The real-life story of the Watts Junior Summer Olympics of the 1970s and early ‘80s is all but lost to the average Angeleno, but not to Clarence Mackey III. The games were more than just a youth-sports confab. Treasured events organized by Mackey’s father, the late Clarence Mackey Jr., the “Watts Olympics” were an all-out effort to athletically train, individually elevate and collectively edify youngsters in Watts and South Los Angeles.
“There have been events that have tried to resurrect the same or similar names as the annual events my dad made happen year after year, but compared to the heyday of those first games, nothing compares,” Mackey told Los Angeles.
“My dad was all about getting young kids in the community everything they needed to have real, Olympics-style sporting events. He focused on teaching sportsmanship. If a kid could recite Brayley’s ‘Prayer of a Sportsman,’ she would get a transistor radio; and those were the smartphones of the day.”
Burton Brayley’s “Prayer of a Sportsman,” contain versus notable not just for their magnanimous spirit, but also for their contemporary, post-Trumpian relevance:
…may my shouts be ungrudging and clear,
A tribute that comes from the heart,
And let me not cherish a snarl or a sneer
Or play any sniveling part;
Let me say, “There they ride, on whom laurel’s bestowed
Since they played the game better than I.”
Let me stand with a smile by the side of the road,
And cheer as the winners go by…
Mackey is currently working on a book about his multi-talented father. Coach Mackey, as the elder man was known, knew that financial support through major corporate sponsorship would be key to the games’ success.
“By having Coca-Cola as the main corporate sponsor, he was able to make the games a first-class event that went on for several days, not just one or two days like some of the later incarnations that claim a legacy connected to the original ‘Watts Olympics,” Mackey’s son explained.
Star Player Betrayed
Long before he organized the Watts games, Mackey had been a star UCLA football player in the early 1940s. But his chance to play in the Bruins’ big, highly anticipated, end-of-season away game against the University of Florida was quashed by racism and a failure of courage among the 1941 Bruins football team, according to his son. UCLA did not reply to requests for comment about that history prior to publication of this article.
Eight years younger than legendary and near-mythical 1936 Olympic track-and-field gold medalist, Jessie Owens, Clarence Mackey Jr. was nearly as fast as Owens. He clocked in at just two-tenths of a second slower than the world record Owens set in the 100-yard dash. Some in the press dubbed him, “the UCLA Flash.”
“He was a walk-on,” says the younger Mackey. “The Bruins coaches had to let him play because he made five 50-yard touchdowns in a row during tryouts. But when they put him on the team, they made my dad promise not to make a big deal about being excluded from the big Florida game.”
Mackey’s coaches knew the University of Florida players would not go onto the field to play against a team that included a Black opponent. Nevertheless, as the big away game approached, pressure swelled to keep Mackey on the UCLA roster against Florida.
“So the players took a vote,” Mackey’s son explains. “But there was only one ‘yes’ vote. It was my dad’s own vote.”
Mackey’s performance throughout the season had been stellar, just like that day at tryouts. Future Football Hall of Fame inductee, Bob Waterfield was one of Mackey’s teammates. Like the others, Waterfield failed to overcome his fear that facing down the University of Florida’s racist, whites-only policy would risk losing the chance to play their collegiate rivals on the other side of the country.
While that same anxiety may have been a primary force driving all of the UCLA players to turn their backs on their Black teammate, it was almost certainly not the only one. One need not look just to the American South to find racial prejudice. There was, and still is, plenty of homegrown racism in and around the City of Angels. UCLA wasn’t immune to it then; and is not now.
“When Bob Waterfield reached out to my dad after they all voted against him offering him some kind of gesture or consoling, Waterfield was called ‘n—er lover’ by the other guys on the team.”
At a UCLA reunion, according to Mackey’s obituary, the former halfback and running back, turned his back on those who, decades before, had done the same to him for racist reasons.
Mackey left the Bruins the following year. No one can say how much or whether at all something that had taken place inside UCLA’s Royce Hall just a few weeks before the Florida game may have heightened the sense of betrayal he felt. Students had gathered inside the famous campus auditorium the day after the football season’s other big game: the timeless crosstown match-up between the Bruins and USC’s Trojans. Mackey had been the game’s lauded “co-player,” akin to today’s MVP.
“It was December 7, 1941,” his son explained during a recent phone interview with Los Angeles. “As these students and student-athletes gathered at Royce Hall to hear a broadcast of President Roosevelt’s famous ‘Day that will live in infamy’ speech about how the United States would respond to the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, they heard rousing applause from members of congress. But inside Royce Hall you could hear a pin drop.”
Mackey among them, the assembled UCLA students understood they’d be the ones fighting a world war.
Earlier that year, in October of 1941, Mackey had been described by a newspaper in far-off Chicago as a “hero for UCLA” because of his deftness and speed on the field. Just a little over two-and-a-half months later and three weeks after Roosevelt’s speech, Mackey was cast aside by his own teammates who went to play Florida with the burgeoning of World War II already happening.
A Coach is Born
Many decades after the heady days of 1941, with a brief semi-professional football career that followed his departure from UCLA now long past, Jordan High School’s “Coach Mackey” was a new kind of hero—the kind of hero who shaped young, “inner-city” kids into serious, world-class athletes.
“I’d say the early ‘70s was probably the heyday of the Watts Olympics,” Clarence Mackey III reflects. “My dad had already trained athletes like Earline Brown, who represented the U.S. and won the bronze for shot put in the 1960 Rome Olympics, and two gold medals in the Pan American Games.”
According to The Black Sportswoman, Brown not only “became the first U.S. woman to win a medal in shot put at an Olympic Games,” but Coach Mackey’s acolyte also remained the only American woman to win a medal for shot put for the next five decades.
Coaching several sports, including football at Jordan High School in Watts, Mackey had also trained George Brown, whose failure to qualify during trials for long jump at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics belied his unbeaten world record.
“There was a Life Magazine cover of George Brown showing him fouling out at the Olympics in 1952,” the younger Mackey recalled.
Despite his unusually (for him) poor performance at Helsinki, with Clarence Mackey’s training under his belt, George Brown — no relation to Earline, according to the younger Mackey — remained the world’s number-one long jumper that year and the next—just as he’d done in 1951.
“My dad brought an international, Olympic standard of training to the local games. He guided these young kids to understand that they were important and with effort they could win. But more importantly, he showed them that that rather than winning at all costs, they could gain recognition and be respected participants.”
Winds of Change, Crystallizing of Values
The Watts Olympics came to be seen as too risky to hold in the 1980s because of neighborhood violence caused by the dumping of rock, also called crack, cocaine into historically Black and Latinx L.A. neighborhoods.
Asked what was his dad would think of the current moment in race relations and community participation in Los Angeles and beyond, Mackey’s son is circumspect.
“The concentration should be on the young kids,” he says. “My dad used to say that if it’s too late to change the older minds, you can start anew with the young ones.”
In 2008, the Riverside African American Historical Society honored Clarence C. Mackey Jr. with a prestigious community award, the Unsung Hero “Love You” Trophy. The Mackey family’s roots in the Inland Empire trace back to the founding of San Bernardino by settlers that included the elder Mackey’s great-great grandmother.
But that’s not why the historical society lionized him in 2008. In the spirit of Mackey’s belief in the power and value of good sportsmanship over boisterous victory, organizers of that year’s awards ceremony summarized his life of service this way: “Clarence C. Mackey, widely known as Coach Mackey, is a community advocate and youth mentor. He was coach and recreation director at Jordan High School in Los Angeles for forty-one years. He founded the Watts Summer Junior Olympics in 1972. The Mackey family owned a produce farm on Rubidoux Blvd. for 52 years where he was able to donate contributions of produce to the Rubidoux High Booster Club.”
Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.