Willie Smith (sprinter)

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Willie Smith
Personal information
Birth nameWillie James Smith III
Nationality American
Born(1956-02-28)February 28, 1956 [1]
Rochester, Pennsylvania, U.S.
DiedNovember 7, 2020(2020-11-07) (aged 64)
Height5 ft 8 in (1.73 m)
Weight161 lb (73 kg)
Sport Running
Event(s) 400 meters
College team Auburn Tigers
Achievements and titles
Personal best(s)400m - 44.73 s (1978)

Willie James Smith III (February 28, 1956 November 7, 2020 [2] ) was an American athlete [3] who was the national champion 400 metres runner in 1979-80, and a gold medal winner at the 1984 Olympics in the 4 × 400 m relay.


College track career

Smith attended Auburn University, where he was a successful athlete for the Auburn Tigers. [4] Smith arrived at Auburn as a nationally renowned high-school sprinter from his time at Uniondale High School, New York. Track and Field News named him High School Athlete of the Year in 1974. [5] [6] [7]

Smith started his college career as a sprinter. He then switched to the longer distance of 400 m., prompted by injuries incurred in shorter sprints, and by the emergence of competition from up-and-coming sprinters like Harvey Glance. [4] Despite this, Smith was a successful enough 100 m. sprinter to be an alternate for the United States 4 × 100 m. relay team at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Having finished fifth in the 100 m. final at the United States Olympic Trials, he was placed in the third qualifying position up to 80 m. of the race. [8] [9] At his new distance of 400 m., Smith quickly achieved national success, winning two NCAA titles at the distance. [4] [10]

Internationally, Smith won a silver medal at the 1977 World Student Games at 400 m.

When he graduated in 1978, Smith received his university's top honor of Athlete of the Year. [6]

Later track career

After graduation, Smith continued as an athlete. He was twice United States National Champion at 400m., in 1979 and 1980. [11] His reward in 1979 was a place on the American team for the Pan American Games at 400 m. Here he won bronze. [12] Smith, as American No. 1 was expected to be the main rival to the great Cuban athlete Alberto Juantorena. In the end, a foot injury and a problem with a shoe, plus an inspired piece of running by his American colleague Tony Darden, meant it was Darden and not him who beat Juantorena into second. [13]

Smith finished second in the 400 m. final at the United States Olympic Trials for the 1980 Olympics. He was unable to compete due to the United States boycott of those games. A defeat of the Olympic champion Viktor Markin was little consolation. [14] Years later, he did receive one of 461 Congressional Gold Medals created especially for the spurned athletes. [15]

Smith was also a member of winning United States 4 × 400 m. relay teams in the 1979 and 1981 IAAF Athletics World Cups.

In 1983, he competed at the inaugural IAAF Athletics World Championships in the American 4 × 400 m. relay team. However, he collided with a competing Soviet Union runner on the third leg, falling, leaving the American final leg runner, the great 400 m. hurdler Ed Moses, with no chance of victory despite his valiant but vain effort to catch the leaders - the team eventually finished down the field. [16] Smith said "It was a stupid mistake. I almost quit the sport." [14]

In 1984, Smith finished sixth in the 400 m. final at the United States Olympic Trials for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics thus qualifying to be part of the 4 × 400 m. relay squad for those games. [8] The United States 4 × 400 m. relay team came first and Smith received an Olympic gold medal by virtue of having run a leg for the team in a qualifying heat and the semi-final.

In 1988, he attempted again to qualify for the Olympics, as a 32-year-old. He failed, finishing 8th in a semi-final of the 400 m. trial at the United States Olympic Trials. [8] He was reported as working then full-time as a television news director. Smith himself at the time wondered about "what makes him run" and considered the attempt at making the Olympic team like "a bad habit. It gets in your blood". [17]

In 1996, Smith attempted to compete at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics as a 40-year-old. His struggle was chronicled in the New York Times. [14] He unfortunately did not qualify, even with advice from the elder statesmen of track coaching Brooks Johnson and Mel Rosen (his old college coach). He, however, did set a master's record. [6]

Since then he has created and worked at sporting camps for young people. [18]

In 1997, Smith was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. [6]

In 2000, he was honored as one of 6 new stars in Auburn's Tiger Trail, Auburn University's replica of Hollywood's walk of fame. [19]


Track and Field News ranked Smith among the best 400 m runners in the US and the world from 1977 to 1985. [20] [21]

400 meters
YearWorld rankUS rank

USA Championships

Smith was a very successful competitor at 400 metres at the USA National Track and Field Championships between 1979 and 1983: [22]

USA Championships

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  1. Willie Smith, sports-reference.com. Retrieved July 7, 2012.
  2. "Auburn Olympian, National Champion Willie Smith Passes Away". Auburn University Athletics. Retrieved May 14, 2021.
  3. "Profile". all-athletics.com. Retrieved May 23, 2012.
  4. 1 2 3 "Smith has world's fastest clocking", Gadsden Times, May 12, 1978.
  5. "Track & Field News - The Bible Of The Sport Since 1948". Trackandfieldnews.com. Retrieved September 30, 2016.
  6. 1 2 3 4 "Willie Smith: Class of 1997", Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.
  7. T&FN High School Boys Athletes of the Year, Track and Field News.
  8. 1 2 3 The History of the United States Olympic Trials - Track & Field, R Hymans, USA Track & Field, 2008
  9. "Auburn's Smith Makes Olympics", The Tuscaloosa News, June 27, 1976.
  10. "Eleven Auburn Athletes Headed To NCAA Indoor Championships", March 7, 2006. Auburn Track and Field. Retrieved September 14, 2012.
  11. USA Outdoor Track and Field Champions, Men's 400 m, USA Track and Field.
  12. Willie Smith Biography, sports-reference.com. Retrieved September 4, 2012.
  13. "Jantorena out-kicked in Pan-Am 400 Meters", Associated Press, Observer-Reporter, Washington Pa, July 13, 1979.
  14. 1 2 3 "Smith's Race Against (Father) Time", Marc Bloom, January 31, 1996, New York Times.
  15. Caroccioli, Tom; Caroccioli, Jerry (2008). Boycott: Stolen Dreams of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. Highland Park, IL: New Chapter Press. pp. 243–253. ISBN   978-0942257403.
  16. "World Games Over", The Bryan Times, August 15, 1983.
  17. "Smith and Glance Attempting To Attain 4th Olympic Team", Nathan Huang, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, June 17, 1988.
  18. "Willie Smith offers Olympic-class Training", Robert Carter, July 3, 2009. North Jefferson Times.
  19. "Six honorees see name in downtown walk of fame", September 7, 2000, theplainsman.com. Retrieved September 10, 2012.
  20. "World Rankings Index--Men's 400 meters" (PDF). Track and Field News.
  21. "U.S. Rankings Index--Men's 400 meters" (PDF). Track and Field News.
  22. A History Of The Results Of The National Track & Field Championships Of The USA From 1876 Through 2003, Track and Field News, Retrieved June 17, 2012.
Preceded by
Craig Virgin
Track & Field News High School Boys Athlete of the Year
Succeeded by
Houston McTear