“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” -Galatians 3:28
Debuting in Athens, Greece in 1896, the Olympics have historically discriminated against Black athletes. Nevertheless, despite lacking the elite training of white participants, African American athletes shattered records in the early 20th century when given the opportunity to compete. Who were these first Blacks to break barriers as gold medal winners?
The first African American to win an Olympic gold medal was John Baxter Taylor, winner of the 1600-meter relay race in the 1908 London Games. That same year he received his degree in Veterinary Science from the University of Pennsylvania. Tragically, the damp, cold London climate caused Taylor to develop a fatal case of typhoid-pneumonia; he died just months after the Olympics.
Alice Coachman, the first Black woman to win an Olympic gold medal, was not allowed to compete nor practice in local training facilities due to Jim Crow segregation laws in Georgia; so she tied such things as rags, ropes and sticks together to enable her to practice high jumping every day. Holding the national high jump record for ten years, in 1948 Coachman jumped 5’6” to set a new Olympic record.
One of the greatest athletes of the 20th century, Wilma Rudolph, broke world records in track and field in the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Weighing only 4-1/2 pounds at birth and 20th of 22 children, Rudolph suffered from double pneumonia, scarlet fever, and a paralyzed leg at the age of 4. It was a miracle she survived, let alone won three gold Olympic medals!
In 2002 in Salt Lake City, Vonetta Flowers, on the American bobsled team, was the world’s first Black athlete to win Olympic gold at Winter Games.
Thanks to these African American athletes for their inspiration and determination, paving the way for future generations of Olympians.