As we mark over 30 years of Black History Month, we take a trip down memory lane, celebrating the great athletic talent that paved the way for black representation in sports. Whilst today, we can’t begin to imagine golf without the legendary Tiger Woods, or track and field races without the prolific and exceptional Usain Bolt, it’s easy to forget a time where black athletic talent was never so present and popular on our screens, playing fields and race tracks.
Fortunately, credit to the vast achievements of our past black athletic talent, the sporting world is now a much more diverse place, more accepting of equality than it has ever been. Sporting talent is now inclusive, thanks to the trailblazers who triumphed over oppression. Today, we shine the spotlight on some of our favourite and most historical sporting heroes from then to now, as we recognise the exceptional athletes that changed sports forever for the better.
John Baxter Taylor Jr. Born into a history of slavery, life-long athlete, John Baxter Taylor Jr., was the first African American to win an Olympic gold medal. Performing the 400m in the third leg of the 1908 Summer Olympics in London, Taylor’s ultimate victory followed years of dedication and commitment to his chosen sport. A young student, Taylor was the captain of his high-school track team before joining Penn as an official athlete in 1903. His contributions to the team over the six years running for Penn saw him win and succeed in many races and eventually led him to the prestigious Olympic games. In an unfortunate case of Typhoid Fever, Taylor sadly passed away just aged 26, less than five months after his Olympic achievement. To date, he is regarded one of the most historical African American athletes of all time.
Wilma Rudolph Hailed by the Russians as the “Queen of Olympics”, Wilma Rudolph overcame childhood illness and physical disability to become a world-record-holding Olympic champion. Following a severe case of polio aged just four years old, Rudolph was left wearing a leg brace for many years afterwards. However, she was determined to achieve the ultimate sporting success and overcame her struggles with ill-health to find her way into the Olympic games. Rudolph was the first African American woman to ever win three gold medals in one Olympic event, becoming an international sports icon of whom we will fondly remember forever.
Althea Gibson Many years before we were introduced to the incredible talent of Serena Williams, Althea Gibson made headlines for becoming one of the first black athletes to cross the colour of international tennis. Winning some of the sport’s biggest and most prolific titles in the 1950’s, Althea quickly became the first black tennis champion in the world. Always determined for athletic achievement, Althea was destined for victory and in 1965, she won the French Open, before going on to secure the winning title for Wimbledon. Keen to explore sport beyond the tennis court, in 1963, the iconic tennis legend became the first black golfer in the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA). Despite playing an incredible 171 golfing events in just 14 years, Althea was never truly appreciated for her golfing abilities and as such, is remembered and celebrated for her achievements and successes within Olympic tennis.
Florence Griffith Joyner To this day, Florence Griffith Joyner (most referenced to as Flo-Jo) remains the fastest runner in the world, unbeaten by any other sprinter to take the Olympic games since. Born into a family of ten other children, Flo-Jo discovered her talent and skill for athletic sprinting in her early years, winning the Jesse Owens National Youth Games for two consecutive years, whilst still at high-school. Driven by a passion for sport, alongside other interests including fashion and pop culture, Flo-Jo certainly made an entrance when she first qualified for the Olympic games in 1980. Flo-Jo sadly passed away just two years shy from her 40th birthday, but is celebrated and remembered for not only her incredible contribution to athletics, but also her flair for creative fashion and her confidence to pursue several other career opportunities following her retirement from sport.
Muhammed Ali Never one to hide his imperfections, the iconic and often controversial, Muhammed Ali, was often a spectacle for media attention, though not always for celebratory reasons. It could be said that no man in the history of sport has ever touched so many lives as Muhammed Ali has done, and he is remembered and mourned even by those who never knew him at the very prime of his career. A true sports icon and legendary Olympic figure, Muhammed Ali is recognised not specifically for being the talented and skilful heavyweight champion he always was, but also for his authenticity and bravery to admit to his mistakes, live a life worth living and for the joy he brought to his many adorning and loyal fans.
Serena Williams With a record of 22 singles and 14 doubles titles in Grand Slam events, alongside four Olympic gold medals to her name, Serena Williams is justifiably one of the greatest women’s tennis players of all time. An advocate for body positivity, feminism and female empowerment, Serena Williams is an international sporting treasure who stands to represent those actively trying to find a voice. Proud, determined and radiating with talent, positivity and confidence, she is an influential and inspiring role model to all, continually championing for the rights of equality and acceptance. Admired by fans and followed by girls who will one day become women – she has truly secured a place in the hearts of so many who wish to follow in her footsteps.
Tiger Woods Golfing, perhaps more than any other sport, has received its unfair share of racism throughout the years and Tiger Woods, our most favourite golfing hero of all time, has been subject to many inflammatory and racist remarks throughout his remarkable career. Undeterred by the deep-rooted racism that comes attached to the sport, Woods has continued to dedicate his life to golfing and is widely regarded as one of the greatest athletes in the world. Always the headliner, Woods is just one of four African American players, out of an approximate 260 regulars on the PGA tour, and in 2021, he will be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, for his inspiring contribution to a sport that still desperately needs more representation of black athletic talent.
Simone Biles Simone Biles is the most decorated American gymnast of all time, with 30 Olympic and World Championship medals to her name. At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Biles won individual gold medals in all-around, vault and floor; bronze in balance beam; and gold as part of the United States team, dubbed the ‘Final Five’. However, Biles has had no easy start in life and has had to overcome difficult childhood obstacles in her pursuit to Olympic success. Born to a drug-addicted mother, she and her three siblings were left in the hands of the American foster care system from a young age and today, she advocates for the children who are now living through the same experience. A motivational speaker, Biles travels the globe, encouraging and inspiring others to work hard and achieve the lifelong goals that really mean something to them.