Growing up, Otis Crandall Davis knew his dreams would never allow him to stay in his native Tuscaloosa. From his youngest days he instinctively rebelled against the tight circle Alabama's inescapable traditions of segregation drew around his world. He found only one respite from the constant cruelties of Jim Crow.
"Sports. That’s all I did," Davis later said. "That’s one thing that pulled me through being in a situation like I was in the South."
It was athletic competition that proved to be his way out of Alabama and, eventually, that would lead him to Rome, Italy to compete in the 1960 Olympic Games.
Davis entered the Air Force after graduating from high school and after his discharge he moved to Los Angeles. He entered the University of Oregon in 1957 at the age of 25 on a basketball scholarship. When his playing style didn't fit the Ducks' more staid approach to the game and the coach suggested Davis try out for track. He did and found himself under the tutelage of one of the greatest coaches in the history of the sport -- Bill Bowerman.
Davis told his new coach "you'll never make a runner out of me" but Bowerman knew raw talent when he saw it. The problem was figuring out what to do with it. Davis started out in the high jump but Bowerman soon decided he would be a better sprinter. Although Davis struggled to master the technical aspects of the race his natural ability was undeniable to his teammates.
"He ran high and proud, almost too much so, his back arching as he came down the stretch, his head tipping back, as if his joy made him look to heaven," said former UO runner Kenny Moore in his book Bowerman and the Men of Oregon.
While Davis was a natural sprinter, Bowerman felt he could stand out in the 400 meter race as well. The length of the race -- a full turn around the track -- transforms the 400 from a regular sprint into a brutal battle against fatigue. It is won, Moore wrote, "by the athlete who slows down least." The Oregon coach taught Davis to "float" down the backstretch -- holding his form and pace without an absolute effort -- then bursting into an all-out sprint for the final 100 yards.
When Davis beat the University of Washington's Terry Tobacco in a dual-meet race in 1959 using Bowerman's strategy, the Oregon coach realized exactly what this Alabamian could accomplish.
"Oat, we got something else for you to do," Bowerman told Davis the next day. "It might be you have a date with destiny in a place called Rome."
Davis could only wonder what he had gotten himself into.
The 1960 Olympic Games in Rome were one of the first ever commercially televised and interest in them was correspondingly high. The Cold War created a political backdrop to the competition that whetted the attention of the world even further. And the prominence of black athletes on the United States team stood in stark contrast to the news of racially-charged confrontations across the South as the civil rights movement began to gain momentum.
Out of this emerged some of the most compelling stories in the history of the modern Olympics: Cassius Clay dramatically won the Gold in boxing effectively launching his career, sprinter Wilma Rudolph from Tennessee State University dominating the competition and earning three Gold medals and Otis Davis took on two of the fastest men in the world, South Africa's Malcom Spence and West German runner Carl Kaufmann (the athletes from West Germany and East Germany competed as one team in Rome).
The 400 meter event was expected to be tightly contested. South Africa's Malcolm Spence had been considered a favorite to win it but had injured his Achilles tendon two weeks before the games and was enduring a battery of pain killing injections before every race. Kaufmann had not been beaten in more than two years and earlier in the summer he had set the European record in the event (45.4 seconds). Also running was Milkha Singh of India whose electrifying success on the track had led the press to dub him "The Flying Sikh."
Davis, meanwhile, had barely qualified for the US team with a third-place finish in the Olympic trials. His age, 28, and relative of experience -- he only competed in the 400 meters nine times before Rome -- prompted most to consider him a longshot. Sports Illustrated was skeptical saying he didn't have a sense of pace. Yet in the summer prior to the Rome games Davis had been improving. Bowerman told Davis he believed a time of 45 seconds flat -- good enough for the world record -- was possible.
At 3:20 p.m. in the afternoon of Sept. 6, 1960 the six finalists in the men's 400 meter dash were in in their starting blocks of the clay track at Stadio Olimpico. Interest in the event was at a fever pitch after the heavily favored American sprinters had been dramatically upset in the 100 meter dash by German Armin Hary. Davis and Kaufmann were touted as a rematch. The excitement of the crowd was palpable.
At the sound of the starter's pistol, Sing and Spence jumped out to the lead. Davis, who was known for his slower starts, held back. By the first turn the leading pair were a half-second ahead of the field but Davis was determined it wouldn't last.
"I swore if they were going to win this they were going to come over me to do it," Davis later said. "I ran on that emotion. I put everything into it. I moved at the top of the turn."
With slightly less than half the race to go, Davis made his move. He blew by the two lead runners in the turn but Kaufmann was right behind him. As he watched from the stands, Bowerman became concerned that Davis had accelerated too early. Sure enough, the German runner completely closed the gap with Davis as the pair entered the straightaway.
The final 100 yards of the race was a one-on-one duel between Davis and Kaufmann. A half-step behind, the German dove for the finish line and actually bit the tape with his mouth as he fell face-first on the track.
The entire stadium went silent. Is was clear Spence had taken the Bronze but they waited to hear the winner of hard-fought race. They would wait a quarter hour as officials pored over the the now-famous photograph to determine the outcome. The runners for the next event, the 1,500 meters, were forced to stand by including US runner Jim Grelle, another University of Oregon athlete. Finally the announcer began reading off the final results.
"And they go through fifth place, fourth place, third place... and there's a long pause. Then 'In second place, from West Germany...' So you knew," Grelle recalled.
The result was joyful pandemonium. The response from the crowd was so loud the rest of the results were inaudible. Davis "leaped high in the air, danced crazily a moment, then wept copiously," Sports Illustrated wrote. Recovering his composure, Davis shook the hand of Kaufmann, Singh and then one of the officials. Before leaving the track Davis made it a point to thank the Sports Illustrated reporter for the magazine's part in helping motivate him to win the race.
Both Davis and Kaufmann were awarded 44.9 second final time but Davis was credited with besting his rival a bare one-hundredth of a second. Not only had the duo had both broken the four-year-old world record (45.2 seconds) they had both breached the long-sought 45-second mark in doing so.
"Something was pushing me out there," Davis later said. "And it wasn't the wind."
Davis and Kaufmann would meet again in the 4 X 400 meter relay as both men anchored their national teams. And again, the American would get the better of his German counterpart. Davis got the handoff for the final 400 meters of the race with a crucial four yard advantage over Kaufmann. He now knew to respect the German's closing burst so his strategy was to nullify that edge.
"I accelerated a little to make Kaufmann use his strength to catch me, then I floated," Davis said. "When he came up again, I'd accelerate, then float again. I figured he'd use use up his power trying to catch me each time, then I'd turn on the kick and walk away."
It worked. The USA team claimed the gold with a world-record time of 3:02.2. The silver-medal German team was a full five-tenths of a second behind but also besting the eight-year-old record (3:04.04). The medal winner's podium in Rome's Stadio Olimpico was a world away from Tuscaloosa, Alabama but Otis Davis had completed the journey. He had run a total of seven races at the games -- including for qualification and finals -- and never finished anything less than first.
"I didn't even know if I could win one gold medal," he told the Eugene Register-Guard. "And there I was standing with two of them."
If you would like to learn more about Otis Davis' remarkable career and his phenomenal performance in the 1960 Olympics, his story is included in two books; Kenny Moore's biography of Bill Bowerman, Bowerman and the Men of Oregon and David Maraniss' book on the games Rome 1960: The Summer Olympics that Changed the World. I have drawn heavily from both for this account.
Davis also has a personal website that includes a great deal of information about him (be warned, it has an automatic audio when you visit it). Lastly, a video interview with Davis where he speaks at some length on growing up in Tuscaloosa and his experiences with racism and segregation was posted earlier this year.