Talent, Perseverance and Integrity: A celebration of black history in sport

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Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”

Muhammad Ali

The history of the world is often segmented into different cultures and their own histories; this can undersell the importance of the interconnectedness of different people in society. Nowhere is this more apparent than in sport; people of all cultures come together to celebrate the achievements of athletes from many different backgrounds. When looking at “Black History Month” it is important not think of it as a single month where the importance of black history is relevant, as it is always relevant, but a month in which we can focus on black history and the way black communities have molded modern society. It is a time to raise consciousness and educate people on the struggle and achievements of black communities throughout the world and underline their importance.

From Serena Williams to Muhammad Ali, there is a rich history indeed in sporting achievement. Sporting excellence has become a great point of pride amongst many communities of African heritage throughout the world. As well as this, pride comes from the excellence black athletes show beyond the field. Many throughout history have used their sporting success to challenge norms beyond the sport in which they succeed. Using what resources and power they acquired to promote their character and culture, redefining what is expected of a black person.

Colonial oppressors treated slaves as less than human, as physical tools, rather than conscious, intelligent beings. Even with the abolishment of slavery, this deep-seated oppressive mindset continued. Governments underinvested in the education and social welfare of African communities. Discrimination and segregation attempted to block access to higher levels of education and higher-paying jobs; this included higher levels of the sport.

In the US, the 30s and 40s saw the rise of two icons of sport; Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson. Jesse Owens famously broke through at the 1936 German Olympic games rising to superstar status medalling four times. Many who talk of this event focus on the rebellious nature of Owens’ actions. Although Jesse Owens achievement was epic, a perfect counterargument to the hate Hitler was spreading, the reality of the situation has been somewhat romanticised. What occurred was a juxtaposition in the US between Owens’ value as an athlete and his value as a black man.  

Jackie Robinson excelled in the sport of Baseball, going on to become one of the best in the business. He entered the Majors of Baseball in 1947 and was met with racial abuse on and off the field. However, Jackie’s talent was undeniable, rookie of the year, six world series appearances (one win) and has been recognised as player of the year. Owens was key in the civil rights movements of the 1950′; he used his talent to make an influence beyond Baseball, encouraging those in power in the league to fight against racial discrimination. 1948 saw the first Black female win Gold at the Olympics in Alice Coachman. Being African American, she had to do so without access to facilities but did it all the same. Slowly more black athletes were breaking through.

With Owens and Robinson, the contrast between the domestic and international experience is obvious. Whilst the international success of Owens fed into the patriotic narrative of the US, Robinson’s success clashed with the domestic narrative of white superiority over black people. With Jackie Robinson, there was a begrudging acceptance of his talent and strength over time, helping him slowly change things so that African Americans could have more opportunities; on the pitch and off the pitch.

Muhammad Ali is recognised as one of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time but also recognised for his intelligence and charisma. He also did much to fight for black people in the civil discourse through the 1960s and 70s. Firstly, is the name of Muhammad Ali, given to him by Elijah Muhammad (leader of the Nation of Islam) meaning ‘one who is worthy of praise most high’; Ali would also come to be friendly with Malcolm X, a fellow member. Many members of African minorities in colonial nations had given names, a lot of black people during civil and liberation movements rejected these names rescinding them. Instead, they choose names that represented their own culture and family’s histories. Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Clay but was celebrated as Muhammad Ali and took pride in that name. Ali also refused the Vietnam War draft, refusing to die for a country that didn’t respect him, challenging the hypocrisy of the patriotic narrative in a nation divided. Ali’s actions perpetuated the idea that black people are not meat for grinding, his charisma and talent out shun the bigotry of the time. After suspension, conviction and a fine, Ali would continue his career in the 1970s leading to iconic bouts such as “the rumble in the jungle” and “the thrillain manila”. Ali showed that his life mattered more than the American ideology.

The 80s and 90s really saw the rise of “Big Money” black athletes such as Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. There was way more scholarships and funds dedicated to sporting excellence, for many impoverished African communities across the world, this was the only ‘way out’. These communities still faced racial stigma in the media and were not invested in by the government. Despite this, the 80s and 90s were the first time black athletes were more accepted, mainstream and wealthy. This was the first generation to have experienced this; some athletes such as Jordan were criticised for not doing enough for the community despite charitable participation. However, they were treading new waters, the first generation to experience this level of wealth and status on a wide-scale, still by reaching this status they helped inspire a new generation to believe more is possible.

ack athletes were more accepted, mainstream and wealthy. This was the first generation to have experienced this; some athletes such as Jordan were criticised for not doing enough for the community despite charitable participation. However, they were treading new waters, the first generation to experience this level of wealth and status on a wide-scale, still by reaching this status they helped inspire a new generation to believe more is possible.

As the 21st century has developed with wealthy black athletes as a norm, more is now being done to help open opportunities in all facets of life; charitable and non-charitable investment is flowing back into the communities of athletes. In Jamaica, Usain Bolt’s Puma contract was drawn up to ensure support was provided for his former High School, which would give them sporting equipment. Bolt also insists on using Jamaican production crews for a lot of his adverts. Lebron James is well known for his charitable donations recently setting up the “I Promise” for ‘at risk’ children in his hometown of Akron and has also pledged millions of dollars in other charitable donations. Serena Williams set up the Serena Williams Fund that helps promote equality in regard to gender, race, disability and education. Civil movements today continue to celebrate both sporting and academic achievement, with more opportunities and success in both. However, there is still much progress to come, and different black athletes are setting an example beyond just their sport.

The story of this article, although brief, was an attempt to capture an idea of the extraordinary achievements of black athletes through time. Although we still face issues in society today, we can observe the past and be inspired for the future. How their achievement goes beyond sport, how they have used their sporting talent to empower themselves, their community and their culture. No single article can capture the breadth and depth of the contributions of all the achievements of black athletes; however, I hope by expounding the contributions of some icons, the overall story can be embraced and celebrated — a story of talent, perseverance and integrity.

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