Milt Campbell, First Black Olympic Decathlon Winner, Dies

Milt Campbell, the first black Olympic decathlon winner, has died at 78.

Linda Rusch, Campbell’s partner of 13 years, said he passed away in his Gainesville home Friday. He had been battling prostate cancer for a decade.

Rusch told the Associated Press, “He was extremely disciplined. He had huge passion. For you to win the gold you have to be so self-motivated and so self-disciplined. And you have to have a very strong mind.”

The Plainfield, New Jersey native won the silver medal in the decathlon at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki when he was just 18 years old. Bob Mathias, who became the first person to compete in the Olympics and the Rose Bowl during the same year, took the gold.

Four years later, Campbell won the gold at the Olympic games in Melbourne, Australia.

Campbell initially hoped to qualify for the Olympic team as a hurdler, but finished fourth during tryouts.

In The Complete Book of the Summer Olympics by David Wallechinsky, Campbell said, “I was stunned. But then God seemed to reach into my heart and tell me he didn’t want me to compete in the hurdles, but in the decathlon.”


Campbell, who was 6-foot-3 and 217 pounds, was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in 1957. He played there for one season alongside Jim Brown. He then played for several teams in the Canadian Football League.

Campbell was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1999. He was also honored this year by the International Swimming Hall of Fame. He was also inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame in June of this year. Michael Douglas, author Joyce Carol Oates, and late New York Giants owner Wellington Mara were also inducted.

The U.S.A. Track & Field organization said in a news release, “Campbell will forever be known as the first African American to win a gold medal in the decathlon and one of the greatest all-around male athletes in history.”

Campbell was a member of the Black Athletes’ Hall of the Fame and the US Olympic Hall of Fame.