The modern Olympic Games have a history of over one hundred years. At an international sports conference held at the Sorbonne in Paris in late June 1894, a plan was advanced to reestablish in modern times a great sports festival, one that had been a major dimension of ancient Greek culture for more than a thousand years—the Olympic Games. An International Olympic Committee (IOC) was founded and two years later, in the spring of 1896, the first edition of the modern Olympics was organized in the host city of Athens, Greece. Following the plan of their rénovateur, the French Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the Olympics occurred every four years afterwards, except on the occasion of their interruption by the two World Wars. It was Coubertin's plan for the Olympics to be ambulatory, that is, to be hosted by major cities on all the globe's continents, those being, in somewhat peculiar European understanding, Europe, Asia, the Americas (North, Central, and South), Africa, and Australasia/Oceania. In this respect, Coubertin's goal has yet to be fully realized. An Olympic Games somewhere in Africa continues to be elusive, delaying the perspective of universal internationalism.
Though the summer Olympics have persisted since 1896, the winter Olympics date only to 1924, when their first edition was organized high in the French Alps in the village of Chamonix. The winter Olympics, too, moved around the world to various winter resort sites located largely in European countries, as well as in North America (the United States and Canada) and Asia (Japan). Climate and topography, of course, are major factors against Olympic Winter Games ever being staged in Africa, Australasia/Oceania, and most parts of Asia and South America. By 1994 both the summer and winter games had grown so astronomically in terms of the number of different sports, masses of competing athletes, an astoundingly immense cadre of judges and officials, necessary administrative functionaries, and media types from every corner of the world that organizing both games in the same year proved an almost impossible burden. Thus, the formula for presenting the winter games was changed so that they are now presented in even-numbered years between the quadrennial celebration of the summer games.
The original organizers of the modern Olympic Games envisioned a festival of sport as an expression of peace, brotherhood, and the advancement of physical culture among all peoples of the world, irrespective of ethnicity, religious attitude, or station in life. Be that as it may, the social and cultural context of many of the world's countries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries ensured that the only athletes who entered the competitions were those who had the time and financial circumstance to devote toward training for achievement at a high performance level. For the most part, this situation tended to exclude blacks the world over. In other words, it became a question of opportunity.
Though opportunity for athletic achievement was devastatingly limited for Africans and African-descended peoples in the Americas, a large portion of whom lived and labored in the depths of economic distress in countries under the colonial rule of European powers, it was somewhat better for African-descended people residing in the United States. That is the major reason why the annals of black athletic achievement in early Olympic history were dominated by African Americans.
The first instances of African and African-descended people's participation in the sporting venues of the great international Olympic festival occurred in the third edition of the modern games, those celebrated for the first time outside Europe—in Saint Louis, Missouri. There, in the sweltering summer of 1904 amidst the grandeur and hoopla of the Saint Louis World's Fair, four black athletes competed: an American, a Cuban, and two South Africans. The African American was George C. Poage (1880–1962) of La Crosse, Wisconsin, who competed in four events, the 60- and 400-meter sprints, and the 200- and
400-meter hurdles (he placed third in both of the latter). The Cuban was Felix Carbajal, an enigmatic figure who trained for his long-distance races by running the length of Cuba and who financed his trip to Saint Louis by performing "sponsorship" exhibitions in the town squares of Cuban hamlets. Running in cut-off long trousers, he competed in the marathon, finishing a creditable fourth, which might have been a better performance had he not stopped along the route to eat green apples plucked from a tree, the results of which gave him stomach cramps. Two black South African Tswana tribesmen, masquerading as Zulu warriors in the Saint Louis Fair's Boer War battle reenactment exhibition, also competed in the Olympic marathon. Len Tua and Jan Mashiani, former Boer War dispatch runners proclaimed to be "the fleetest in the service," finished in ninth and twelfth place, respectively.
In 1908 the Olympic Games were celebrated in London, England. It was at that Olympic festival that the first black athlete to win a gold medal, in this case an American, became a matter of record. He was John Baxter Taylor (1882–1908), a University of Pennsylvania graduate. Taylor won his gold medal by running the third leg of the U.S. team's winning effort in the 1600-meter relay. African-American athletes did not compete again at the Olympics until 1924 in Paris. There, before the gaze of Pierre de Coubertin in his final appearance at the great festival that he had been primarily responsible for establishing, three black athletes competed in the colors of the United States. University of Michigan student William DeHart Hubbard became the first black athlete in Olympic history to win an individual gold medal. Hubbard won the long jump with a leap of 24.5 feet (about 7.47 meters), while African-American teammate Edward Gourdin won the silver medal. Earl Johnson, the third member of the black American contingent, won a bronze medal in the 10,000-meter cross-country race. Johnson's performance also ensured a silver medal for the Americans in the now-discontinued cross-country relay.
It would be eight years before African-American athletes once again ascended the victory podium at the Olympic Games, and the occasion began a remarkable record in Olympic history of black athletes the world over achieving gold medal results in track and field events. In 1932 at Los Angeles, Detroit's bespectacled Eddie Tolan (1908–1967) won gold in the 100 meters, earning him the distinction "world's fastest human." His teammate, Ralph Metcalfe, won the silver medal. Tolan also won the 200 meters; Metcalfe earned the bronze. After competing in the 1928 games in Amsterdam and placing seventh in the long jump, the University of Iowa's Edward Gordon won the gold medal in the long jump at Los Angeles by leaping a trifle beyond 25 feet (7.6 meters). It should not be lost to posterity that the African-Canadian Phil Edwards won bronze medals in the 800 meters in both the 1932 Los Angeles and 1936 Berlin Olympic festivals.
The most historically enduring episode of black Olympic achievement occurred in Berlin in 1936, at the so-called Nazi Olympics. They were the last Olympic Games celebrated before the outbreak of World War II. Though Jews were the chief victims of Nazi efforts to exclude "inferior races" from competing in "Hitler's Games," "negroes" came in for their share of derision. But, America's "Black Auxiliaries," a term coined by Joseph Goebbels's propaganda machine, performed so brilliantly that one of them, Jesse Owens, became the bona fide hero of the games, not only to all Americans, but to folks across the world, including many Germans of non-Nazi persuasion. Owens won four gold medals for first place finishes in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, the long jump, and the 400-meter relay. And Owens was not the entire story. Of ten American black athletes competing in track and field in Berlin, nine won medals, and their total medal count of eight gold, three silver, and two bronze outscored every national team present at the games. In fact, they outscored the medal total of their fifty-six white track and field teammates. The names John Woodruff (800 meters), Archie Williams (400 meters), Cornelius Johnson (high jump), and Ralph Metcalfe (400-meter relay), joined the name Jesse Owens etched into the Berlin stadium's gold medal victory scrolls.
Two black American women made the 1936 Olympic team and competed in Berlin. Though neither placed in their event (low hurdles), Louise Stokes and Anne Pickett became trailblazers for black women competing in future Olympic Games.
Following the conclusion of World War II, the Olympics resumed in London in 1948. These games proved to be a watershed Olympics for African-American participation and achievement. Historically black colleges, such as Tuskegee Institute and Tennessee State University, along with such organizations as the New York Mercury Club, promoted black women's competition in the 1930s. The fruits of such programs resulted in a dozen African-American women competing in track and field events in the 1948 games. Among them, Albany State College's Alice Coachman became the first female African American to win an Olympic gold medal when she won the high jump with an Olympic record of 5 feet 6 inches (about 1.68 meters). In fact, Coachman was the only woman on the American team to win a gold medal.
African-American men achieved an avalanche of gold at the London games. Baldwin-Wallace College's Harrison "Bones" Dillard, acknowledged as the world's best hurdler, failed to make the American team in the high hurdles when he inexplicably knocked over every hurdle and finished last in the qualifying event at the Olympic trials. He did, however, earn a place on the American team in the 100-meter dash and the 400-meter relay. In the 100-meter final, Dillard overtook fellow African American Barney Ewell to win in the record time of 10.3 seconds. African-Trinidadian Lloyd LaBeach finished third; Dillard, Ewell, and fellow African American Lorenzo Wright teamed with Mel Patton to win the 400-meter relay. Mal Whitfield, a black Army Air Force sergeant, won gold in the 800 meters in 1 minute 49.2 seconds, and Willie Steele leaped 25 feet 8 inches (about 7.8 meters) to win the long jump. In other sports Don Barksdale, UCLA's black basketball star, led the U.S. team to the gold medal in Olympic history's second basketball tournament, the inaugural occasion having resulted in an American gold medal in 1936. John Davis, a world-class weight lifter won the heavyweight gold medal by lifting a record total of 997.5 pounds (452.46 kilograms) in his three lifts (press, snatch, and the clean and jerk). In effect, the 1948 London games signaled to the world that African-American athletes, both men and women, would play prominent roles in Olympic achievement in the future.
For well over half a century, black athletes participating in the Olympics represented countries on the continent that Europeans refer to as "the Americas." This was particularly true, but certainly not exclusively, with reference to black athletes from the United States. Following World War II, however, from the disintegration of European colonial empires in Africa, particularly those located in sub-Saharan regions, newly independent countries arose, each embracing largely black populations filled with national pride and eagerness to join the modern world in a number of ways, including international sports. Participation
in the Olympic Games was a natural extension of such aspirations. Starting in 1960 and continuing into the twenty-first century, African athletes have made their mark in those Olympic track events normally classified as "distance running." This history commenced with Ethiopian Abebe Bikila's marathon victories at Rome in 1960 and Tokyo in 1964, and Kenyan Kip Keino's sensational 1,500 meters upset of America's Jim Ryun at Mexico City in 1968. Keeping pace with them in the 1950s and 1960s in Olympic sprint and field events, as well as in boxing and basketball, were scores of African-American gold medalists, among the most notable of which were: boxer Floyd Patterson (Helsinki, 1952); hurdler Lee Calhoun, decathlete Milt Campbell, and basketball players Bill Russell and K. C. Jones (Melbourne, 1956); sprinter Wilma Rudolph, decathlete Rafer Johnson, and basketball player Oscar Robertson (Rome, 1960); sprinters Bob Hayes and Wyomia Tyus, boxers Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) and Joe Frazier, and basketball player Walt Hazzard (Tokyo, 1964); and world-record-setting long jumper Bob Beamon, sprinters James Hines, Tommie Smith, and Lee Evans, and boxer George Foreman (Mexico City, 1968).
The post–World War II fracture of European colonial empires in Africa also played a role in the ultimate exclusion from the modern Olympic Movement of South Africa, a country that, until the 1990s, practiced apartheid. Though black South African individuals were allowed to indulge in sports in a segregated context, South Africa's Olympic teams were reserved for whites. This, of course, flew in the face of the IOC's Olympic Charter dictum, which maintained that no athlete be denied Olympic Games participation "on the grounds of race, religion, politics, or otherwise." There were many in the world, especially other African countries and the Soviet Union, along with marginalized racial groups in Western industrial nations, particularly African Americans in the United States, who rose to argue against South Africa remaining in the Olympic movement. African countries registered their protest by threatening to boycott the 1964 and 1968 games if South Africa was allowed to participate on the basis of its all-white team. As a result of such pressure, South Africa's 1964 Olympic Games invitation was withdrawn by its Tokyo hosts, as was its invitation to the 1968 Mexico City games. Finally, in 1970 South Africa was dismissed from its membership in the modern Olympic movement.
At the 1968 Mexico City games black athletes from the United States (Tommie Smith, Jon Carlos, Vince Matthews, Lawrence James, Ron Freeman, and Lee Evans), collectively galvanized by African-American activist Harry Edwards, registered their personal protests against the social, civil, and economic injustices experienced by blacks living in America by invoking personal demonstrations of disgust at Olympic ceremonies held commensurate with their medal awards. In that regard, one of the most enduring Olympic portraits in history is that of Tommie Smith and Jon Carlos standing on the victory podium with heads bowed and black-gloved fists held defiantly aloft.
In the face of severe global economic sanctions against South Africa for its continuance of apartheid, the Dutch-Boer political power that held it firmly in place finally crumbled in the early 1990s, leading to dissolution of the world-condemned phenomenon and an installation of Nelson Mandela as president of a new South Africa. Very rapidly, sports in growing context became "non-racial," leading to an integrated South African team in time for the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. Before that, in the 1970s and 1980s, increasing numbers of black participants in the Olympic Games occurred, reaching its all-time high in 1984, at which time the U.S. team listed twenty-one African-American female competitors, a number eclipsed almost twofold by their male counterparts. Noteworthy between 1972 and 1990 were the contributions made to American Olympic teams by African-American gold medal athletes, especially in track and field and boxing: Ray Seales for boxing and Rodney Milburn in hurdles (Munich, 1972); Edwin Moses for intermediate hurdles and "Sugar" Ray Leonard and Leon Spinks for boxing (Montreal, 1976); Carl Lewis in the 100-, 200-, and 400-meter races and the long jump and Tyrell Biggs for boxing (Los Angeles, 1984); Andrew Maynard for boxing, Florence Griffith Joyner in 100- and 200-meter races and the 400-meter relay, and Jackie Joyner Kersee in the heptathlon (Seoul, 1988).
Black athletic success during the period was not limited to U.S. citizens. Outstanding was African-Cuban Alberto Juantarena who won both the 400 and 800 meters in 1976 at Montreal, and African-Canadian Ben Johnson who won the 100 meters in 1988 at Seoul and set a new world record of 9.73 seconds to become the "world's fastest human," only to have his title stripped after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. In the 1970s and beyond, many athletes, black and white alike, questioned each other on the pharmaceutical issue. African-Canadian Donovan Bailey won the 100 meters in 1996 at Atlanta to partially vindicate old training comrade Ben Johnson, by then thoroughly disgraced. Finally, Cuban heavyweight boxing dominance, exhibited by three successive gold medals won by Teofilo Stevenson (1984, 1988, 1992), stands unparalleled in the annals of Olympic pugilism.
The first century of Olympic history closed with an indelible record of achievement by black athletes from the Americas. As the Olympics entered their second century of history, the results in 2000 at Sydney and 2004 at Athens confirmed what the second half of the twentieth century had demonstrated: black athletes from African countries, from the Americas, and expatriates from Africa residing in European countries would dominate gold medal performances in track and field events, basketball, and boxing. Evident, too, was the fact that in some Olympic events not traditionally within the province of black athletic expertise—judo, wrestling, and gymnastics, for instance, and even winter sports such as bobsledding—participation by black athletes was becoming more and more common.
Bunch, Lonnie G., and Louie Robinson. The Black Olympians: 1904–1984. Los Angeles: California Afro-American Museum, 1984.
Edwards, Harry. The Revolt of the Black Athlete. New York: Free Press, 1969.
Page, James A. Black Olympian Medalists. Englewood, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited, 1991.
Plowden, Martha Ward. Olympic Black Women. Gretna, La.: Pelican, 1996.
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robert k. barney (2005)
"Olympians." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 15, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/olympians
"Olympians." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Retrieved September 15, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/olympians
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