 2002, after collapsing at O'Hare International Airport on his way home from National Guard business in Boise, Idaho. He was planning to retire in 90 days. He left behind his ex-wife, Marian Davenport, and his children, Mark, Willie, and Tanya. Davenport was buried in the Roselawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Baton Rouge.
Adirondack Daily Enterprise (Saranac Lake, NY), February 6, 1980, p. 8.
Advocate (Baton Rouge, LA), July 25, 1992, Joan McKinney, “Olympian Willie Davenport Looks Back at Career,” p. B1; June 19, 2002; June 26, 2002.
New York Times, June 19, 2002, p. 15.
Sports Illustrated, March 17, 1969, Skip Myslenski, “The Woes of Wee Willie Wisp.”
Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA), February 6, 1998, Ted Lewis, “Tough Sledding,” p. D1; June 19, 2002; June 20, 2002, Wright Thompson, “Davenport Is Remembered,” Sports sec., p. 8.
Track & Field News, December 1976, Kevin Knight, interview with Davenport, pp. 20–21.❑