America's Olympian Herb Douglas, a bronze medallist in the long jump at London 1948, has died at the age of 101 ©University of Pittsburgh

The death of Olympic long jump bronze medallist Herb Douglas at the age of 101 has severed one of very few remaining links with the 1948 London Games. 

Douglas had been the oldest United States and oldest African American Olympian at the time of his passing on Saturday (April 22). 

At 14, he had been inspired by meeting the legendary Jesse Owens after the latter's four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

"I run the 100-metre dash and do the long jump," Douglas told Owens.

"That’s more than what I did at your age," Owens responded and encouraged the youngster to attend college.

"In every role that he filled, as an aspiring athlete from Hazelwood, as a student-athlete and university trustee and as an esteemed businessman, Olympian and community leader, Herb Douglas excelled," University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said.

“Douglas was both a champion himself and a champion of others, never hesitating to open doors of opportunity and help people pursue their own success,”

Douglas was born in the Hazelwood district of Pittsburgh.

At Taylor Allderdice School, he set a long jump record which lasted many years.

He quit basketball after other players refused to pass to him and  encountered further discrimination trying to enrol in college, prompting his civil rights activism where he later met Martin Luther King and Andrew Young.

Douglas was eventually awarded an athletic scholarship to Xavier University of Louisiana and recruited for the relay team by coach Ralph Metcalfe, a 4x100m relay gold team-mate of Owens.

The Xavier squad won the 1942 US Championship, but Douglas was soon forced to return home to help the family garage business.

He transferred to Pittsburgh (Pitt Athletics) and won the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) long jump in 1945, titles indoors and played college football.

In 1948, he graduated with a bachelors’ degree in physical education.

In the US Olympic trials, he was second in the long jump behind Willie Steele.

At the Olympics, his leap of 7.55 metres gave him bronze behind Steele and Bill Bruce of Australia.

Herb Douglas won an Olympic bronze medal in the long jump at London 1948 ©Getty Images
Herb Douglas won an Olympic bronze medal in the long jump at London 1948 ©Getty Images

After returning home from London 1948, Douglas returned to complete a masters degree.

 “More than anything, I wanted to be a coach,” he told Ebony magazine, but no one recruited him.

Instead, he forged a career in sales and marketing and rose to Vice President of Schieffelin and Company, later Moët Hennessy US.

His friendship with Owens lasted until  the latter's death in 1980, when Douglas created an association to preserve his friend's memory by recognising amateur athletes. 

Olympic gold medallists Edwin Moses and Roger Kingdom were among those he helped.

"We developed such a bond that I started to call him 'Daddy' Herb," Kingdom said.

"He inspired me in so many ways but gave me two very important directives, finish my degree and 'always analyse, organise, initiate and follow through.'"

Moses also benefited from advice given by Douglas.

Y"ou couldn’t find anyone like a Herb Douglas, they didn’t exist," Moses admitted.

"It was just good to have someone who had that kind of experience, he’s a very giving individual, that’s never changed."

Herb Douglas will be remembered when the new University training complex opens in 2025 ©Pitt Athletics
Herb Douglas will be remembered when the new University training complex opens in 2025 ©Pitt Athletics

Douglas also established the Jesse Owens Global Award for Peace, using sport to address social problems. 

It has honoured Nelson Mandela, former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and former United States President George Bush senior.

In 2018 Douglas became one of the first inductees into the Pitt Athletics Hall of Fame.

"Herb Douglas was a friend and mentor to me for more than two decades," Pitt Athletics Head Coach Coach Alonzo Webb said. 

A Pittsburgh street was renamed Douglas Way and he is also to be remembered in the new university training centre at Victory Heights, expected to open in 2025.

"It is so fitting that our future indoor track will be named in Herb’s honor, ensuring his name and legacy live on," Pitt Athletics Director Heather Lyke said.

The oldest known surviving Olympian is curiously, believed to be another long jumper, 102 year old Yvonne Chabot-Curtet from France, who competed at London 1948 and Helsinki 1952.