Commonly viewed as a social arena in which egalitarian principles of fair conduct determine the outcome of competition, the world of sport is an arena where fortitude of mind and body coalesce into singular focus, actualizing athletic success. While this merit-based view of athletics represents the ethos of sport itself, it is crucial to note that athletic competition, like any social arena, is invariably influenced by the related phenomena of race and racial discrimination. In Donald Spivey's (2004) apt assessment, "The sanctum of sport is premised on the unofficial doctrines of equality of opportunity, sportsmanship, and fair play. It is thus a perfect arena for the exposure of the dual nature of American society, with its paradoxical blend of democracy and inequality" (p. 148). Though Spivey focuses specifically on the contradictions inherent in the pursuit of athletic achievement within the context of American societal racism, critical readers of sport history must also consider the impact of race and racism within a broader diasporic context, for the predominance of scientific racism, the legacy of Jim Crow, and the impact of colonization and decolonization in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean have determined modern interpretations of black athletic achievement.
Viewed in this manner, sport becomes a symbolic battleground upon which varying ideological and sociopolitical discourses on race and hegemony have been fought in the twentieth century. The black athlete, consequently, has come to symbolize epochal moments of political consciousness, as his/her political stance falls along a continuum, reflecting varying responses to the dialectic of oppression and resistance that lies at the heart of the African diasporic experience.
To properly contextualize black athletic achievement in the twentieth century, it is crucial to first consider the ideological and social impact of scientific racism. During the mid- to late nineteenth century, scientific racism proved to be the ideological rationalization for the enslavement and colonization of Africans and other "subject" races. Canonized scholars, such as Joseph Arthur, Comte de Gobineau, and Charles Darwin, devoted entire volumes to the hierarchical ranking of the races, which placed Europeans and European civilization at its apex, and African and African civilization at its nadir. Attesting that Gobineau's theories justify the exploitation of slavery and imperialism by proclaiming the unusual stamina of subject peoples, Miller stated:
Such assertions about European superiority, as strained as they were, also constituted arguments for white supremacy. The ideology of empire thus incorporated the so-called feeble races into elaborate systems of hard labor: the institution of slavery in the United States and colonial workforces elsewhere around the world. Stamina … as a kind of brutish endurance, the ability to "bear fatigue" would ultimately be conceived as a trait characteristic of subject peoples who would work on the plantations … that fed, clothed and enriched imperialism. (Miller, 2000, p. 331)
In Gobineau's view, subject peoples are able to tolerate fatigue; therefore, their subjugation is not immoral, it is banal.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, racialist theories, seemingly influenced by the earlier work of Gobineau, were used to explain the late-nineteenth-century athletic achievements of blacks. Twentieth-century racial theorists reinterpreted stamina, or brutish strength, as innate athleticism resulting from innate anthropometric difference. These theorized physical differences became common literary fare, as evinced by Miller's citation of a 1900 Encyclopedia Britannica entry:
By 1900 … another dimension of scientific racism could be discerned. Rather than simply reinforce prevailing notions of Negro inferiority, experts felt compelled to account for the extraordinary achievements of some black athletes. In the face of an increasing number of victories posted by African Americans, the mainstream culture began to qualify the meanings of excellence in sport. The Encyclopedia Britannica had described "the abnormal length of the arm" and "the low instep." Increasingly, these specifications would be advanced as reasons for black success in sports. (p. 331)
Thus, at the dawn of the twentieth century, American society was exposed to social Darwinist thought, which not only discounts the rigor and mental discipline behind black athletic achievement through pseudo-scientific claims of inborn athleticism but also connotes intellectual inferiority as well. Although the commonly held view of innate black athleticism and the anthropometry promulgated by the Encyclopedia Britannica would be disproved by African-American scholar W. Montague Cobb's experiments on Jesse Owens in 1935, the early-twentieth-century boxing career of Jack Johnson reveals the sociopolitical impact of racialist theories on African-American athletic achievement.
Johnson's ascendance to the heavyweight throne stirred national controversy on many levels. First and fore-most, Johnson refused to placate American society by adhering to white supremacist notions of subservient "negro" behavior. Becoming one of the most vilified public figures in American history, he willfully violated taboo by marrying several white women and adopting a bohemian lifestyle at a time when the Ku Klux Klan terrorized African Americans throughout the country. Of his dangerously unconventional lifestyle, Johnson remarked that he was "not a slave…. I have the right to choose who my mate shall be without the dictation of any man…. I have eyes and I have a heart … and when they fail to tell me who I shall have for mine I want to be put away in a lunatic asylum" (Gilmore, 1975, p. 14).
Johnson's indomitable spirit clearly incurred the wrath of early-twentieth-century American society, and while he is not typically considered an example of revolutionary African-American consciousness, his open defiance of racist norms represents a measure of self-determination atypical of most African Americans in the 1900s. Given Johnson's exceptional confidence and self-possession, it is not surprising that he issued a challenge to then heavyweight titleholder Tommy Burns in 1907, after learning that the Canadian champ would cross the color line unlike the majority of white contenders at the time. Johnson and Burns met for "the fight of the century" in Australia one year later, and predictions of race war made for an intensely charged social climate: "McIntosh announced to the world that Burns and Johnson would fight for the championship…. The declaration unleashed an outpouring of racial bigotry…. The Australian Star offered the opinion that 'this battle may in the future be looked upon as the first great battle of an inevitable race war'" (McCaffrey, 2000, pp. 197–199). Johnson won the match after fourteen rounds, becoming the first man of African descent to win the world heavyweight title.
Johnson's victory over Burns began the search for a "Great White Hope" who could defeat him. In 1909, one year after his title-winning fight against Burns, Johnson easily defeated five white American challengers. Though Johnson had clearly proven himself to be a formidable boxer, most white Americans did not believe him to be the rightful champion, because he defeated Burns and not the undefeated American champion, Jim Jeffries. Finding himself once again at the center of controversy, Johnson met Jeffries in 1910, and it was this second major bout of Johnson's championship career that revealed the degree to which Americans' acceptance of social Darwinist thought had peaked: "From the very first, it was advertised as a match of civilization and virtue against savagery and baseness…. Humanity needed Jeffries. He had inherited the White Man's Burden" (Roberts, 2000, p. 45). Jeffries echoed this sentiment by announcing that he would not "disappoint the public. That portion of the white race that has been looking to defend its athletic superiority may feel assured that I am fit to do my best" (Roberts, 2000, p. 58). Jeffries's proclamations of superior fitness were in vain, for Johnson defeated him and remained world heavyweight champion until 1915.
While Jack Johnson was a youth in the late nineteenth century up until the end of his boxing career in 1915, baseball was thriving in Cuba and among African Americans and Afro-Cubans in the Negro leagues. Numerous baseball teams, referred to as nines, were formed among African Americans in the United States and among Cubans, both in Cuba and in the Negro leagues: "African Americans and Cubans, however, had joined in the baseball fever long before the majors were formed. By 1900 the two peoples had fielded hundreds of nines in their respective communities. Baseball clearly and decisively captured both peoples' imaginations and developed parallel to the game in North America" (Brock and Bayne, 1998, p. 170).
As the American national pastime, baseball's parallel development among African-American and Cuban play-ers may be analyzed through the lens of national identity formation. Continually faced with racial discrimination, African Americans have, according to W. E. B. Du Bois, perceived of their existence from within "the Veil" of "double consciousness." This consciousness of being at once black, subject to the vilest forms at racism, and American creates a bifurcated identity that African Americans ever attempt to reconcile. In their creation of a parallel sphere of baseball, African Americans seemingly reconciled their identities as lovers of the national pastime and as members of a larger African-American community. Barred from participating in the major leagues, African-American baseball players in the Negro leagues gave full expression to their American identity by playing the game among themselves. Interestingly, in Cuba baseball took on nationalistic overtones as Cubans conceptualized the sport as a symbol of Cuban national identity as distinct from their former Spanish colonial identity. These African-American and Cuban players who perceived baseball as a type of national inheritance confounded white American baseball players during off-season exhibition games, known as barnstorming.
As barnstorming brought the exceptional play of African Americans and Cubans to the immediate attention of white players, these exhibition games not only allowed players to hone their skills by playing unfamiliar teams, they also provided baseball players a means of supple-menting their incomes. Thus, despite Jim Crow's hold over most team sports, white, African-American, and Cuban players competed against each other. As Lanctot (2000) confirms:
Organized baseball, despite its unwritten yet unyielding ban on African Americans after 1899, hardly remained isolated from black professional baseball. Eager to supplement their modest salaries, major and minor league players arranged exhibition games against black professional clubs…. As early as 1885, the Cuban Giants booked games against the New York Metropolitans and the Philadelphia Athletics … and later faced other league clubs, including the St. Louis Browns and Cincinnati Red Stockings as well as … the Kansas City Cowboys, Indianapolis Hoosiers, Boston Beaneaters, and Detroit Wolverine. (p. 63)
In addition to barnstorming against African Americans and Cubans on American soil, white American teams also traveled to Cuba during the off-season, continuing their unspoken rivalry with the best Cuban teams: "Since the 1890's, organized baseball teams had traveled to Cuba in the winter to face increasingly stiff local competition. In 1908, the Cincinnati Reds … lost seven of eleven games to Cuban teams…" (Lanctot, 2000, p. 65).
The undisputed dominance of Cuban baseball players created a conundrum for white American teams adhering to the color line, for most Cuban players were visibly of African descent. New Britain of the Connecticut League signed four light-skinned Cubans, and the Cincinnati Reds signed Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeidau. Darker Cubans, like famed pitcher Jose Mendez, remained unsigned by major and minor league white teams.
Darker skinned Afro-Cubans, however, were eagerly welcomed in the Negro leagues where, "the first team of professional Cubans known to play on the black circuit were the All-Cubans in 1904" (Brock and Bayne, 1998, p. 177). Several other Cuban teams, including the Havana Cubans, the Cuban Stars, and the Cuban Stars-East, were
signed to the Negro leagues during the 1900s and 1920s, firmly establishing their incorporation within the Negro leagues. According to one baseball organizer who described the disappointment of African American fans when "the Cuban Stars … of Cincinnati … did not return to the United States the next year, fans of the west were deprived the privilege of seeing one of the most colorful clubs, and one of the strongest baseball clubs ever assembled in any league" (Brock and Bayne, 1998, p. 182).
Ironically, at the same time that African-American and Cuban baseball players thrived in the segregated, parallel sphere of the Negro leagues in 1918, Paul Robeson, an African-American student at Rutgers University, broke the color-line in football, becoming the first African American selected to the All-American football team. After he graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Rutgers and attended Columbia University Law School, Robeson's athletic career featured brief stints with the Akron Pros and the Milwaukee Badgers. Though Robeson's professional athletic career was brief, it is highly significant that Robeson was a former athlete who transitioned into two careers—theater and international political activism—that were ostensibly distinct from athletics. Although Robeson's selection onto the All-American teams represents an exception to the color line in sports, America was not alone in its racialist practices; racial segregation was also prevalent in Brazil. Only there, the national game in question was soccer.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, soccer in Brazil was the sport of the country's European colonial elite; these Europeans and Euro-Brazilians maintained de facto segregation in soccer through the establishment of soccer clubs. These clubs provided recreation for Brazil's upper classes; businessmen, professionals, and politicians socialized together and competed against one another. Like most social sporting clubs of this nature, Brazilian soccer clubs came to symbolize class and privilege, its members both wealthy and white. In order to join these clubs, Afro-Brazilians were forced to find patrons willing to sponsor their membership; needless to say, this sponsorship clause was merely used as a ploy, ostensibly proving that Brazilian soccer clubs did not officially practice racial segregation. The exclusion of Afro-Brazilian players thus reinforced extant race, caste, and class hierarchies within Brazil's colonial society and led to the formation of parallel soccer clubs reflective of the players' respective social positions:
The clubs … represented and dramatized other social differences … in Rio, Fluminese was associated with the old, high-status families, Flamengo the team of the poor and the blacks, Vasco da Gama supported by Portuguese migrants and their Brazilian-born descendants while Botafogo attracted the modern middle class. (Mason, 1995, p. 97)
The late 1920s and early 1930s would prove to be a significant era in the growth of Brazilian soccer. On May 13, 1927, a black-versus-white soccer match was held in celebration of Abolition Day; Afro-Brazilians won the first two matches, proving themselves worthy opponents undeserving of strictures limiting their potential range of competitors. This competition may have catalyzed the integration of Brazil's elite soccer clubs. Brazilian soccer clubs were beginning to integrate; nevertheless, racism was maintained in the Liga Metropolitana de Desportos Terrestres (LMDT). The LMDT instituted exclusionary practices similar to those of the late-nineteenth-century elite soccer clubs. Though it did not formally ban blacks, the LMDT instituted a type of literacy test that would prevent both black and poor soccer players from competing:
… in an astonishing attempt to … keep top football for the better-off player they introduced the AMEA card. Before each game every player had to complete one in the presence of officials and include the name, nationality, date of birth, place of study and workplace of the player. In a country where neither education nor literacy was widespread this was a test intended to exclude the poor white as well as the black player. (Mason, 1995, p. 50)
Thus, as white soccer clubs became increasingly aware of black soccer talent, the Brazilian sporting establishment seemed dedicated to maintaining a degree of racial segregation in soccer.
The 1930s—the Vargas era—represent a period in Brazilian history when nation building was of utmost importance; soccer was recognized as integral to this process of national and cultural identification:
The Vargas era was a turning point in the relationship between football and politics. From this time not only the Federal Government but individual politicians would try to associate themselves with what was becoming an increasing powerful manifestation of Brazilian popular culture … the success of Brazilian football abroad, both at the club and international level, illuminated the name of Brazil for the rest of the world to see. (Mason, 1995, p. 63)
Clearly, the Brazilian government viewed soccer as a means of glorifying its country's presence on the world stage; as national propaganda became a priority, it followed that the government would encourage the recruitment of the best players onto its teams. As a result, those Afro-Brazilian players who excelled would be selected by soccer clubs, so that their outstanding play abroad would become synonymous with Brazil's greatness as a nation. It is not surprising, then, that "Fausto, one of the great black attacking centre-halves … compared himself to an orange which would one day be left as pulp by his white bosses" (Mason, 1995, p. 56). Fausto's experience of exploitation, however unfortunate, is indicative of widespread institutionalized discrimination against Afro-Brazilians. In Moore's study of institutionalized racism in Brazilian society from 1964 to 1985, Fauso's claims of exploitation may be substantiated by statistics revealing that semi-professional and professional soccer in Brazil offered socio-economic opportunity for Afro-Brazilians living in poverty. In Moore's estimation, "Afro-Brazilians are faced with tremendous disadvantages in the arena of education, and nowhere is this more telling than in the area of illiteracy…. Blacks had two times more chances than Whites of being illiterate, and Whites had four times more opportunities of going to the university than Blacks." (p. 402). Given that illiteracy remained a serious impediment to acquiring a college degree for Afro-Brazilians, it is not surprising that many viewed soccer as an opportunity for greater socio-economic mobility.
As Afro-Brazilians became more visible in soccer during the 1930s, African-American athletes were steeling themselves against domestic and international pressure to boycott the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), along with several international and domestic human rights groups, grew increasingly vocal against the Nazi regime's racialist ideology of Aryan supremacy and its anti-Semitism. A widespread media campaign, involving several of the nation's leading newspapers, debated the issue of American, and particularly African-American, participation in the Games. While a relatively small number of African-American Olympians supported the boycott movement, the majority of athletes resented the AAU's sudden interest in the plight of Jews, when the organization had done nothing to assist its American athletes of African descent: "The most powerful of American amateur sport bodies continually rallied against the cruelties inflicted by the Hitler government but generally did nothing to improve the plight of black athletes in America." (Wiggins, 1997, p. 69).
Jesse Owens' historic four-gold-medal performance was one of several outstanding track-and-field performances of African Americans that earned a staggering half of the American Olympic team's total of 167 medals. Other African American medalists in track and field included Ralph Metcalfe, Mack Robinson (Jackie Robinson's older brother), Archie Williams, James Luvalle, John Woodruff, Cornelius Johnson, David Albritton, and Fritz Pollard, Jr. Thus, in a single Olympiad, African American athletes had disproved Hitler's theory of Aryan supremacy, which only months earlier had seemingly been substantiated by Max Schmeling's defeat of Joe Louis.
The symbolism of Joe Louis's rematch against Schmeling in 1938, consequently, took on epic proportions. Unlike the Johnson-Jeffries bout in which Social Darwinist theories of racial superiority were tested, the Louis-Schmeling match became a struggle that not only tested racial fitness; it became a battle between opposing political philosophies: democracy and justice versus fascism and oppression, with Louis and Schmeling as warring political icons: "The political mood of the country had changed dramatically in the brief two-year span between their first meeting in 1936…. With the increasing militaristic ten sion of the times, both fighters became living symbols of their respective countries' fundamental beliefs" (William Wiggins, 2004, p. 138). Louis's victory announced the perpetuity of American democratic values; furthermore, his subsequent acts of patriotism—donating a combined total of $82,000 to the Army and Navy Relief Funds, and enlisting in the Army—enshrined him as a national hero whose broad based appeal was unmatched by any other athlete in history.
While Joe Louis's triumph over Max Schmeling was an inspiration to millions of Americans, the sport of boxing was intensely scrutinized among British colonial officials in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Chief Native Commissioner Bullock strongly believed that in order to maintain British imperial order, colonial subjects should not be encouraged to take up the sport, believing that, "boxing would make urban Africans aggressive" (Ranger, 1997, p. 203). Aggressive Africans would be more difficult to rule, more confrontational, less willing to maintain their prescribed subject positions. In addition to fearing widespread African recalcitrance, Bullock was also wary of the tribal linkages that could potentially be strengthened through the event of national boxing tournaments, linkages among Africans that could potentially threaten British colonial rule: "Bullock … was himself most worried by the far-ranging tribal networks that underlay the boxing factions of Salisbury" (Ranger, 1997, p. 203). Thus, in boxing, England's chief colonial officer saw something far more troubling than the pursuit of athleticism; Bullock saw the potential for national consciousness and self-determination, the necessary components for decolonization, which directly threatened British hegemony in Rhodesia and on the greater African continent.
As Joe Louis continued to dominate boxing and African men in Rhodesia were prevented from doing so, African-American women were beginning to emerge as international track-and-field stars. Just one year after Jackie Robinson's historic integration of the major leagues, Alice Coachman became the first woman of African descent to win a gold medal at the 1948 London Olympics. Dominating the high jump, Coachman also became the first American woman to win an individual track-and-field medal at the Games. Despite the groundbreaking nature of Coachman's achievement, she did not become famous as Owens had only twelve years earlier and as Jackie Robinson had one year before. Coachman, like other African-American women athletes, remained a relatively obscure figure whose accomplishments were never properly acknowledged by the white media. Explaining the white American media's disregard for Coachman's achievement, Cahn (2000) writes:
For the most part black women athletes were simply ignored by the white media. Figures like Alice Coachman … or Mildred McDaniel, the only American woman to win an individual gold medal in the 1956 Olympic track-and-field competition, did not become national celebrities … or even the subject of magazine feature stories. The most striking feature of the historical record on black women athletes is neglect. (p. 220)
Though the triumphs of African-American female track-and-field athletes were ignored by white American society, these women—like the Negro league players of the 1900s—honed their skills in the parallel sphere of historically black colleges where young African-American women were encouraged to participate in track-and-field events. At Tuskegee Institute, where the first collegiate women's track meet was held as early as 1929, Coachman traveled with her teammates throughout the South to compete in track meets in the 1930s. Traveling through the Jim Crow South, away from the haven of Tuskegee, these young women were exposed to the harsh realities of American racism.
As American society in the 1930s and 1940s saw the rise of Joe Louis as a symbol of democracy and justice, British colonial subjects in Trinidad began to view their native cricketers as national heroes. In Beyond a Boundary, noted Trinidadian scholar C.L. R. James underscores the manner in which the British colonial hierarchy created racial, caste, and class divisions in cricket, and the society at-large, engendering widespread discrimination against Trinidadians of African descent. Of famous Afro-Trinidadian batsman Wilton St. Hill's outstanding play and his subsequent failure to be selected for the Trinidadian team in 1923, James writes:
to tens of thousands of coloured Trinidadians the unquestionable glory of St. Hills batting conveyed the sensation that here was one of us, performing in excelsis…. It was a demonstration that atoned for a pervading humiliation, and nourished pride and hope…. Wilton St. Hill was our boy…. We became convinced … that St. Hill was the greatest of all West Indian batsmen and on English wickets this coloured man would infallibly put all white rivals in the shade. And they too were afraid of precisely the same thing. (p. 93)
That St. Hill was deemed a Trinidadian national hero is significant, for in embracing St. Hill as a hero, Trinidadians broke the long-standing colonial tradition of idealizing, and idolizing, British culture and British heroes. What is more, St. Hill's superior play refuted theories of inherent British superiority. If St. Hill could beat the British at their own game, surely an entire nation of Trinidadians could direct the destiny of their own country. Thus, among Trinidadians a burgeoning sense of national consciousness was born, and though they were still colonial subjects they were beginning to experience the stirrings of national pride, a crucial element of national self-definition and self-determination.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, James established a career as a noted cricket writer who continually advocated for the inclusion of Afro-Trinidadian players on the country's national teams. As his editorial agitation for these players' recognition intensified, so did his political beliefs, and in 1932 James penned the influential text, The Case for West Indian Self-Rule. This seminal text, according to James, was partially responsible for the politicization of oilfield workers throughout the Caribbean, who were used as an exploited colonial labor force to supply England with an inexpensive oil supply. On The Case for West Indian Self-Rule's influence on West Indian colonial laborers, James (1983) writes:
Trinidad workers in the oilfields moved. They were followed by masses of people in all the other islands, closing one epoch in West Indian history and opening another…. When the upheavals did take place these books were high on the list of those few that helped them to make the mental and moral transition which the new circumstances required. (p. 121)
The closing epoch of which James writes is that of colonialism; the emerging one is that of decolonization. Thus, through his and the Trinidadians' love of cricket an independent national consciousness was born; it was a consciousness that allowed James to launch his unflinching assault on the racist colonial practices inherent to the game itself, and intrinsic to Trinidadian colonial society.
West Indian decolonization of the 1960s mirrored the national liberation movements on the African continent, and the American civil rights and Black Power movements. The seeds of dissent and self-determination germinated throughout the African diaspora, and its athletes, from Ethiopia to America, became symbols of black liberation. With Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila's historic marathon victory in Rome, the 1960 Olympics seemed to herald both the arrival of the African athlete and the age of African nationalism: "Finally, in 1960 Abebe Biklila of Ethiopia ran the marathon barefoot through the streets of Rome to claim the first gold medal for a black African nation" (Baker, 1987, p. 275). Bikila's gold-medal performance marked the beginning of African runners' more than forty-year dominance of distance running that, to date, shows no sign of waning. Although the historical significance of Bikila's marathon win is unquestionable, the athlete that would most famously come to symbolize black people's struggle for self-determination would be former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali.
In 1964, during the height of the civil rights movement and the pinnacle of Malcolm X's ministry with the Nation of Islam, Muhammad Ali publicly announced his conversion from Christianity to the Black Muslim faith. Formerly known as Cassius Clay, a patriot, Ali shocked America by joining a religious order known for its interrelated doctrines of racial separatism, African-American self-reliance, and African-American pride. Ali took a political stance in joining the Black Muslim order, and it was a stance that many Americans deemed far too radical: "Ali's conversion from Christian to Muslim seemed to some whites much like going from Stepin Fetchit to Nat Turner. The change broke a compact that Americans had forged with their black athletes—'be good negroes and enjoy the fruits of athletic success'" (Zang, 2000, p. 290). In deciding to chart the course of his own sociopolitical destiny as an African American, Ali, like Jack Johnson before him, defied white Americans' preconceived notions of acceptable black behavior.
In 1966 Ali became a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, famously remarking, "Man, I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong" (Zang, 2000, p. 294). The following year, Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title for failing to report for military duty. Though he would not regain his title until 1974, his act of conscience inspired the birth of the 1968 Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), led by San Jose State College professor Harry Edwards, which called for African-American athletes to boycott the 1968 Games in Mexico City. The OPHR's principal demands included the
restoration of Muhammad Ali's title and right to box in this country; removal of the anti-semitic and anti-black personality Avery Brundage from … the International Olympic Committee; curtailment of participation of all-white teams … from the Union of South Africa and Southern Rhodesia in all United States and Olympic Athletic Events…. (Edwards, 1970, p. 59)
The Olympic Committee did, in fact, bar South Africa from competing in the games; as a result African-American athletes did not boycott the Games. Rather, they participated and symbolically displayed their solidarity with the growing Black Power movement: "Tommie Smith and John Carlos startled the world on October 16 when they bowed their heads in defiance and raised black-gloved fists high in the air while on the Olympic victory stand…" (Wiggins, 1997, p. 110).
While Smith and Carlos's display ignited strong reactions both within the Olympic Village and without, the 1972 Munich Games found yet another black athlete asserting his socio-political identity. Teofilo Stevenson, an Afro-Cuban boxer, competed for the Olympic heavyweight title. Following his gold-medal win, "Stevenson rejected a one million dollar offer to defect from Cuba and fight Ali" (Sugden, p. 191). Stevenson declined the offer, explaining: "not any money in the world is worth losing the love of millions of Cubans" (Sugden, p. 146).
Clearly, Stevenson privileged his national identity as a Cuban above his identity as an athlete; more significant to him than material wealth was his membership within the greater political collective of his native country. It is important to consider that Stevenson grew up during the Cuban Revolution, when anti-American imperialist sentiment ran high. As Sugden emphasizes: "After the revolution the deepening hostility in relations between Castro's government and the United States increased nationalism within Cuba" (Sugden, 1996, p. 150). Given that Stevenson was a young boy inculcated into nationalistic, revolutionary doctrine, his refusal of monetary gains is not surprising. In this manner, Stevenson was seemingly fulfilling his duties as a revolutionary Cuban. As Sugden (1996) further argues: "Olympic achievement provided a showcase for Castro's and Che Guevara's vision of the 'new Cuban' athletic hero who was nurtured through socialism and who participates purely for the love of his country" (p. 150). Stevenson's love of country was evident; regardless of his political indoctrination, he flatly refused a great deal of money that would have ensured him a life of comfort and ease. His rejection of the offer seemingly marked the end of an era, for in the coming decades, lucrative athletic contracts and endorsements would become much more common among black athletes than would acts of political conscience.
In 1984, Michael Jordan was not yet a household name; however, his relative anonymity would prove to be short-lived as the then National Basketball Association rookie would be catapulted into worldwide fame both on and off the court. Jordan's incomparable skills and daring play became well known to basketball fans: "There seemed to be nothing that Jordan could not do on the basketball court. His slam-dunk is legendary and he seems to defy gravity as he flies through the air" (Kellner, p. 309). As he continued to thrill spectators on the court, his lucrative contracts also became the subject of great discussion. During his rookie year with the Chicago Bulls, Jordan entered into his first highly profitable contract with Nike; over the next decade several others followed. Because Jordan's earning power seemed infinite, he opened the door for African-American athletes to obtain lucrative endorsement deals: "It is generally acknowledged that he was one of the first African American athletes to break advertising's color barrier, paving the way for lucrative contracts for the next generation of black athletes" (Kellner, p. 310). Unlike post–World War I and World War II athletes for whom a color barrier connoted Jim Crow segregation, which barred them from competition, in the post–civil rights era, the only color barrier that Jordan had to cross was one of potential earning power, a far cry from being unable to compete, or being underpaid because of race. Because of trailblazers like Harry Edwards and Bill Russell, who spoke out on the professional sports worlds' consistent under-payment of African-American athletes, Jordan did not have to concern himself with worries over equal pay. On the contrary, Jordan's 1984 Nike contract was unprecedented for a rookie player (Kellner, p. 311). Thus, the 1990s found Jordan unstoppable on the court as well as in the boardrooms.
When Jordan's unstoppable play and mounting endorsements created a one-man media frenzy in the early 1990s, Tiger Woods and Venus and Serena Williams were teenage prodigies, already showing signs that they would revolutionize golf and tennis.
As an African-American golfer of extraordinary talent, it is widely acknowledged that Tiger Woods completely changed the game. Prior to Woods, the game had maintained its reputation as the sport of America's white elite; however, once Woods became a force to be reckoned with, African Americans' historical exclusion from America's fairways seemed to have been vindicated: "Most astonishing of all, Woods has taken the most shameful theme of golf's history … and turned it inside out. For a hundred years, golf in American has stood as a potent symbol of exclusion and racial intolerance" (Owen, 2001, p. 177). Indeed, Woods' mastery of the game does provide a degree of retribution to black golfers. However, one must also consider that early-twentieth-century African-American golfers, like their fellow sportsmen in the Negro leagues, also established the parallel realm of the United States Colored Golf Association (USCGA), later renamed the (UGA). Equally worthy of note is that the first man to patent the golf tee was an African American by the name of Dr. George Franklin Grant, a dentist from Boston (Sinette, pp. 7–11). Woods's accomplishments in golf are too numerous to list here; suffice it to say that his stellar play not only vindicates African-American exclusion from the sport; it also honors those African American pioneers in golf, like Dr. Grant, who came before him.
Similar to Woods, the Williams sisters transformed the country club sport of tennis. Unconventionally coached by their father, who learned the game by watching instructional videos and reading tennis books, Venus and Serena Williams perfected their game on the asphalt courts of Compton, California, a neighborhood known for widespread drug and gang activity. From the moment Venus turned professional in 1994, and Serena in 1995, the Williams sisters established themselves as athletic virtuosos able to prove that they would—just as they had predicted early into their careers—forever change the game of women's tennis.
Since the dawn of the twentieth century, the black athletic achievement in the African diaspora has come to symbolize various historical and ideological struggles. As a result, black athletes in America, Africa, and the Caribbean have been alternately vilified and lionized by their respective societies. Dramatically altering the black athlete's past political activism, however, have been sociopolitical and socio-economic gains made possible by the national independence struggles in Africa and the Caribbean, and the civil rights and Black Power movements in the United States.
The one societal factor that remains unchanged, that is, remains endemic to the interpretation of black athletic achievement, however, is racism. As recently as the 1980s two well-known sports personalities, Al Campanis, a former Major League Baseball official, and Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, revealed the extent to which the tenets of scientific racism and social Darwinism are still followed. Campanis remarked that: "blacks performed well on the field but lacked 'the necessities' to occupy managerial positions … in the front offices of sports organizations" (Miller, p. 338). In this statement Campanis not only revealed his belief in the intellectual inferiority of blacks; he also revealed his ignorance. Former Celtic Bill Russell coached the Boston Celtics from 1966 to 1969, at which time he led the Celtics to two NBA championships; the Seattle Supersonics from 1973 to 1977; and the Sacramento Kings from 1987 to 1988. Campanis's ideological partner in crime, Jimmy "The Greek," expostulated on Darwinian evolutionary theory, stating: "The slave owner would breed his big black with his big woman so that he could have a big black kid" (Miller, p. 338). The big black kid of whom The Greek so crudely speaks is the black athlete.
Over a century has passed since the works of Gobineau and Darwin were published, and it remains painfully obvious that racialist theories of innate black athleticism and deficient black intelligence are still accepted as truth. The fact that these theories have been repeatedly disproved throughout the twentieth century is, apparently, of no interest to the believers, because as recently as 2000 the latest addition to the canon of racialist theory was published: John Entine's Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sport and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It. It is unclear why Entine thinks the subject of black athletic achievement is taboo. Black athletic achievement has been debated for over two centuries and, as Entine has shown, the accomplishments of black athletes will continue to ignite sociopolitical discourse on either side of the ideological divide.
See also Ali, Muhammad; Baseball; Basketball; Boxing; Gibson, Althea; Johnson, Jack; Jordan, Michael; Louis, Joe; Olympians; Owens, Jesse; Robeson, Paul; Robinson, Jackie; Soccer; Tennis; Williams, Venus and Serena; Woods, Tiger
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larose parris (2005)
"Sports." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sports-0
"Sports." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Retrieved May 19, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sports-0
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