Otis Davis

Otis Davis
University of Oregon Track and Field

Otis Davis honored at Oregon, 60 years after Olympic titles

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When Otis Davis visited his alma mater, the University of Oregon, over the weekend, the place he best recognized was his old dormitory.

Davis was a small-forward-sized guard on the basketball team in 1958, when he peered out of a third-floor window and saw two men doing laps at Hayward Field.

“To me, they looked slow. But they were distance runners, and they were running on pace,” Davis, 88, said by phone Saturday morning. “I said, I could beat those guys. That’s when I went to see Coach Bowerman.”

Davis, who served four years in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War before enrolling at Oregon, approached the soon-to-become legendary coach — Bill Bowerman — and asked if he could join the track team.

“[Bowerman] said, ‘What do you do?'” Davis remembered. “I said, ‘What do you need?’ I’m so glad he didn’t say pole vault.”

Two years later, Davis won the Olympic 400m title in world-record time in Rome. Sunday marked the 60th anniversary of that final and an indelible photo finish between Davis and silver medalist Carl Kaufmann of Germany, who was given the same time of 44.9 seconds.

Davis was honored at Oregon in conjunction with the anniversary. He visited the remodeled Hayward Field, which includes a 10-story tower with individual floors honoring the track and field program’s eight Olympic champions. Davis was the first.

The exterior of the tower depicts five icons from the program’s history, one of which is Davis, along with Bowerman and an unnamed athlete.

“First of all, I said, who is that handsome guy?” Davis joked upon seeing his image, speaking in a video released by the Oregon track and field program. “I didn’t know I looked that good. I’m just glad they thought of me that way, putting me up there.”

Back in 1960, Davis said that he was still learning lane-running tactics when he arrived in the Italian capital for the Games. But one key thing he knew — when crossing the finish line, it’s the chest that counts and not one’s hands or head.

That’s why he knew he had beaten Kaufmann, whom he saw in his peripheral vision as they finished together. The German was hitting the line with his mouth.

“I was breaking the tape with my torso,” Davis said.

Otis Davis
University of Oregon Track and Field

Davis won another gold medal with the 4x400m relay, also in a world record (one of his two golds was later stolen). He retired in 1961.

“I didn’t figure I could do anything else, and I had to go to work,” he said. “They didn’t pay any money [for track] or anything.”

He later moved to New Jersey and worked as a teacher, guidance counselor and mentor.

Davis reflected while sitting inside the new Hayward Field about everything he overcame to become a champion on and off the track.

He was born in Tuscaloosa, Ala., near the University of Alabama, which did not desegregate until after Davis enrolled at Oregon and won his Olympic gold medals.

“Psychologically, I’m telling you, I thought I was running away from all of that negative stuff,” Davis said. “People saying that you weren’t as good as they were because they didn’t even know you, because you might look different from them, which is totally absurd, and that’s what the problems we’re having now.

“I was working against all of that bitterness and the hatred and the second-class citizenship.”

When Davis first joined the Oregon track team, he was a high jumper. He also did the long jump and ran the 100 yards before settling into the 400m, where he was third at the 1960 Olympic Trials.

“They said, oh, he’s a natural,” Davis said, “but even a natural has to learn how to run.”

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