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