2016 may have been one of the most taxing years in recent history with the loss of sporting and artistic greats, but it also showed tremendous sportsmanship and glory from female athletes. For all its problems, the Olympics have reliably become one of the best showcases of women’s sports and athleticism, so our list skews heavily in that direction. We applaud all the women and trans women who played hard and who bulldoze through challenges in society to excel at sport. Many of them are athlete-activists who speak and advocate passionately for causes and against injustices. We were tasked with selecting ten women of colour athletes. This was no easy feat as there are so many phenomenal possibilities. Powerhouse and our Queen Serena Williams remains at the top of every list. Meanwhile Ibtihaj Muhammad, Sarah Bouhaddi and Kubra Dagli are fast rising shereos.
But here are a few special mentions:
Shirin Gerami– Gerami was the first female triathlete from Iran to compete internationally in the Ironman competition in Kona, Hawaii. Her dedication to sport carved out a place for her on the international scene. Gerami lives in London and doesn’t wear hijab regularly. But she represents Iran which enforces clothing regulations on female athletes. As such, Gerami has little choice on her kit which prompted her to work with a series of designers to create uniforms that met the requirements of the Iran Triathlon Federation.
Daliah Muhammad– This Black Muslim sprinter is the first American woman to have won a Gold in the 400m hurdles with a time of 52.88 seconds- and it was her first appearance at the Olympic Games. In 2014, she could not break less than 58 second and had a terrible quad injury in 2015. Yet, in 2016 this unapologetic Black Muslim woman is commanding her event. Muhammad has three of the five fastest times in the world in this category.
Simone Biles– This 19 year-old American woman won four gold medals at the Rio Olympics. Her electrifying performances were nothing short of perfect. Biles was also part of the Gold medal winning Team event. She holds the title for most gold medals won by an American female gymnast in a single Olympics. She also has a signature move debuted in 2013 in the floor routine – “The Biles”- named after her. She has won every all-round competition she has entered since then. She doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon.
Yusra Mardini– Mardini is a young swimmer woman who was a member of the inaugural Refugee Olympic Team. Her story is particularly harrowing. She and her sister swam across the Agean sea with her sister as they pulled a life raft – with 18 people- to safety after they fled Syria. Mardini won her first heat at the Olympics but did not medal. She remains a champion nonetheless.
Kadeena Cox– This British Paralympian made history- herstory, rather. Cox medaled in two different sports since 1988. In 2014, Cox was 23 years old when she had a stroke and soon after was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. But after managing her illness, she won athletics bronze in T38 100m and in cycling’s C4-5 time trial. Not only is Cox a champion, she encourages Black athletes in white-dominated sports such as cycling. “I am in a small minority as a black female with a disability,” she has said. “I’ve come out here and done it, I’m nothing special. You just have to have heart, passion, determination and self-belief.”
Simone Manuel: Although one of the top US sprinters for the past few years, Simone Manuel was overlooked in the runup to the 100m freestyle final as commentators fixated on Australia’s Campbell sisters. It likely wasn’t only NBC commentators who found themselves scrambling in the race’s final seconds to prepare audiences for what was happening as Simone Manuel surged ahead in the last several meters of the race. Manuel became the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming. Her tears in the pool and on the podium said it all. (Important to note, she tied with Penny Oleksiak, the 16-year-old who became the first Canadian to win four medals in one Olympics. Fingers crossed for many years of racing between the two of them.)
Monica Puig Like newcomer golf, Olympic tennis has its critics, in part because of its tendency to produce some unlikely winners. Yet watching Puerto Rico’s Monica Puig boldly make her way through the singles draw on her way to a wildly unexpected gold medal made the argument again for how special this tournament. True, Serena and Venus Williams lost earlier than anyone expected, but unseeded Puig still had to win the hard way, defeating among others Garbine Muguruza, Petra Kvitova (to whom we wish all the very best as she recovers from injuries to her left hand sustained during a home invasion), and in the final, Germany’s Angelique Kerber, who herself had an amazing 2016. It’s common for relative unknowns to go on a run in Grand Slam tournaments, but more often than not, they don’t win. But in the final, Puig showed little fear and even after losing the second set, handed Kerber a decisive 6-1 defeat in the final set.
Nicola Adams and Claressa Shields: We can’t decide between them, so we won’t. Fighting in different weight classes, both Nicola Adams and Claressa Shields won gold in London 2012, the first time women’s boxing was part of the games. They did the same again this year in Rio. Due to the scheduling, it is Adams who’s in the record books as the first woman to win a boxing gold medal and the first woman to defend her Olympic title in the sport, but Shields’s accomplishments are equally worthy. After Rio, Shields turned professional, winning her first bout in November. As of this writing, it looks like Adams may soon join her.
Rafaela Silva: Not only is Silva an Olympic champion but also an athlete-activist against racism and poverty. She is the first woman to win a gold medal for Brazil, but still lives in one of the most dangerous favelas in Rio. After failing to reach the podium in 2012, her critics were harsh and the the words hurled at her were heavy racist, misogynistic and classist
vitriol. After her golden win in her hometown, she spoke up about her experience enduring this abuse and how it affected her. And moving forward, Silva offers commentary on how to improve the culture of sports in Brazil is crucial. Silva publicly came out as gay to Globo magazine during the Olympics.
Caster Semenya was widely expected to win 800m gold, so it was no surprise when she did. She’s on our list, though, for more than her sustained excellence in the event. She was also a model of grace and sportsmanship in the face of years of rampant speculation regarding her gender and in the face of hostility from the other athletes she defeated. She brought much joy to South Africa despite those who were against her (including the IAAF). Semenya is poised when she reflects on her experience. “I think I have made a difference. I have meant a lot to my people. I have done well. They are proud of me. And that was the main focus. I was doing it for my people, the people who support me.”
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Christienna Fryar is a professor, historian, and pop culture junkie. She is from Virginia, lives in Buffalo, NY, and calls Durham, NC and London home. Twitter: @jamaicandale
Shireen Ahmed is a writer, public speaker and Sports Activist focusing on Muslim women in Sports. She is an athlete, advocate, community organizer, and works with Youth of Colour on empowerment projects and is an avid sports coach and mentor. She is a regular contributor to Muslimah Media Watch, a Global Sports Correspondent for Safe World For Women and works on the Muslim Women in Sports website. Follow her on Twitter @_shireenahmed_ Her website is shireenahmed.com