George Poage first Black Olympic medalist
Poage makes history as the first Black American athlete to win an Olympic medal when he wins bronze medals in the 1904 St. Louis Olympics in the 200-meter hurdles (since discontinued) and the 400-meter hurdles. Poage competes despite many prominent Black leaders calling for a boycott of the Olympics that year because organizers had built segregated spectator facilities for the event and refused to integrate the Olympics or that year’s World’s Fair in St. Louis. Poage, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, is also the first Black athlete to win a race in the Big Ten Conference track championships.
Fritz Pollard breaks color barrier in professional football. Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Bill Willis and Marion Motley reintegrate the NFL.
Pollard, a Black man, begins his professional football career in 1919, joining the Akron Pros. Two years later in 1921, he becomes the first Black coach in NFL history after being named co-coach of the team. In 1923, Pollard becomes the first Black quarterback in the league’s history as a member of the Hammond Pros. After Pollard leaves the game, NFL owners refuse to sign Black players until 1946, when the Los Angeles Coliseum threatens not to host Los Angeles Rams home games unless the team signs an African American player. It was then that the Rams sign UCLA standouts Washington and Strode. Willis and Motley, two future Hall of Famers, would join the Cleveland Browns later that year. In 2005, Pollard is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
DeHart Hubbard first Black Olympic gold medalist
Hubbard becomes the first Black American athlete to earn an Olympic gold medal when he wins the men’s long jump at the 1924 Paris Olympics. In a meet in Chicago in June 1925, Hubbard set a long jump world record of 7.89 meters (25 feet, 10 ¾ inches), and a year later in Cincinnati, equaled the world record in the 100-yard dash (9.6 seconds). Hubbard worked for the Cincinnati Public Recreation Committee after graduating from the University of Michigan. In 1942, Hubbard moved to Cleveland where he became a race relations adviser for the Federal Housing Authority until his retirement in 1967.
Olympic champion helps create Black History Month
Ralph Metcalfe was a public servant and Olympic champion. In the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Metcalfe was second in the 100-meter dash behind Jesse Owens, and teamed with Owens and two others on the gold-medal and world-record setting 4×100 relay team. He also won the silver medal at the Los Angeles Summer Olympics in 1932 in the men’s 100-meter dash and a bronze medal in the 200-meter dash. After his athletic career, he served four terms as a city council member in Chicago before serving in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1971-78. Metcalfe was a co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, and in 1977 introduced the resolution officially designating February as Black History Month, which became law in 1986. Committed to fighting against racism, Metcalfe said, “In the caucus we have decided to put the interests of Black people first—above all else, and that means even going against our party or our political leaders if Black interests don’t coincide with their positions.”
Jesse Owens wins four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin
Owens won four gold medals in the long jump, 100 and 200-meter dashes and the 400-meter relay at the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany. During the Games, Owens and German athlete Luz Long forged a friendship and proved that competitors can also be allies. After Owens defeated Long in the long jump, the two celebrated together in a gesture of sportsmanship and friendship and a classic example of the unifying nature of sport. When Owens returned to the U.S., however, he still faced racism in a segregated country and was never even congratulated by the White House for his record-breaking Olympics. Owens said “Hitler didn’t snub me; it was our president who snubbed me.”
Jackie Robinson becomes the first Black player in Major League Baseball
“I am not concerned with your liking or disliking me. All I ask is that you respect me as a human being,” says Robinson, who breaks the MLB color barrier when he takes the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers after executive Branch Rickey signs him to a historic contract. Robinson wins the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 1947, and two years he later he’s honored as the league’s Most Valuable Player. Robinson helps the Dodgers win six National League pennants and the 1955 World Series title. In 1962, Robinson becomes a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Coachman first Black woman to win Olmypic gold
Alice Coachman became the first Black woman to win an Olympic gold medal when she won the high jump for the U.S. at the 1948 London Olympics. Coachman was often turned away from athletic facilities growing up because of her race and sex and trained where she could. Following her win in the Olympics, Coachman became the first Black woman to endorse an international product when the Coca-Cola Company hired her as a spokesperson and featured her in billboard advertising with Jesse Owens. Coachman has been credited with helping open the door for future U.S. Black women’s track stars such as Evelyn Ashford, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and Florence Griffith Joyner.
Ted Corbitt, “The Father of Distance Running”
Ted Corbitt, the grandson of slaves, was the first Black marathoner named to the U.S. Olympic team, finishing 44th in the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. Corbitt is considered the “Father of Distance Running” in the United States, and for good reason. He ran his first Boston Marathon in 1951, and when he ran his last in 1974 at age 55, his time was only 34 seconds slower than his first race. Corbitt invented many things runners now take for granted, including course measurement and age-group competition. Corbitt’s 1964 book on course measurement set the standards for the sport worldwide and continues to be used today.
Althea Gibson wins Wimbledon
Althea Gibson is the first African American woman to win both the U.S. Nationals and Wimbledon titles in 1957 and she defended both titles in 1958. Throughout her career, Gibson wins a combined 11 Grand Slam titles in singles, doubles and mixed doubles and is inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971. In 1963, Gibson becomes the first Black golfer in the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) and played 171 events between 1963 and 1977.
Zheng Fengrong first Chinese woman to hold world record in any sport
Zheng Fengrong becomes the first Chinese woman to hold a world record in any sport when she set the high jump world record of 1.77 meters (5 feet, 9 ¾ inches) in 1957. Zheng never competed in the Olympics as the People’s Republic of China boycotted the Olympics from 1952 to 1984. Zheng’s granddaughter, Ninali Zheng, previously known as Nina Schultz, won a silver medal at the 2018 Commonwealth Games for Canada in the heptathlon. But as far back as 2017 she had announced her intentions to compete in the Olympics for her maternal grandparents’ country and live out the Olympic dream her grandmother was unable to fulfill. She was granted Chinese citizenship in April 2021, and finished 10th in the heptathlon at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Willie O’Ree Breaks the color barrier in the NHL
In 1958, the Boston Bruins call up O’Ree for two games, making him the first Black player in NHL history. Persevering through racism and an injury that left him nearly blind in his right eye, O’Ree begins his NHL career with a win over the Montreal Canadiens. Pro hockey is slow to recognize O’Ree’s accomplishments, but that does not stop him from taking a hands-on role in promoting diversity in the sport. Devoting his life to make the sport more diverse and inclusive, in 1998 O’Ree becomes the director of youth development for the NHL/USA Hockey Diversity Task Force. It isn’t until 2018 that he is inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame and 2021 that the Bruins retire his number. The NHL would also institute the annual Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award in his honor, given to an individual working to positively impact his or her community, culture or society through hockey.
Wilma Rudolph makes history at the 1960 Olympic Games
After making history as the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics, Rudolph refuses to attend any segregated celebratory events, making her homecoming parade the first integrated event in her hometown of Clarksville, Tenn. In 1963, Rudolph joins other Clarksville citizens in an attempt to integrate a local Shoney’s restaurant. Despite being a hometown and national hero, she’s denied entry because she is Black.
Otis Davis overcomes racism to become Olympic champion
As a man of Black and Native American heritage, Otis Davis endured racism growing up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in the height of the Jim Crow South. Like many others, he was not able to attend the high school closest to his home because of his race. Davis went on to serve four years in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War before enrolling in college at the University of Oregon. He would then win two gold medals at the 1960 Rome Olympics, taking the 400 meters in world-record time and two days later anchoring the U.S. 4×400-meter relay team to another gold medal and a world record. Davis was among a group of rising Black athletes who also won their first gold medals during the 1960 Rome Olympics, including Wilma Rudolph and Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay).
Bill Russell hosts first integrated basketball camp in Mississippi
Medgar Evers, the first state field secretary of the NAACP in Mississippi and a prominent civil rights activist that worked to enforce Brown v. Board of Education and investigated the murder of Emmett Till, is assassinated in his driveway on June 12, 1963. Following Evers’ murder by a Klansman — who wouldn’t be convicted of the murder until 31 years later — NBA star Russell travels to Mississippi on the invitation of Evers’ brother, Charles, to host an integrated basketball camp in segregated Mississippi. In a 2011 interview, Charles Evers recalls how members of the Ku Klux Klan stood across the street from the playground in efforts to intimidate Russell and organizers. The night before the camp, Charles, rifle in hand, was standing guard in Russell’s hotel room as there were several threats of violence.
Martin Luther King, Jr. delivers his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington
The “I Have a Dream” remains one of the most famous speeches in history. King uses universal themes to depict the struggles of African Americans before closing with an improvised riff on his dreams of equality. The eloquent speech endures as one of the signature moments of the Civil Rights Movement.
Billy Mills, member of the Sioux tribe, becomes the only American man to win gold in the Olympic 10,000m
Mills, who is also known as Tamakoce Te’Hila and is a member of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) tribe, scores a huge upset, winning gold in the 10,000-meter race at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. His journey to his win almost tragically ends before it begins, as the pain that racism directed toward Mills causes him to consider suicide. He uses the goal of winning the race to help him push through, however, and now Mills advocates for Native American youth through Running Strong for American Indian Youth, which he helps start and becomes the spokesperson for in 1986. Mills also fights for Native American civil and voting rights, spending the vast majority of his time traveling for that cause, and in 2013 he is awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal, he second-highest U.S. civilian award. More than 50 years since his historic upset, Mills is still the only American to win the Olympic 10,000 meter.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos stand for human rights at the 1968 Olympics
Drawing inspiration from sociologist Harry Edwards, American track & field athletes Carlos and Smith after medaling in the 200-meter dash at the Mexico City Olympics stand atop the podium during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” with bowed heads and their fists in the air, each wearing a black glove. The iconic protest, Smith says, is a “… cry for freedom and for human rights. We had to be seen because we couldn’t be heard.” The International Olympic Committee bans Carlos and Smith from the Olympic Village for their political message and threatens to ban the entire USA Track & Field team after the US Olympic Committee refuses to send Carlos and Smith home. Eventually, the IOC does expel them from the Mexico City Olympics, and the two return to the United States where they are ostracized from Olympic competition for the next 30 years. The silver medalist, Australian Peter Norman, is the one who gives Carlos and Smith the idea to each wear a glove. Norman, who like Carlos and Smith wears a “Olympic Project for Human Rights” badge on the medal stand, tells them to each wear a single glove after Carlos forgets his at the Olympic Village as an alternative. Norman himself uses his badge as a form of protest for the racist “White Australia” policies at the time. His form of allyship effectively ends his career as he is blackballed from competing for Australia ever again despite running Olympic qualifying times and “suffered to the day he died,” Norman’s son later says.
Shaul Ladany survives Holocaust and Munich Massacre to compete for Israel in Olympics
Much of Shaul Ladany’s family was killed during the Holocaust, but at age eight, Ladany is liberated from the Bergen-Belson Nazi Concentration Camp in Germany in 1944 with his parents and survives. His family later moves to Israel where Ladany ultimately becomes a top race walker, winning multiple national titles. He represents Israel at the 1972 Munich Olympics and proudly wears a Star of David on his warm-up uniform, meant to show his pride and demonstrate the survival of the Jewish people in the face of Nazi persecution. During the Games, 11 Israeli Olympic members (coaches and athletes) are kidnapped from their living quarters in the Olympic village and murdered by members of Black September, a Palestinian terrorist organization. Ladany escaped the quarters amidst the attack and ran to alert authorities to what was happening. Days later he competes in his event, the 50-kilometer race walk, and finishes in 19th place. Specializing in long-distance walking, Ladany won the 100-kilometer gold medal later that year at the World Race Walking Championships and still holds the unofficial world record in the 50-mile race walk.
Reggie McAfee becomes first Black man to break four-minute mile
Reggie McAfee runs the mile in 3 minutes, 59.8 seconds in 1973 as a senior at the University of North Carolina. A week after his historic mile run, he broke the four-minute barrier again in winning the ACC championship and finished his career with seven sub-4-minute miles. After 26 years working for Xerox, McAfee starts the nonprofit Cross Country For Youth (CCFY) in 2006 to assist kids in the Charlotte, North Carolina, community. McAfee remains the executive director of CCFY, which introduces children ages 8-14 to cross country training, character building, nutrition concepts, and social-emotional training to develop the whole person.
Tom Flores becomes the first Hispanic coach to win the Super Bowl
The Oakland Raiders’ Flores becomes the first minority and Hispanic head coach to win a Super Bowl as the Raiders defeat the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XV. Three seasons later, Flores would win a second Super Bowl. Before coaching, Flores in 1960 becomes the first Hispanic quarterback to start for a professional football team, starting for the Raiders.
Evelyn Ashford wins multiple gold medals
Evelyn Ashford ended a 16-year gold medal drought for the U.S. in women’s Olympic 100-meter races when she won in Los Angeles at the age of 27 and added a gold medal in the 4x100m relay. Ashford made the 1976 U.S. Olympic team in Montreal as a 19-year-old before enrolling in UCLA where she was the first female track athlete to receive a full-ride scholarship. After having a daughter in 1986, Ashford returned to track and field and won a silver in the 100m in the 1988 Seoul Olympics and another 4x100m relay gold medal. She capped her career at the age of 35 with a gold medal in the 4x100m relay at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Ashford set two 100m world records and held the world record from 1983 to 1988.
Derartu Tulu and Elana Meyer take victory lap to unite Africa
Derartu Tulu of Ethiopia wins the 10,000 meters at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics in a spirited battle with Elana Meyer of South Africa, becoming the first Black African woman to win a gold medal. Tulu and Meyer, who is white, share a hand-in-hand victory lap after the race that many saw as a symbol of hope for a new Africa as apartheid in South Africa was gradually coming to an end. Tulu also won the 10,000m in 2000 at the Sydney Olympics and won the event at the 2001 World Athletics Championships in Edmonton, Alberta, after having a daughter in 1998. After finishing third in the 10,000m at the 2004 Olympics, Tulu won the 2009 New York City Marathon at the age of 37. Tulu has been the president of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation since November 2018.
Plaatjes overcomes apartheid in South Africa, becomes champion marathoner
Mark Plaatjes was born under apartheid rule in South Africa and could not compete in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics because South Africa was banned from competition. Plaatjes, who is Black, applied for political asylum in the United States to provide a better life for his daughter. Plaatjes won the 1991 Los Angeles Marathon and was sixth in the 1993 Boston Marathon to qualify for the U.S. team to the World Athletics Championships, receiving his U.S. citizenship three weeks before the Championships began. In Stuttgart, Germany, Plaatjes used a late surge to win the marathon and remains the only American man to win the event at the World Athletics Championships. Plaatjes has 38 career marathon wins.
Kipketer goes from Kenya to Denmark
Born in Kenya, Wilson Kipketer came to Denmark as a foreign exchange student, then applied for and was granted Danish citizenship. Kipketer won the first of his three consecutive World Athletics Championships in the men’s 800 meters in 1995 in Gothenburg, Sweden. Kipketer broke the world record twice in a 12-day span in August 1997, and his time of 1 minute, 41.11 seconds stood until it was broken in 2010. After retiring from running, Kipketer later worked for Champions for Peace, a group of famous elite athletes committed to serving peace in the world through sport.
The WNBA launches
On April 24, 1996, women’s basketball announces “We Got Next” as the NBA Board of Governors approved the concept of a Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) to begin play in June 1997. For the next 25 years, the WNBA and its athletes stand at the forefront of using their platforms as a place to promote social justice and racial equity. From Sheryl Swoopes advancing equality for people identifying as LGTBQ+ to Maya Moore leaving to prompt criminal justice reform to wearing shirts with bullet holes following the shooting of Jacob Blake, championing social justice has always been an integral part of the W. “We are a walking protest at all times as a W.N.B.A. athlete,” Mistie Bass told the New York Times in 2020.“If you think about it, we have so many different stigmas. We’re just constantly in the fight. I don’t think we have ever not been in a fight for equality, for justice.”
Cathy Freeman first Indigenous Australian to win Olympic Gold
Freeman is the first Indigenous Australian to win an Olympic gold medal when she sped to victory in the 400-meter dash at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Freeman also lit the flame at the opening ceremonies of the Sydney Olympics. She earlier won the 400m at the 1997 and 1999 World Athletics Championships, and was the silver medalist at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. After retiring from competition, Freeman created a foundation to support Indigenous students and was also an ambassador for the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation.
Bryan Clay represents Hawaii, wins Olympic gold
Bryan Clay, who has a Japanese mother and a Black father, is considered the best track and field athlete from the state of Hawaii. He captured the silver medal in the decathlon at the 2004 Athens Olympics before winning the decathlon at the 2005 World Athletics Championships. He wins gold in the event at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, joining an extensive line of American decathlete greats to achieve that feet. He later starts the Bryan Clay Foundation to support students in need and provide opportunities they otherwise would not have.
Sarah Attar opens doors for women athletes in Saudi Arabia
Sarah Attar is the first woman to represent Saudi Arabia in the Olympics when she runs in the heats of the 800 meters at the 2012 London Olympics. Attar was born and raised in the United States but competes for Saudi Arabia as she holds dual citizenship. Attar’s participation prompts Saudi Arabia to create a new women’s division of its national sports federation. Attar also ran the marathon in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016. That year, four women athletes, including two track athletes, compete for Saudi Arabia at the Olympics. Qatar and Brunei also send female athletes to the Olympics for the first time in 2012.
Poverty doesn’t slow down Amos
Nijel Amos shocked almost everyone when, as an 18-year-old at the 2012 London Olympics, he ran 1:41.73 in the 800 meters to win a silver medal behind Kenya’s David Rudisha, who set the still-standing world record of 1:40.91. Only Rudisha and former world record-holder Wilson Kipketer have run faster than Amos, who was raised in poverty in Botswana, orphaned, and then taken care of by his grandmother, whom he credits for this success. Amos, who trains with the Oregon Track Club Elite in Eugene, Oregon, will be among the favorites in the 800m at the 2022 World Athletics Championships.
Ibtihaj Muhammad wins Bronze Medal at 2016 Summer Olympic Games
Muhammad, a sabre fencer, wins the bronze medal as part of Team USA in the Team Sabre during the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Brazil. She becomes the first female Muslim American athlete to earn a medal at the Olympics and also the first Muslim American woman to wear a hijab while competing for the United States in the Olympics. Following her historic medal, Muhammad uses her platform to tackle racism and Islamophobia and educate others on making a difference. As a woman athlete who is both Black and Muslim, she’s working to remove the barriers, biases and stereotypes that stood in her way. In a 2018 Yahoo! Sports interview, she said “I can’t sit here as the first Muslim woman to represent the United States at the Olympic Games and be numb on these issues that directly affect me.”
Yulimar Rojas, staunch LGBTQ+ advocate, dominates the triple jump
Venezuelan LGBTQ athlete Yulimar Rojas has won the women’s triple jump at every major global championship since finishing second in the event at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, and she is unbeaten in the event overall since September 2019. She won gold at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and broke her own indoor world record at the 2022 World Athletics Championships with a leap of 15.74m (51 feet, 7 ¾ inches). Rojas won at the outdoor 2017 and 2019 World Athletics Championships. She also is the indoor 2016, 2018 and 2022 World Athletics Championships gold medalist.
Chand inspires LGBTQ+ community in India
Dutee Chand is India’s national women’s record holder in 100 meters and 4×100 relay. She came out in 2019 as India’s first openly gay athlete after the country’s Supreme Court decriminalized homosexuality. Chand competed at the 2017 and 2019 World Athletics Championships, and the 2016 and 2020 Olympics. Chand’s sexuality was a controversial topic among her family, and her sister threatened to out her before Chand publicly announced her sexual orientation. Chand is seen as a role model and hero by many in the gay community in India.
Gold medalist Kerron Clement comes out
Kerron Clement, a Trinidadian-born American track & field athlete who competes in the 400-meter and 400-meter hurdles, won two Olympic gold medals and five world championships during his career and held an indoor world record in the 400m for nearly 13 years. In 2019, at age 33, Clement announces he is gay at a Nike event in Los Angeles and is considered the first U.S. men’s track star to come out while actively competing. “I was hiding that part because of what society thought,” he said, according to Outsports. “But it’s OK to be that way… Love is love. I have an attraction to men. It’s who I am and it’s what made me become the athlete I am today.”
Athletes join protests, help lead movement for racial equity
Two months after Louisville police kill Breonna Taylor and less than a month after video showing Ahmaud Arbery’s murder is publicly released, multiple athletes at all levels of sport take part in nationwide protests following the murder of George Floyd. Former Texans coach Bill O’Brien and star player J.J. Watt march in Houston, where Floyd was raised and is eventually laid to rest. The Boston Celtics’ Jaylen Brown drives 15 hours to protest in Atlanta, where the Indiana Pacers’ Malcolm Brogdon speaks about his grandfather marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. NBA stars Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Trae Young also join protests, and Michael Jordan’s Jordan brand announces a 10-year, $100 million donation to organizations fighting racism. Tennis star Coco Gauff, at 16 years old, speaks at a protest in Florida, and college athletes, including the Clemson football team pictured here, lead protests on campus and march through towns. Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad marches in Los Angeles, as does Miami Heat assistant Caron Butler. Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid and more than 100 other NHL players make statements denouncing racial inequality, acknowledging their privilege and pledging to learn and do better. Tyler Seguin protests in Dallas and Zdeno Chara in Boston, while Jonathan Toews meets with activists in Chicago. MLB players such as Aaron Judge, Dexter Fowler, Bryce Harper and C.C. Sabathia speak out through various platforms. Minnesota Timberwolves stars Karl Anthony-Towns and Josh Okogie help lead protests in Minneapolis and in the coming days the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx host a RISE Critical Conversation with the organization, city mayor and law enforcement to discuss next steps.
Saunders wins Silver Medal, protests oppression and racism on Olympic podium
American shot putter Raven Saunders wins a Silver Medal at the Tokyo Olympics and crosses her arms into an X shape on the medal stand to represent “the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet.” The Black LGBTQ athlete, then 25, has spoken openly about her struggles with mental health, and says she aims to give light to “people all around the world who are fighting and don’t have the platform to speak up for themselves.” Saunders demonstrates on the podium despite the International Olympic Committee (IOC) rule prohibiting athletes from making such symbolic gestures on the medal podium. Prior to the start of the Tokyo Games, the IOC relaxes its Rule 50, which had banned all such demonstrations throughout the Olympics, allowing athletes to express their views on the field of play before the start of competition but still outlaws demonstrations during medal ceremonies. The IOC chooses not to discipline Saunders for her “X” gesture after her mother passes away days after the event.