African-American athletes have a storied history in the Olympic Games. Consider that in the 1908 Summer Olympics, only one black athlete was able to take gold representing a country that did not offer civil liberties and segregation from the rest of society.
Fast forward to 2012, and 21 black athletes, and three teams featuring black athletes, won gold medals in the London Summer Olympics. They represented a country led by a black president and in the midst of sweeping social change.
With this year’s Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro beginning Friday, let’s take a look at what has led to such significant progress in the history of African-Americans in the Olympics.
The first African-American to compete in the Olympics was John Taylor in 1908. Not only did Taylor compete, but he became the first black athlete to win gold for the United States, in the 1600-meter medley relay. He marked the beginning of the dominance black sprinters have had on USA Track and Field teams: ALL of the medaling sprinters (400 meters or less, relays included) for Team USA in London were black. All of them. Quite an amazing feat.
After John Taylor’s groundbreaking performance near the turn of the century, the next major event in the history of the black Olympian was in 1936, when 18 black athletes traveled to the heart of Nazi Germany to compete in the Summer Olympics. Headlined by four-time gold medalist Jesse Owens, this group continues to be a source of great pride for African-Americans, inspiring us with their bravery in the face of bigotry, and their great performances. Black athletes took home eight gold medals, and won the hearts of many young black athletes back home at the time. The impact of the successes of Owens was still felt by German citizens years later when in 1984 the main boulevard leading to the stadium was renamed for Jesse Owens.
But neither the achievements of Owens nor Taylor earn the title of most iconic moment for the African-American Olympian. The winners?
(Caption) Smith and Carlos raise their fists in a black power salute. Carlos, right, actually forgot to bring his pair of gloves to the race.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos, for their historic yet simple protest after winning gold and bronze in the 200 meters during the 1968 Olympics. Although these men were just taking a stand against the unjust treatment of their people, they were vilified for their actions. They were removed from the U.S. team, sent death threats and berated in the media. The third man on the podium, an Australian, supported their protest, when millions of those represented by these athletes in red, white, and blue would not.
These stories provide a snapshot of the struggles and successes the African-American Olympian has encountered in history. There are so many more stories that complete the picture: Muhammad Ali, famed boxer and outspoken activist, dominated the field on his way to gold during the 1960 Olympics; Gabby Douglas became the first black gymnast to capture the all-around gold during the 2012 games. The list goes on and on. By the end of this summer, we will surely have some names to add to it.
(Sope Eweje, hails from North Carolina, where basketball is king. He is a student at MIT, and is studying bio-mechanical engineering. You can contact him on Facebook (Basically Basketball) and Twitter (@basicallybball).