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Legendary Olympian Herb Douglas left a legacy in amateur sports


Herb Douglas, an Olympic medalist and former vice president of Möet Hennessy USA, has died at the age of 101. He had the title of the oldest living U.S. Olympic medalist. Douglas passed away on April 22 at a healthcare facility in Pittsburgh. 

Douglas always credited a brief meeting with Jesse Owens as a pivotal moment in his track life and the start of a lifelong friendship with his idol. He would later honor Owens by creating two international sports awards in his name.

At the U.S. track and field Olympic trials in 1948, Douglas knew his idol, Jesse Owens, was watching the events and that Owens was to decide who would compete at the London Games.

Earlier in his life, 14-year-old Douglas was a Black athlete who showed promise as a sprinter and long jumper. Douglas had a brief encounter with Owens at an event in his hometown of Pittsburgh, sharing with the star athlete his stats. 

Impressed, Owens told the teen that his stars were better than his when he was in school and to keep striving, which Douglas did. That chance meeting became a life-changing moment for Douglas. So at the July 1948 meet, Douglas had something to prove to himself and to his idol sitting in the stands. 

Douglas secured his spot on the olympic team, competed, and won a bronze medal in the long jump in London. When speaking fondly of that special moment in history, Douglas often pointed to Owens and said he was following in his footsteps. The two men would reconnect years after the London Olympics and developed a lifelong friendship.

Like many other Black athletes of that era, Douglas’ fame as an olympian, nor that of Owens, could quell the years of racism that they were forced to endure. This made them even more driven to win when they competed. When they returned home with their medals after competing and winning in international sporting meets, they knew they still had to sit on the back of the bus because of the color of their skin. 

In 1980, Douglas founded the International Amateur Athletic Association and for more than two decades, he held an annual dinner to aid the Jesse Owens Foundation and the U.S. Olympic Committee. The association’s Jesse Owens International Trophy Award, bestowed for athletic excellence and humanitarian work, was given to many U.S. Olympic gold medalists including long jumper Carl Lewis and diver Greg Louganis. Douglas created a second award in 1993, the Jesse Owens Global Award for Peace, for world leaders who helped advance sports. Winners include Nelson Mandela and Kofi Annan, who was a U.N. secretary general. Douglas also maintained close bonds with his alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh, and established a scholarship there. 

Herbert Paul Douglas Jr. was born March 9, 1922, in Pittsburgh and grew up in Pittsburgh’s Hazelwood neighborhood, where he showed off his remarkable athletic ability, running and playing basketball and competing in other sports at Taylor Allderdice High School. His father, who was blind most of his adult life, ran a parking garage and his mother cared for the home. Douglas, who was the first Black basketball player at his high school, said he quit the team after teammates refused to pass him the ball. Douglas attended Xavier University of Louisiana before transferring to the University of Pittsburgh on a football scholarship. He became the second Black player to score a touchdown against Notre Dame. It was after this that one of his coaches, Wes Fesler, suggested to Douglas in 1946 that his future was in track rather than football. “So,” Douglas said, “I stuck with track.”

Douglas graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physical education in 1948 and stayed at the University of Pittsburgh for a master’s degree in education in 1950. He began working for the Pabst Brewing Co. and, in 1963, joined Schieffelin and Co., a New York-based wine and spirits importer, that became part of Möet Hennessy USA. He rose to become vice president. 

Douglas served on the Board of Trustees for his alma mater and was later named an emeritus trustee.

Douglas was the oldest U.S. Olympic medalist, but not the eldest Olympian. Yvonne Chabot-Curtet of France, who is 102, was in the 1952 Games in Helsinki, so she holds that international title. 

Douglas is survived by his wife Minerva Douglas, daughter Barbara Joy Ralston,  daughter-in-law Susan Douglas, four grandchildren, along with numerous great-grandchildren, grandnieces. and grandnephews.

Memorial gifts can be made to the Herbert P. Douglas Jr. Scholarship or the Herbert P. Douglas Jr. Indoor Track project, part of the greater Pitt Athletics Victory Heights campaign.

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