African American Olympians

Photo Essay


Though inspired by the exalted athletic competitions of ancient Greece, the modern Olympic Games began much more modestly. The new iteration of the old contest was first held in Athens in 1896, and while participants arrived from 13 countries, competition was organized by athletic club affiliation, not nation. The result was a fully "amateur" competition, from athletic performance to management. The 1924 Paris games—the first to house athletes in a special Olympic Village—marked a turning point for the Games, which began to resemble the disciplined contest that is watched today. It was also the year that a winter version of the Games was launched, in Chamonix, France.

African American athletes have been participating in the Games almost since its founding. Though not entirely substantiated, some accounts place Mace Montgomery, a track and field coach at Georgetown University, in Paris in 1900. Certifiably, the first black American athlete to actually compete was George Poage, a University of Wisconsin graduate sponsored by the Milwaukee Athletic Club. Poage, who won two bronzes in different hurdle events, began a tradition of black track dominance that remains to this day. While African Americans competed in track and field exclusively during the first decades of the Olympics, by midcentury they began branching out to other sports such as basketball and boxing. Don Barksdale, a standout center at UCLA, became the first black American to play Olympic basketball in 1948 (notably, two years before Earl Lloyd would break the color barrier in the NBA). The legendary Muhammad Ali, then still known as Cassius Clay, won the gold at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, a fitting start to a career steeped in a mythology of its own. At the end of the century black athletes started to compete in winter sports as well: figure skater Debi Thomas won a bronze medal at the 1988 contest (Calgary), and speed skater Shani Davis has proven himself the fastest skater in the world, winning gold in both 2006 (Turin) and 2010 (Vancouver) for the 1,000-meter race, the only athlete to win the event in consecutive Games.

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