Black Olympic athletes in the 20th and early 21st centuries

This article was researched and written by Bridget Lockyer, a graduate work-placement student in 2009 at the Social Science Collections and Research team at the British Library.

Sport has the power to unite people in a way little else can. Sport can create hope where there was only despair. It breaks down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of discrimination. Sport speaks to people in a language they can understand. ~ Nelson Mandela cited in Muir, 2007

It is generally agreed that the first black athlete to compete and win a medal in the Olympic Games was George Poage, an American, who was awarded a bronze medal in the 400m hurdle. It was 1904, the third modern Olympics since the games had been resurrected by Pierre de Coubertin in 1896. In the same afternoon, another African-American, Joseph Stadler, received a silver medal for the high jump event and the following day Poage secured another bronze, this time for the 200m hurdle.

This was the triumphant start of what would be countless victories for black athletes at the Olympic Games. Since 1904, many black athletes representing countries including those in which they are usually part of a minority ethnic group (for example, countries in North America, Europe and Asia) have achieved outstanding success. Notable athletes include: Jesse Owens, winner of four gold medals for the USA at the 1936 Berlin Olympics; Wilma Rudolph (USA), who received three gold medals at Rome in 1960, Mohammed Ali (then Cassius Clay) (USA), who was awarded with the light-heavyweight boxing title also in 1960; Daley Thompson for Great Britain who obtained a gold medal for the decathlon event in 1980 at Moscow and another at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics; Linford Christie (GB), who won gold in the 100m sprint at Barcelona in 1992; Denise Lewis (GB) winning gold in the heptathlon event at Sydney in 2000; and Kelly Holmes (GB), who was awarded two gold medals in 2004 at the Athens Olympics.

Despite the undeniable success of numerous black athletes in the Olympic Games throughout the twentieth century, their situation both on and off the field has sometimes proven difficult. A significant number of black athletes have felt they had to negotiate the often complex issues of representing a country in which they are ethnically a minority. The participation of minority black athletes in the Olympic Games has often revealed and mirrored inequalities in society as a whole. For instance, before (and during) the Civil Rights Movement, African-American athletes were members of the USA Olympic team, and revered within this role, yet when they returned to the USA they were unable to share public spaces with white people or even drink from the same water fountains. Furthermore, some athletes have used the Olympics as a stage for protest against racial prejudice within and outside of their own countries.  Read MORE

Kicha‘s images represent vintage snapshots into the lives of African Americans. The good, the bad and the ugly.

Jesse Owens (winner of 4 gold medals) arrived back in the United States from the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

When I came back to my native country I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I couldn’t live where I wanted. I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either.”

BIBLIOGRAPHY ‘Minority black Olympic athletes in the 20th and early 21st centuries’

The majority of the sources used to research and write this article are available in the British Library. They are listed below with their bibliographic reference and their British Library shelfmark(s).

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London reference collections shelfmark (Sound Archive): C790/08/01-02.

Barry, James P. (1975) The Berlin Olympics, 1936: Black American Athletes Counter Nazi Propaganda

New York: Franklin Watts.  DS shelfmark: 76/23923

Bass, Amy. (2002) Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete

Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.  DS shelfmark: m03/10687

Bunch, Lonnie G. and Robinson, Louie. (1985) The Black Olympians: 1904-1984 Los Angeles: California Afro-American Museum. London reference collections shelfmark: YD.2008.b.1463

Cashmore, Ernest. (1982) Black Sportsmen London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. London reference collections shelfmark: X.629/18614 DS shelfmark: 82/30840

Chalmers, Robert. (2008) ‘The Champion that Time Forgot: Why do we find it so hard to love Daley Thompson?’ The Independent, 27th July (consulted July 2009)  London reference collections shelfmark (Newspaper Library): 1986-2009 MLD11A NPL

Coe, Sebastian. (2001) ‘Athletics: Christie out of order for corruption claims’ The Daily Telegraph, 13th February, URL (consulted July 2009): London reference collections shelfmark (Newspaper Library): 1969-2009 MLD7 NPL

Davis, Michael D. (1992) Black American Women in Olympic Track and Field: A Complete Illustrated Reference

London: McFarland and Co.

Minority black Olympic athletes in the 20th and early 21st centuries Page 9 of 11

London reference collections shelfmark: YC.1992.b.4111

Edmondson, Jacqueline. (2007) Jesse Owens: A Biography Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group. London reference collection shelfmark: YC.2008.a.1091

Entine, Jon. (2000) Taboo: why black athletes dominate sports and why we are afraid to talk about it

New York: Public Affairs. DS shelfmark: m00/17485

Goodbody, John. (2008) ‘Filling a Black Hole in Swimming’  Sunday Times, 17th February (consulted July 2009): []

London reference collections shelfmark (Newspaper Library): 1822-2009 LON MLD40 NPL

Guttmann, Allen. (2002) The Olympics: A History of the Modern Games. Urbana, Illinois

University of Illinois Press. London reference collections shelfmark: YC.2002.a.6704 DS collections shelfmark: m02/21126

Herrnstein, Richard and Murray, Charles. (1994) The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life

London: Free Press. London reference collections shelfmark: YA.1995.b.1927 DS collections shelfmark: 94/25805

Hylton, Kevin. (2009) ‘Race’ and Sport: Critical Race Theory. London: Routledge. London open access collections shelfmark: SPIS306.483 DS collections shelfmark: m08/.27151

Ismond, Patrick. (2003) Black and Asian Athletes in British Sport and Society: A Sporting Chance?

Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. London reference collections shelfmark: YC.2007.a.10736  DS collection shelfmark: m03/26725

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Malik, Kenan. (2000) ‘Why Black will beat White at the Olympics’  New Statesmen, 18th September, URL (consulted July 2009) London reference collections shelfmark: ZC.9.d.557

Moore, Malcolm. (2009) ‘China Calls up its First Black Athlete’ The Daily Telegraph, 15th April, URL (Consulted July 2009)

China calls up its first black athlete London reference collection shelfmark (Newspaper Library): 1969-2009 MLD7 NPL

Muir, Hugh. (2007) ‘Show Red Card to Racism’ The Guardian, 26th September, URL (consulted July 2009) [] London reference collections shelfmark (Newspaper Library): 1959-2009 LON MLD NPL

On the Ropes (22nd June 2008) BBC Radio Four. URL on BBC site

Rushton, J. Philippe. (1995) Race, Evolution, and Behaviour: A Life History Perspective London: Transaction Publishers. London reference collections shelfmark: YC.1995.b.6386 DS shelfmark: 94/24481

Sexton, Jared. (2006) ‘Race, Nation, and Empire in a Blackened World’  Radical History Review 95 (Spring): 250-61. London reference collections shelfmark: X.0809/2389 DS shelfmark: 7228.092700

Smith, Maureen Margaret. (2006) Wilma Rudolph: A Biography London: Greenwood Press. London reference collections shelfmark: YK.2006.a.17979

Smith, Tommie. (2007) Silent Gesture: The Autobiography of Tommie Smith Philadelphia: Temple University Press. DS shelfmark: m08/.35078

Speer, Albert. (1970) Inside the Third Reich: Memoirs. New York: Macmillan. DS shelfmark: A70/2822

Tinsley, Jonathan. & Jacobs, Michael. (2006) Ethnicity and deprivation: a regional perspective. An analysis of ethnicity and levels of deprivation in different local areas, within English regions

Office of National Statistics. (consulted July 2009) [

Wiggins, David K. (1997) Glory Bound: Black Athletes in a White America New York: Syracuse University Press. London reference collections shelfmark: YC.1997.a.3786 DS shelfmark: 97/23981

Witherspoon, Kevin B. (2008) Before the Eyes of the World: Mexico and the 1968 Olympic Games

DeKalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press. DS shelfmark: m08/.26983

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