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Olympic Moments: Lacey O’Neal

Where does life take you after you’ve experienced Olympic glory? These past Olympians look back—and ahead.

Photograph by Christopher Leaman.
In 1973 O’Neal traveled the world with the International Track Association. Photograph from 1973 courtesy of Lacey O’Neal.

Lacey O’Neal
Track and field
Olympian in 1964 and 1972
Semifinals, 1964 and 1972

Two days after Palestinian gunmen killed 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team at the 1972 Munich games, Lacey O’Neal walked to the start of the 100-meter-hurdle semifinal. An Israeli friend, Esther Roth, was supposed to be in the next lane but was missing. O’Neal cried as she approached the blocks. She didn’t know that Roth had been sent home; O’Neal assumed her friend was among the dead. “I thought the Games should have been stopped,” she says.

Even before the Munich massacre, O’Neal’s athletic career spanned a contentious period of history. As a black female runner in the 1950s and ’60s, she says, she was called names.

She retired from track after the ’64 Games to work in race relations. She traveled with other athletes and public figures as part of Operation Champ—a government-sponsored initiative to help promote fellowship between blacks and whites in riot-torn Southern cities.

She spoke openly against a boycott of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, which some African-American athletes were proposing in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. She believes the Olympics should be a pure, friendly competition.

After the ’72 Games, she competed with the International Track Association, then coached at the University of Florida. Later, she returned to diplomacy, working for the State Department supporting the US embassies in Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso, then joining the Peace Corps and living in Gambia. She has lived in Washington on and off since the 1960s.

“With all the jobs I’ve had,” she says, “there’s a line tying them together, and that’s one of service.”

Read more Olympic Moments.

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