Black History Month- the greatest black athletes

Tom Hardwick and Rebecca Johnson profile some of the most successful and culturally significant black athletes for Black History Month.

Tom Hardwick
15th October 2018
Olympische Spiele 1936 in Berlin, Siegerehrung im Weitsprung: Mitte Owens (USA) 1., links: Tajima (Japan) 3., rechts Long (Deutschland) 2., Zentralbild/Hoffmann

Given that October is Black History Month, there is no time more fitting to profile some of the most significant black athletes of all time. These sportspeople commanded positions at the very top of their respective fields and used this position of privilege to fight the racism that has been, and still is prevalent, both in sports and society. 

Jesse Owens- Tom Hardwick

When it comes to athletes who have used their ability to fight against racism, there are perhaps none as important as Jesse Owens. He was a tremendous athlete, managing to break an astounding 3 world records and equal another in a mere 45 minutes. Whilst at Ohio State University, Owens was able to set new records in the long jump, 220-yard dash and 220-yard low hurdles, as well as equaling the record for the 100-yard dash.

This unprecedented feat of sporting prowess, which eclipses the achievements of so many, was still not to be the crowning moment of his career. That came during the 1936 Berlin Olympics, a games that was being used by Adolf Hitler as a propaganda vehicle to emphasise the supposed physical superiority of his Aryan master race. In one day, Jesse Owens managed to blow all of these bigoted ideas out of the water, winning 4 gold medals in the 100 and 200 meters, the 4x100 meters relay and the long jump. Owens stole the show at the Berlin Olympics, proving quite conclusively that the idea that white people are inherently more talented at any sport (or indeed anything) than black people is absurd.

Owens was not presented with a medal by Hitler, but nor was he the recipient of any recognition by the White House, despite the incredible achievements he had completed whilst competing under the United States flag. Owens was able to prove to a racist America and Nazi Germany that white superiority is nonsense, and in taking on two overwhelmingly racist societies at opposite ends of the Atlantic and coming out with a swarm of gold medals, Owens cemented himself as one of the most significant black athletes of all time.

Walter Tull- Tom Hardwick

In his short 29 years of life, Tull achieved far more for than most can ever hope to, and in doing so was able to highlight that race has no bearing on what one can accomplish.

Tull lost both parents before the age of 10, and in spite of being sent to an orphanage he still overcame this adversity, becoming the first mixed-heritage person to practice dentistry in the UK. He was also a sporting trailblazer, signing for Tottenham Hotspur in 1909 after winning the FA Amateur Cup with Clapton FC. He was one of only 3 other black players to have played in the top flight of English football, and although his stay in the top flight was limited to around 20 games, he helped set a precedent for black men to play at the highest level.

After his time at Tottenham he made 111 appearances for Northampton Town, an amount that would surely have been higher but for the breakout of the First World War. Tull was the first Northampton player to enlist, proving his bravery was not limited to being one of the first mixed-heritage men to achieve success in two different fields. He was noted for his valour, and added to the list of his achievements when he became one of the first mixed-heritage infantry officers. Tull was tragically shot down at Pas-de-Calais, but his life was embodied by a sense of courage in the face of adversity, with Tull emphasising that determination was able to open up far more doors than his race would have closed in the early 1900s.

Serena Williams- Tom Hardwick

Serena Williams is someone who has dealt with a barrage of insults and accusations across her successful career, and yet whether it be racist remarks, gender based prejudice or the general lack of respect that she is sometimes afforded, she still maintains an impressive desire to win and prove her detractors wrong.

Williams has won twenty-three singles Grand Slams, as well as another fourteen doubles Grand Slams with her sister Venus, two mixed doubles finals and four Olympic gold medals. For anyone to achieve such a consistent level of success across a career that started in 1995 and is still going strong today is exceptional, especially given the difficulties she has faced.

Williams has endured racist and sexist abuse on social media, and this sexism has at times extended into tennis itself.  She was criticised by some for her angry outburst following accusations of coaching in the 2018 US Open Final, but one can understand how her frustrations have boiled over. She was inexplicably banned from wearing a catsuit designed to negate post-pregnancy blood clots at the French Open due to issues over ‘decorum’, and having been treated as such throughout her career, it is perhaps more impressive that she has so rarely expressed her anger.

Whether the manner in which she expressed her distaste was right or wrong, Williams is highly successful and unafraid to stand up for herself when it is necessary, and it is these characteristics coupled together that make her one of the most dominant and culturally important athletes to be competing today.

Muhammad Ali- Rebecca Johnson

Undeniably one of the greatest sporting legends of all time, Muhammad Ali is globally known for his antics inside the boxing ring, and outside too.

Regarding his professional boxing career, Ali had 61 fights, of these fights 56 were wins and only five were losses. Furthermore, out of these 56 wins, 37 were won by knockout. These statistics rightfully place Ali as one of the best sportsmen of the last century.

Although his boxing career was superb, Ali’s life outside the boxing ring was colourful to say the very least. He competed and won gold in the 1960 Rome Olympics. A famous story stated that after this Olympics, Ali was refused service in a white’s only diner back in America and threw his gold medal into a river. Although disputed that Ali threw his medal into the river and regarded as untrue, this type of story just scratches the surface of the incidents he encountered being a black athlete.

One major incident Ali encountered was being drafted to fight for the US military in the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He refused to enlist into the army saying that he “had no quarrel with the Vietcong”. Due to his refusal to enlist into the army, he was arrested and had his boxing licence suspended. This stand of defiance to the authorities in America, especially during a time of intense racism, inspired a lot of young black men and women across America to stand up for what they believed in.

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