Photo Essay - African American Olympians

George PoageFinish of the 200 meter hurdle race at the 1904 Olympics. H.L. Hillman, N.Y. Athletic Club, first; George Poage, Milwaukee Athletic Club, third. Courtesy of the Missouri History Museum.

The first African Americans to participate in an actual event were Clevelander Joseph Stadler and University of Wisconsin graduate George Poage, who competed in the third Olympic Games in St. Louis in 1904. Still in their infancy, the Games were considered something of a sideshow to the much more glamorous World's Fair, to which the athletic contest had been forcefully attached. As with the previous two Olympics, contestants competed as representatives of athletic clubs, not countries, and competition was plagued by disorganization and chaos (an American marathoner, Fred Lorz, was disqualified for riding in a car). Nevertheless, the Olympics still represented a major public event, and African American leaders urged Poage to boycott the event once it was revealed that facilities would be segregated. He resisted, and won the bronze medal in the 200- and 400-meter hurdles. Stadler medaled sometime after Poage, winning the silver in the standing high jump, but little is known of his life.

John Baxter TaylorTrack (men's), 1600 Meter Relay Team, 1908 Olympic Games. Courtesy of University of Pennsylvania.

The first black American to win an Olympic gold was John Baxter Taylor, Jr., who ran in the 1908 Games in London. A member of the 4x400 U.S. Men's Relay team (the rest of whose members were white), Taylor had been a dominating runner at his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. Taylor studied veterinary medicine at UPenn, and arrived at the Olympics only weeks after graduation. Interestingly, the 1908 Olympics marked the first contest that grouped competitors by country of origin, not sponsoring athletic club, which made Taylor technically the first African American to medal for the United States. Remarkably, both of Taylor's parents had been born into slavery, working their way into Philadelphia's black middle class after arriving in the city in the late 1800s. Taylor died from typhoid pneumonia just a few months after his arrival back to Philadelphia, at age 26, a tragic end for a promising athlete and scholar.

Jessie OwensJesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics, 1936 (b/w photo), German Photographer, (20th century) / Private Collection / The Bridgeman Art Library.

The most famous black Olympian of all-time (with the possible exception of Muhammad Ali), Jesse Owens symbolized—in idea, at least—the superiority of the American melting pot over the ethnic-based despotism roiling 1930s Europe. Owens, a record-breaking track and field star at Ohio State University, was one of eighteen black Americans to participate in the 1936 Games in Berlin, Germany. Reports on Hitler's repression campaign against Jews, Gypsies, and political opponents had trickled out far enough for multiple countries, the United States included, to consider boycotting the Games, but ultimately none pulled out. (American Olympic chair Avery Brundage vehemently opposed a boycott, calling the troubles in Europe a "Jew-Nazi altercation.") Enormous press attention added to the stakes, with Germans and Americans seeing in their athletes' performances a validation of their respective ways of life. Given the political backdrop, Owens' masterful performance was that much more important: not only did he win four gold medals (and break three world records), but earned a powerful symbolic victory over Hitler and the Aryan notion of racial superiority. Owens' victory thrilled the nation, but even basic examination showed that actual U.S. attitudes on race fell well short of their public ideals. Nearly three decades before the Civil Rights era, millions of African Americans in the South remained disenfranchised, while even world champion athletes such as Owens were forced into segregated facilities in the north. Additionally, Owens and fellow 4x100 meter relay teammate Ralph Metcalfe were able to participate in the race only because two Jewish runners were benched; the runners, Marty Glickman and Jerry Stoller, accused Brundage, an avowed anti-communist (and rumored Nazi sympathizer), of not wanting to embarrass Hitler with the spectacle of Jews standing on the winner's podium. For these reasons, the 1936 Olympics remain, for better or for worse, one of the most charged events of the 20th century.

Alice CoachmanAlice Coachman winning Gold in the High Jump event at the 1948 London Olympic Games (b/w photo) / Private Collection / The Bridgeman Art Library.

Further adding to the racial intrigue of the event, the Berlin Games were the first to feature African American women. Though track and fielders Louise Stokes and Tidye Pickett had qualified for the 1932 Games in Los Angeles, they were ultimately excluded from the final squad. Stokes and Pickett finally made it to Berlin, but Stokes was replaced at the last minute in the 400-meter relay, and Pickett broke her foot during the 80-meter hurdles. In 1948, however, Alice Coachman—also a track and field star—became the first African American woman to earn a medal, winning the gold in the high jump. (World War II halted the Games in 1940 and 1944, but Coachman, part of Cleveland L. Abbott's storied track and field program at Tuskegee Institute, may have very well made her mark on either competition.) Coachman's victory was somewhat anticlimactic: both she and British jumper Dorothy Tyler cleared 5 feet 6 1/7 inches, but because it took Tyler two tries to clear the bar, Coachman was declared the winner. Her win was deeply symbolic, however, and Coachman returned home to a hero's welcome. President Harry S. Truman hosted her at the White House, but the paradox of her victory was underscored after her hometown, Albany, Georgia, threw a segregated parade in her honor. Another black American runner, Audrey Patterson, also medaled at the 1948 Games, winning a bronze in the 200 meters.

Cassius ClayCassius Clay returns from the Olympics to Louisville, Sept. 9, 1960. AP Photo/The Courier Journal, Al Hixenbaugh.

Few outside the boxing world paid much attention to the light-heavyweight championship at the 1960 Olympics. Though the American fighter, Cassius Clay, would eventually be lionized as "the greatest"—boxer, athlete, icon—of the 20th century, at the time of his bout in Rome he was relatively unknown outside of his Louisville, Kentucky hometown. Behind the scenes, however, Rome was a crucial proving ground for the 18-year-old Clay. On a major stage, though still off the radar of the ravenous U.S. sports media, Clay was free to cultivate his boxing style and personality without interference. His decisive victory against Polish fighter Zbigniew "Ziggy" Pietrzykowski validated his unorthodox technique, and he returned to Louisville with the confidence to go pro. The pride of his city, Clay was greeted by a 50-car motorcade and remarks by Mayor Bruce Hoblitzell and Congressman Frank W. Burke. More importantly, he was quickly booked for his first professional fight, a benefit match that would raise money for a local children's hospital and pay him $2,000, a huge sum for a debut. Though his race-consciousness began growing steadily alongside his profile, contrary to widespread reports Clay never threw his gold medal into the Ohio river, done supposedly after he was denied service at an all-white Louisville restaurant. Like so many of the stories surrounding Clay (later, Muhammad Ali), myth has become nearly indistinguishable from truth.

Tommie Smith and John CarlosTommie Smith, center, and John Carlos stare downward during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner after Smith received the gold and Carlos the bronze for the 200 meter run at the Olympic Games in Mexico City. Australian silver medalist Peter Norman is at left. AP Photo.

Few images of the Civil Rights era are more iconic than Tommie Smith and John Carlos's raised fists. The defiant gesture, made on the winner's podium at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, both literally and figuratively brought political protest down to the sporting world. The protest, ironically, capped a huge U.S. victory: Smith had just won the 200-meter dash, and Carlos had come in third; placing second was Australian Peter Norman. The act, though last-minute in its execution, was not entirely unplanned. Both runners were members of San Jose State University's famed track program—dubbed "Speed City"—and were mentored by professor Harry Edwards, an activist who founded the Olympic Project for Human Rights. Believing sports and civil rights to be intimately tied, Edwards told the New York Times that "It's time for the black people to stand up as men and women and refuse to be utilized as performing animals for a little extra dog food." The group first proposed a boycott, but after Rhodesia and South Africa were barred the Games, one of the three stated goals of the OPHR, the idea lost support. Smith and Carlos arrived in Mexico City without any specific plan, just a sense that they would protest when the time was right.

Immediate reactions to the gesture were mixed, but condemnation by mainstream pundits appeared to win out. In one notable commentary, sportscaster Brent Musberger called Smith and Carlos "black-skinned stormtroopers," and each found it difficult to return to life back in the United States. In the 1990s there was renewed interest in the runners, and the tide of public opinion seems to have largely turned in their favor. In 1999 HBO produced a documentary called Fists of Freedom, and in 2005 SJSU unveiled a sculpture of the men. Still, unfairly or not, their famous protest has overshadowed the runners' extraordinary track achievements, particular Smith's. His 1968 win in the 200-meter dash set a world record that would not be broken until the 1984 Games, and he remains the only athlete to have held 11 world records simultaneously.

Hano, Arnold."The Black Rebel Who 'Whitelists' The Olympics." New York Times. 12 May 1968.

Leroy T. WalkerDr. Leroy Walker, right, head coach of the U.S. Olympic Track Team, gives some advice to 400 meter hurdle star Edwin Moses. Moses of Morehouse College in Atlanta, broke the American record in the event at the recent trials in Eugene, Oregon thereby winning a spot on the American team. Copyright Bettmann/Corbis / AP Images.

Although black athletes had become increasingly important to U.S. Summer Olympic success, it wasn't until 1976 that an African American coach was appointed to the national team. Given that track and field was the sport with the richest history of black Olympic participation, it was fitting that Dr. Leroy T. Walker was named the first black coach. Walker, who held a doctorate in biomechanics from New York University, had been an exceptionally successful track coach at North Carolina Central University. Since his tenure began in 1945, multiple NCCU track stars had gone on to earn gold medals at the 1956 (Melbourne), 1960, and 1972 (Munich) Games. In Walker's first Olympics as coach, the 1976 Games in Montreal, the track and field program won a combined 22 medals, including six golds from decathlete Bruce Jenner and hurdler Edwin Moses. Not done, Walker was appointed chairman of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) in 1992, making him the first black head of the organization. As chair, Walker was responsible for overseeing the planning and execution for the 1996 Games in Atlanta, which brought over 10,000 athletes to the United States.

Vonetta FlowersJill Bakken, front, and Vonetta Flowers of the United States in USA-2, brake in the finish area after the first run during the two woman bobsled final at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in Park City, Utah, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2002. AP Photo/Elise Amendola.

With her win at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, bobsledder Vonetta Flowers became not only the first black American to win a gold at the Winter Olympics, but the first person of African descent to ever do so. Flowers was an All-American sprinter and long jumper at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, but was unable to qualify for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. On a lark, she answered an invitation to try out for the U.S. women's bobsled team, which was competing for the first time in Salt Lake City. In two-person bobsled the rear position ("brakewoman" or "pusher") requires enormous speed, and Flowers' experience as a track star made her a natural fit. Indeed, Flowers and driver Jill Bakken were so dominant in the event that the lead after their first run, .29 seconds, made the second round of the race nearly irrelevant. Interestingly, Flowers almost didn't compete at all: bobsled drivers regularly replaced their brakewomen, and Flowers had been dropped before trials by driver Bonny Warner. She was called back by Bakken just days before the Games kicked off, sliding on to record-making gold.

The Dream TeamThe US team regroups during a game at the Barcelona Olympics. AP Photo.

Widely considered the greatest assemblage of basketball players in the sport's history, the 1992 U.S. Men's basketball squad—widely referred to as the "Dream Team"—executed one of the most dominating performances in Olympic (if not sports) history. The team, whose roster was nearly entirely comprised of superstars in their prime (all of the players but Christian Laettner would be elected to the NBA Hall of Fame), beat their opponents by an average of 43.8 points, and were the only basketball team in Olympic history to score at least 100 points every game. Accordingly, the squad's fortune in Barcelona contrasted sharply with their third-place finish four years earlier in Seoul, the last Olympics that mandated amateur participation. The impact of the Dream Team well surpassed the Games; although Michael Jordan was already a superstar of international stature, the team's unprecedented run kicked off a new explosion of basketball interest, particularly in Europe, South America, and Asia. In addition, Barcelona was a capstone to the legendary rivalry between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Their fierce competition throughout the 1980s helped to turn the NBA into a worldwide cultural phenomenon, and also exposed some of the deeply held prejudices among American fans regarding the abilities of black and white athletes. Fittingly, Johnson, who had retired after being diagnosed as HIV positive, was named a co-captain along with his former rival Bird.

Shani DavisAmerican speed skater Shani Davis skates during a training session at the Richmond Olympic Oval at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, Friday, Feb. 19, 2010. AP Photo/Peter Dejong.

Though African American athletes have traditionally participated in the Summer Games, by the late 1970's a handful began development for the winter contest. Jeff Gadley became the first African American winter Olympian in 1980 (Lake Placid), and in 1988 (Calgary) Debi Thomas won the bronze in figure skating, making her the first black athlete of any nation to medal in the winter event. No African Americans medaled in the 90's, but the 2000s introduced the most promising black winter Olympians yet. In 2002, the silver-winning U.S. Men's bobsledding team had two black members, and the gold-winning 2002 and bronze-winning 2010 (Vancouver) women's teams each had one. Slowly but surely, African Americans seem to be increasing their presence in the Winter Games—no matter which country they represent. In 2010, Errol Kerr, a Lake Tahoe-raised skier born to a Jamaican father and American mother, chose to represent Jamaica in Vancouver; he placed ninth, the best showing for a Caribbean nation at the Winter Olympics ever. Additionally, one of the most dominant athletes in speed skating history is black speed skater Shani Davis, who won the 1000-meter gold in both 2006 (Turin) and 2010, and a silver for the 1,500-meter race both years. While Davis was the first black athlete to medal in both competitions, he is considered one of the very best speed skaters in the world of any race.