Since the beginning of the first Olympic Games in Athens, Greece in 1896, the gathering of the world’s leading athletes has become a global event. But with historic discrimination and fewer elite training opportunities, black athletes have faced immense challenges to compete. However, from the beginning of the 20and century, African-American athletes began to compete in the Games and break records.
Although Olympians like Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis and Simon Biles are household names, many African American athletes have broken down barriers at the Winter and Summer Games. Below are six Black American Olympian pioneers.
1. John BaxterTaylor
John Baxter Taylor, a student and runner at the University of Pennsylvania, became Doctor Taylor, a veterinarian, in 1908, the same summer he competed in the London Games. “He had a sharp business manner of covering ground, with a stride length rarely seen today, which was firmly imprinted in the mind,” wrote the Pittsburgh Mail.
Taylor was the first African-American athlete to win an Olympic gold medal, triumphing in the 1600 meter relay race at the 1908 Games. Tragically, London’s wet and cold climate took its toll on the body of the 25 year old young woman. While abroad, he developed a case of typhoid pneumonia so severe that it proved fatal just months after the Olympics.
“Hundreds came to honor him from the University of Pennsylvania, his alma mater, as one of the world’s greatest athletes was laid to rest,” wrote the Tribute to Philadelphiaabout the funeral held at the home of Taylor’s parents who lived near the college stadium.
2. Alice Check
Born in Albany, Georgia in 1923, Alice Coachman was one of 10 children and a sports prodigy from an early age. As an African American, she could neither train at local training facilities like gymnasiums or tracks, nor compete in local competitions, due to Jim Crow segregation laws in the South. Instead, she tied rags, ropes and sticks together in a field near her home and practiced her high jump for hours.
In 1939, at age 16, while a high school student, Coachman broke the national high jump record. She remained the U.S. high jump champion for 10 consecutive years. But when World War II broke out, the 1940 and 1944 Games were cancelled. When the Olympics resumed in London in 1948, Coachman jumped 5 feet and 6 ⅛ inches, setting a new Olympic record. At 25, Coachman became the first black woman in the world to win Olympic gold.
3. Wilma Rodolphe
At the age of 20, Wilma Rudolph of Tennessee was the fastest woman in the world. She had won a bronze medal and three gold medals, including the 100 meters at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Italy. But for his family, the fact that Rudolph could walk, let alone run, was the greatest miracle.
When he was born in 1940 in the St. Bethlehem section of Clarksville, Tennessee, Rudolph, the 20th of 22 children, weighed just four and a half pounds. At the age of 4, she suffered from double pneumonia and scarlet fever. His left leg was paralyzed.
“Her parents weren’t sure she would survive,” wrote The Original Civic and Welfare League of Fayetteville County of Somerville, Tennessee. In her autobiography, Rudolph wrote that with so many siblings, her father pushed her to be competitive. By the age of 12, she had given up the leg brace and was playing basketball barefoot.
At age 15, Rudolph broke his school’s basketball record, scoring 803 points in 25 games. Ed Temple, a track coach at Tennessee State University, noticed Rudolph’s speed on the court and coached her from high school through college and all the way to the Olympics.
When Rudolph returned from the Games in Italy, she refused to attend a racially segregated banquet planned in her honor. The 20-year-old’s activism forced organizers to adapt, and her Olympic victory party became the first-ever integrated public event in Clarksville, Tennessee.
4. Debi Thomas
At the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada, figure skater Debi Thomas performed her four-minute program to the music of Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen. And her rival, Germany’s Katarina Witt, chose the exact same song, with the media dubbing the famous showdown as ‘The Battle of the Carmens’.
While Witt won gold, Thomas won bronze, making her the first African-American woman to medal at the Winter Games. It was just one of many glass ceilings the 20-year-old broke on and off the ice.
Born in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1967, Thomas grew up in Silicon Valley, California, where her mother Janice worked as a computer programmer analyst. Ice skating lessons for Thomas cost around $25,000 a year. With an annual salary of $35,000, Janice needed help, and Debi’s father, grandparents and half-brother all pitched in.
When Thomas’ coaches pressured her to leave school to train more and opt for home schooling, Thomas applied to Stanford instead. On a pre-med track, she was the first U.S. figure skating champion in 30 years to be enrolled in college.
5. Vonetta Flowers
In 2002, Vonetta Flowers of Birmingham, Alabama became the first black athlete in the world to win Olympic gold at the Winter Games. In Salt Lake City, Flowers, 28, sprinted across the ice while pushing a 450-pound bobsled with teammate Jill Bakken inside, before blasting off and winning gold in the bobsled, under two years after discovering the sport by chance.
In college, Flowers was an American track and field athlete at the University of Alabama. She did so well in the 100 meters and the long jump that she was invited twice to the Olympic trials for Team USA – for the 1996 and 2000 Summer Games. She narrowly missed both times. But on her second try at the Summer Games, Flowers’ husband Johnny, also an athlete, spotted a flyer. It was a wanted ad encouraging track and field athletes to try out for the US bobsled team at the Winter Games.
“It never snows in Alabama,” Flowers said in Minneapolis Tribune of the Stars. “I had never watched bobsledding before riding one. The only thing I knew was ‘Cool Runnings,'” she said, speaking of the film about the Jamaican bobsled team. In Salt Lake City, just 18 months after her first encounter with a bobsled, Flowers had her own Hollywood moment.
6. Shani Davis
In February 2006, at the Winter Games in Turin, Italy, 23-year-old Shani Davis, a speed skater from Chicago, became the first African-American to win gold in an individual event at the Winter Olympics. .
Davis grew up in Chicago’s South End, the only son of Cherie Davis, a secretary, who took her young son to the rink. With her love of fast speeds, Davis began taking speed skating lessons, thanks to her mother working two jobs to pay for them.
Davis’ gift for speed skating earned her a scholarship to a high school specialty skating program in Lake Placid, New York. But being an African American playing a traditionally white sport came with challenges. A friend told the Chicago Grandstand that his classmates lashed out at him, calling him “boy” derogatoryly on the basketball courts, and Davis fought back with his fists, eventually getting kicked out.
When he made the Olympic team, Davis declined to compete in the new team relay event, in order to better focus on his individual races. When the American men only placed 6th without him, the blame fell on Davis. His personal website was bombarded with racial slurs. Defiant and proud, Davis told The Associated Press in Italy, “I am one of a kind. I have a different charisma. A lot of people don’t understand me.