Otis Davis Otis Crandall Davis (1932- ) won two gold medals in track and field in the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, Italy, claiming the world record for the 400-meter. From 1959 to 1961, he dominated the quarter-mile (440 yards), winning the USA Outdoor National Championships twice and was ranked in the top ten in the world three times.
Davis was born on July 12, 1932, in Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County, and was raised by his maternal grandmother and aunt. Growing up African American in the Jim Crow South, Davis felt the brunt of segregation and found solace in sports, playing basketball and football for the city’s all-Black Druid High School. Barred from attending the all-white University of Alabama, Davis chose to leave his native state to find other ways to compete.
After graduating from high school, Davis entered the U.S. Air Force and served four years. Following his discharge, he moved to California and enrolled at Los Angeles Community College, where he played basketball. His prowess on the court caught the eye of University of Oregon basketball coach Steve Belko, who offered him a scholarship. Davis enrolled in the school in 1957. Despite his physical ability, Davis had difficulty adapting to Belko’s conservative style of play and found himself a reserve on the team.
Davis soon came to the attention of Oregon’s renowned track coach, Bill Bowerman. Noticing Davis’ tremendous jumping ability, Bowerman talked him into trying out for the school’s famed track team as a high jumper and long jumper. Davis competed in these events during the 1958 season, but Bowerman also had the lanky Alabamian try sprint races, such as the 100 meters and 200 meters. Although he had never competed in track and field events before, Davis agreed. He ran in an unorthodox upright manner he called “swayback” and excelled at sprinting. Although Davis was the only Black member of the squad, he experienced none of the discrimination he grew up with in the South.
Davis was also one of the first of Bowerman’s runners to wear a pair of the customized shoes hand-fashioned by the Oregon coach. Eventually Bowerman’s tinkering led to the development of specialized footwear for his athletes. (In the early 1960s, Bowerman formed a business partnership with former runner Phil Knight that would eventually become the global athletics company Nike.)
Otis Davis Wins 400-Meter Gold In 1959, Davis continued to run sprint events for the University of Oregon, and Bowerman began training him for 440-yard/quarter-mile races as well. Davis showed promise, winning his first race and several others, but his lack of training resulted in mounting losses later in the season. He finished seventh in the 1959 NCAA national championship and failed to qualify at the U.S. National Championship a week later.
Bowerman then decided that Davis should hold pace and then burst into an all-out sprint for the final 100 yards. Davis began using the approach in the 1960 season to great success, eventually winning the 400-meter U.S. National Championship with an association record time of 45.8 seconds. He barely made the U.S. National team with a third-place finish at the Olympic trials, however, prompting skepticism about his ability to compete against the world’s best.
Otis Davis, 2012 The 1960 Summer Olympic Games in Rome were the first ever commercially televised nationally, and interest in them was correspondingly high. The Cold War created a political backdrop to the competition, and the prominence of African American athletes such as Davis on the U.S. team stood in stark contrast to the news of racially charged confrontations across the South as the civil rights movement began to gain momentum.
Despite doubts because of his age (29) and poor performance in the trials, Davis swept the semi-finals of the men’s 400-meter with an Olympic record of 45.5 seconds. The final featured top runners from the European championships and proved to be one of the most dramatic in the games. Davis took the lead coming out of the final turn, but he and German Carl Kaufman battled all the way down the final 100 meters. The outcome was so close that Olympic officials inspected the finish line photograph for 15 minutes before declaring Davis the winner. Both runners were credited with the time of 44.9 seconds, breaking the long-standing 45-second mark and shattering the previous world record of 45.2 seconds set eight years before.
Davis and Kaufman also faced each other in the finals of the 4-x-400-meter relay as both men anchored their national teams. Once again, Davis emerged triumphant, with the U.S. team winning with a world-record time of 3:02.2 and gaining the Alabama native his second gold medal of the games. Indeed, Davis finished first in all seven of his races at the 1960 summer games (including qualifiers and finals).
Following the Olympics, Davis went on a six-week tour of Europe, running several more races against Kaufmann; neither surpassed their Olympic performances, however. After returning to the United States, Davis ran in numerous meets, culminating in a June 1961 victory in the 440-yard at the Amateur Athletics Union’s U.S. Nationals at Randall’s Island in New York with a world-record time of 46.1 seconds. Shortly afterward, he retired from running.
Davis then began a career in teaching, having received his degree in physical education from the University of Oregon in 1960. He served as the head of physical education instruction at the California Youth Authority at Chino, the Director of Recreation of the Sports Complex for the U.S. Military in Germany, and the athletic director at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. In 1992, he became a verification officer for Union City High School in Union City, New Jersey, and a decade later was hired by Emerson High School as a truant officer, teacher, and coach. He returned to Union City High School in 2012.
In 1999, Davis founded the Tri-States Olympic Alumni Association, a charitable organization that promotes the Olympics and supports former athletes, and still serves as its president. He was an executive board member of the New York City 2012 Olympics Committee and a torch bearer for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. Davis was inducted into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame in 1981, the University of Oregon Hall of Fame in 1994, and the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame in 2004.
Maraniss, David. Rome 1960: The Summer Olympics That Stirred the World. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009.
Moore, Kenny. Bowerman and the Men of Oregon: The Story of Oregon’s Legendary Coach and Nike’s Cofounder. Emmaus, Penn.: Rodale Books. 2007.