The Olympic Games have evolved into a major international event since they were first held in Athens, Greece, in 1896. However, Black athletes faced significant obstacles to competing because to historical discrimination and a lack of chances for elite preparation. However, African American athletes started taking part in the Games at the beginning of the 20th century, winning Olympic medals, and setting records.
The First African-Americans to Win Olympic Medals
Numerous African American athletes broke barriers in the Winter and Summer Games, despite the fame of Olympians like Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis, and Simon Biles. The first six Black American Olympians are listed below.
1. John Baxter Taylor
In 1908, the same summer he participated in the London Games, University of Pennsylvania student and runner John Baxter Taylor earned his doctorate as Dr. Taylor. He is on the list of the first African-Americans to win Olympic medals. The Pittsburgh Courier described him as having a “clean-cut business way of covering the distance, with a length of stride hardly seen nowadays, which was firmly impressed on one’s mind.”
Taylor, who triumphed in the 1600-meter relay competition at the 1908 Games, was the first African American athlete to take home an Olympic gold medal. Tragically, the 25-year-body old’s suffered from the cold, wet weather in London. Just months after the Olympics, he contracted a serious case of typhoid-pneumonia while traveling.
“Hundreds came to honor him from the University of Pennsylvania, his alma mater, as one of the world’s great athletes was laid to rest,” wrote the Philadelphia Tribute, about the funeral held at the home of Taylor’s parents who lived near the university’s stadium.
2. Alice Coachman
Alice Coachman is another name on the list of the first African-Americans to take home Olympic medals. Alice Coachman, one of ten children, was born in Albany, Georgia, in 1923, and she excelled in sports from a young age. Due to Jim Crow segregation rules in the South, she was unable to practice in local training facilities like gymnasiums or tracks or participate in local tournaments. Instead, she spent hours honing her high leap in a field close to her house by tying rags, ropes, and sticks together.
Coachman broke the national high jump mark in 1939 while still a high school freshman. She held the title of American high jump champion for ten years running. The 1940 and 1944 Games, however, were abandoned when World War II started. Coachman set a new Olympic record when he leapt 5 feet, 6 1/8 inches at the 1948 London Olympics. Coachman became the first Black woman in history to win an Olympic gold medal at the age of 25.
3. Wilma Rudolph
Wilma Rudolph, a Tennessee native, was the world’s fastest woman by the time she turned 20. And one of the first African-Americans to win Olympic medals. She competed in the 100 meters at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Italy, where she won three gold medals and one bronze. But for her family, the greatest miracle was that Rudolph could even walk, let alone run.
Rudolph, the twenty-first of 22 children, was born in the St. Bethlehem neighborhood of Clarksville, Tennessee, in 1940, weighing only four and a half pounds. She was diagnosed with double pneumonia and scarlet fever when she was 4 years old. She lost the use of her left leg.
“Her parents were not sure she would survive,” wrote The Original Fayetteville County Civic & Welfare League of Somerville, Tennessee. In her autobiography, Rudolph wrote that with so many siblings, her father pushed her to be competitive. By the age of 12, she had ditched the leg brace and was playing basketball barefoot.
Rudolph broke her school’s basketball record at the age of 15 by scoring 803 points in 25 games. Rudolph was tutored by Tennessee State University running coach Ed Temple from high school through college and the Olympics after he noticed her quickness on the court.
4. Debi Thomas
Figure skater Debi Thomas did her four-minute program at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada, to music by Georges Bizet’s Carmen. The media dubbed the renowned competition “The Battle of the Carmens” after Katarina Witt of Germany’s choice of the same tune. Consequently, he became one of the first African Americans to get Olympic medals.
Thomas became the first African American woman to ever win a medal at the Winter Games while Witt took home the gold. The 20-year-old broke numerous glass ceilings, both on and off the rink.
Thomas was raised in California’s Silicon Valley, where her mother Janice worked as a computer programmer analyst, after being born in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1967. For Thomas, ice skating lessons run about $25,000 a year. Janice, who made $35,000 a year, needed assistance, so Debi’s father, grandparents, and stepbrother all chipped in.
Thomas applied to Stanford rather than homeschooling when her coaches pushed her to drop out of school so she could practice more. She was the first American figure skating champion to enroll in college in 30 years while following a pre-med route.
5. Vonetta Flowers
Vonetta Flowers of Birmingham, Alabama, became the first Black athlete in history to win an Olympic gold medal in a winter sport in 2002. Less than two years after discovering the sport by chance, Flowers, 28, won gold in the bobsled in Salt Lake City after sprinting on ice while pulling a 450-pound bobsled with colleague Jill Bakken inside.
At the University of Alabama in Birmingham, Flowers competed in track and field as an All-American student-athlete. One of the first African Americans to win Olympic medals, was Flowers. She was invited to the Team USA Olympic tryouts twice—for the Summer Games in 1996 and 2000—because of her success in the long jump and 100-meter sprint. She came close to winning both times. However, Flowers’ husband Johnny, who is also an athlete, saw a flyer at her second Summer Games tryouts. A track and field athlete was encouraged to try out for the American bobsled team—at the Winter Games—by a wanted ad.
“It never snows in Alabama,” Flowers told Minneapolis Star Tribune. “I never watched the bobsled before I got in one. The only thing I knew was ‘Cool Runnings,’” she said, speaking of the movie about the Jamaican bobsled team. In Salt Lake City, just 18 months after her first encounter with a bobsled, Flowers had her own Hollywood moment.
6. Shani Davis
Shani Davis, a speedskater from Chicago, became the first African American to win gold in an individual event at a Winter Olympics in February 2006 at the Winter Games in Turin, Italy.
Davis learned to skate on wheels at the roller rink where he was raised on Chicago’s South Side. Davis began learning speedskating because he enjoyed traveling at high speeds and eventually mastered the discipline. Davis went on to win a North American Championship in 1999 along with five National Age Group Championships between 1995 and 2003. When Shani won gold and silver at the 2006 Olympics in Torino, Italy, he was 23 years old.