Sunday, March 21, 2010

R.I.P. Wayne Collett, An American Hero

Wayne Collett during the medal ceremony for the 400 meters at the 1972 Olympics.

Wayne Collett, a runner who won a silver medal for the United States in the 1972 Munich Olympics and who was then judged to have acted so disrespectfully during the medal ceremony that the International Olympic Committee barred him as a competitor for life, died Wednesday. He was 60 and lived in Los Angeles.

His death, at St. Vincent Medical Center in Los Angeles, was caused by cancer, said Marc Dellims, the sports information director for U.C.L.A., where Collett had been a track and field star.

In 1972, Collett and his U.C.L.A. teammate John Smith were favored in the Olympic 400-meter dash. They advanced to the final along with Vince Matthews, another American. Matthews won the gold medal in 44.66 seconds, Collett finished second in 44.80 and Smith was injured early in the race and did not finish.

In the previous Olympics, in 1968 in Mexico City, the runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos, both African-Americans, had staged a demonstration during a medal ceremony to protest treatment of blacks in the United States. Olympic officials feared a repetition in Munich.

There, as “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played, Matthews and Collett, also African-Americans, did not face the flag. They stood casually, hands on hips, their jackets unzipped. They chatted and fidgeted. When the anthem ended and they climbed off the stand, the crowd booed. Matthews twirled his medal and Collett gave a black power salute.

The I.O.C. called it a “disgusting display” and barred them.

Collett defended his actions many times. “I couldn’t stand there and sing the words because I don’t believe they’re true,” he once said, adding, “I believe we have the potential to have a beautiful country, but I don’t think we do.”

In 2002, he told The Los Angeles Times: “I love America. I just don’t think it’s lived up to its promise. I’m not anti-American at all. To suggest otherwise is to not understand the struggles of blacks in America at the time.”

With Matthews and Collett barred and Smith injured, the United States was short-handed and withdrew from the 4x400-meter relay, in which it would have been a strong favorite.

After returning from Munich, Jim Bush, Collett’s coach at U.C.L.A., defended him, telling Track & Field News, “I was disappointed in him and told him that to his face, but I love him just as much as before the Olympics.” He called Collett “the greatest athlete I ever coached.”

At the 1972 United States Olympic trials, Collett ran the fastest 400 time at sea level to that point.

At U.C.L.A., at 6 feet 2 inches and 180 pounds, he ran close to a world-record time in the 400-meter and 440-yard dashes and the 440-yard hurdles. He competed for U.C.L.A. from 1968-71, winning Pac-8 titles in the 440-yard intermediate hurdles and the 440-yard dash. He anchored three consecutive N.C.A.A. championship relay teams.

He was born on Oct. 20, 1949, in Los Angeles, where he took up track in high school.

At U.C.L.A., he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1971, an M.B.A. in 1973 and a law degree in 1977. He worked in a law practice and real estate and mortgage businesses. In 1992, he was elected to the U.C.L.A. Athletics Hall of Fame.

His survivors include his wife, Emily; his sons Aaron and Wayne II; and his mother, Ruth.


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