Marvellous Mal the middle-distance man

Childhood inspiration can push a person far. Mal Whitfield was inspired to take up athletics after sneaking into the stadium to watch the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

His attention was taken by the 100m sprint battle between Eddie Tolan and Ralph Metcalfe, and the young Whitfield decided he wanted to emulate them.

Middle distance was his strength, though. Marvellous Mal, as he was universally known, set the standard for runners in the 800m at the end of the 1940s and into the 1950s. Between June 1948 and the end of 1954, he won 66 of the 69 major middle-distance races in which he competed.

His style was smooth and apparently effortless, an appearance of unhurried speed that drew comparisons with Jesse Owens. His mental strength was formidable. “I went to win,” he said in later years.

Marvellous Mal was also a flyer. He came to London as an airman, having joined the United States Air Force during the Second World War. He was still on active duty when he took part in the Olympic Games, but his focus was entirely on winning.

In the 800m final, he was imperious. He took the lead at the end of the first lap and pulled away. Whitfield's great rival, Arthur Wint of Jamaica, did come back at him in the closing stages, but Whitfield had the strength and speed to control the race. He finished in 1min 49.2secs, setting a new Olympic record and beating Wint by three metres.

Whitfield took a Bronze in the 400m race, with Wint beating him, but went on to win another gold as part of America's 4x400m team. But it is for his 800m brilliance that he will be remembered, striding to victory as the rain poured down over Wembley Stadium. If he was cold, he didn't show it. “The Olympic medal alone will keep a winner warm for a lifetime,” Marvellous Mal later wrote. “Winning the gold for my country as well as for myself was a thrill I shall never forget.”