(28 June 1922, Panama City, Panama - 17 February 1999, New York City), Track and Field, 1946
Lloyd LaBeach traveled from the isthmus of Panama to the isthmus of Madison and became the second black Badger to win Olympic medals. Although he only competed in one season for the University of Wisconsin, he was a one-man team for the Badgers in 1946, and ended his short career as one of the most successful and decorated track athletes in UW history.
Born in Panama City, Panama, in 1922, LaBeach was the son of Jamaican immigrants. His parents had moved to Panama in the early twentieth century where his father found work during the construction of the Panama Canal. The family stayed in their new country after the completion of the project and operated a successful taxi business.
During the late 1920s the family returned to Jamaica to start a similar cab company, and LaBeach first attracted notice for his sprinting and athletic ability. Attending Kingston's Tutorial College - comparable to an American prep school - LaBeach captained the school track team, set several island records, and represented Jamaica in regional track carnivals.
After completing his secondary education, he earned an athletic scholarship to the University of Wisconsin and enrolled in the Agricultural School. LaBeach arrived on campus as a freshman in the 1945-46 school year, and veteran track coach Tom Jones predicted that he "was destined to become one of the Badger all-time greats and possibly one of the nation's top performers." Coach Jones and UW fans would not be disappointed.
In the spring of 1946, LaBeach set University of Wisconsin records in the broad jump, the 100-yard dash, and the 220-yard dash, in leading the Badgers to victories over Marquette, Iowa, and Northwestern. At the Drake Relays he captured first place in the broad jump, and, at the Big Ten championships in Chicago, he won the 100-yard dash and finished second in both the 220-yard dash and the broad jump. He repeated all three performances at the Central Collegiate Championships as UW finished second in the region.
A few weeks later at the NCAA championship meet in Minneapolis, LaBeach captured sixth place in the broad jump and finished second in both the 100-yard and 220-yard dashes. His performances earned 17 of UW's 18 3/4 points, as the Wisconsin team finished fifth in the country. In honor of his accomplishments, the Badger yearbook staff called "the sensational Jamaican sprinter and jumper... perhaps the greatest track star ever to perform in Cardinal toggery."
After the collegiate season, LaBeach experienced a taste of the peculiar nature of race relations in the United States. The Amateur Athletic Union scheduled its 59th Annual Outdoor National Championships for San Antonio in July. Because of Texas' strict color line, the selection of San Antonio was controversial, and some African-American leaders called for a boycott of the event. LaBeach, however, like most other star track performers, opted to participate. The black competitors were shielded from the worst aspects of Jim Crow when Valmo Bellinger, a well-to-do African-American publisher from San Antonio, bankrolled their "separate" accommodations and provided lavish lodging and dining arrangements.
LaBeach finished in second place in the 200-meter run at the AAU national championships. Black sportswriter Dan Burley predicted that "the experience of white southerners... seeing model Negro athletes in competition against the flower of white manhood on Jim Crow southern soil... is bound to bear fruit." The forces of equal opportunity did score one small victory over discrimination at the meet: "the stands were roped off for separation of the races," one observer noted, "but little heed was paid this 'Division Line;' the white sitting in the colored section promiscuously and vice versa."
The "Jamaican Flash" returned to Madison for the 1946-47 school year, but, after taking time off in the fall to compete in a Caribbean regional track event, he ran into trouble in the classroom and was declared academically ineligible in February. He dropped out of the UW soon after and moved to California, where he took UCLA Extension classes and trained with legendary Bruin track Coach Elvin Drake.
LaBeach enjoyed a record-breaking season on the West Coast in preparation for the 1948 Olympic Games. At the Long Beach Relays, he tied the world record in the 100-meter sprint; and, at the Compton Invitational Track and Field Meet, he broke the world's record for the 200-meter run.
In May, he traveled to London, under the tutelage of UCLA Coach Drake, and represented his native country at the games of the XIV Olympiad. Time magazine called him "Panama's one-man Olympic team," and, once again, he did not disappoint his fans. LaBeach made the finals of both of his short sprint specialties, and he captured bronze medals in the 100-meter and 200-meter dashes. His two medals were the first by a Panamanian athlete - and the country's only medals until Irving Saladino's gold medal in the long jump at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. LaBeach was also the first black Badger to capture Olympic medals since George Poage had also won two bronze medals at the 1904 games.
A national hero in Panama, his countrymen greeted LaBeach with parades and banquets when he returned from London. He also received the country's highest honor and most prestigious award, the Order of Vazco Nunez de Balboa, from the Panamanian government in recognition of his achievements.
After the Olympics, LaBeach was rumored to be considering re-enrolling at the University of Wisconsin, but he chose instead to return to Los Angeles and enter Loyola University where he studied marketing and business management. He turned pro in 1951, and continued to compete sporadically on the track before retiring at the end of the decade.
LaBeach received American citizenship in 1951 and worked in the dairy industry splitting his time between Jamaica and southern California. In 1965, he was named the Managing Director of Foremost Dairies (Nigeria) a subsidiary of Foremost Dairies, Inc., of San Francisco, and he relocated to Lagos to manage one of that country's largest dairies. In 1999, he died of a stroke in New York City.
After his death, his body was interred at the National Sanctuary of Panama in Panama City, and, in 2008, he was posthumously elected to the Central American and Caribbean Athletics Confederation Hall of Fame.
Video - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ykNrODgFd_k
Watch Lloyd LaBeach capture third place in the 100-meter run and win a bronze medal in this youtube clip from the official film of the 1948 Olympics. LaBeach, wearing number 57, races in lane 4 (third lane from the bottom). Gold medal winner Harrison Dillard wears number 69 and runs in lane 1 (topmost lane); and silver medalist Barney Ewell wears number 70 and runs in lane 5 (the second lane from the bottom). After the photo-finish, Ewell (in lane 5) thinks he has won the race and begins to celebrate, but, in actuality, Dillard (in lane 1) had captured the gold.
Gregory Bond, Ph.D. History
University of Wisconsin-Madison