Inside The Vault | Alice Coachman’s historic Olympic medal

Inside The Vault’ looks back at moments in history which shook the sporting landscape.

In this entry, we look back at American athlete Alice Coachman’s historic achievement at the 1948 Olympics in London…


On this day in 1948, Alice Coachman became the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal.

The American athlete won gold in the high jump at the London Games 71 years ago today.

Coachman pipped Britain’s Dorothy Tyler to first place, setting a new Olympic record (5 feet, 6 and 1/8 inches) in the process.

Tyler actually matched Coachman’s height, but did it on her second try, whereas it took Coachman just one attempt, thus winning her the gold medal.

The fact that she reportedly had a back injury makes Coachman’s achievement even more impressive.

A crowd of 82,000 witnessed the historic event, and King George VI presented Coachman with her gold medal.

President Harry S. Truman would also welcome her to the White House to offer his congratulations.

There was a celebratory parade in Coachman’s hometown of Albany, Georgia, though segregation was enforced at the event.

In a repeat of Adolf Hitler’s infamous moment with Jesse Owens 12 years earlier, the Mayor of Albany did not shake Coachman’s hand when congratulating her.

“We had segregation, but it wasn’t any problem for me because I had won,” she later told The Telegraph. “That was up to them, whether they accepted it or not.”

Coachman had enjoyed a stellar career before the 1948 Olympics; winning 23 gold, four silver and two bronze medals in the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) of the United States while she was an undergrad at the Tuskegee Institute. 

The Albany native touched down in London in ’48 as the national champion in the 50- and 100-meter races, 400-meter relay and high jump.

Her achievements in track and field – and particularly in London – would later see her honoured as one of the 100 greatest Olympians in history at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

Unfortunately, Coachman never had the opportunity to defend her title, or to compete in another Olympic Games.

The outbreak of World War II meant that the 1940 and 1944 Olympics were cancelled.

After her triumph in London, Coachman returned to the USA to finish her degree at Albany State, and later became a teacher.

Despite her retirement, she made more history in 1952 when she became the first African American to earn an endorsement deal after becoming a spokesperson for Coca-Cola.

She also founded the Alice Coachman Track and Field Foundation to help support younger athletes. 

Since her retirement, Coachman has been inducted into a staggering nine halls of fame, including the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame (2004) and the National Track & Field Hall of Fame (1975).

Alice passed away in 2014 at the age of 90 in her home state of Georgia.