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18 Influential Black Athletes In U.S. Olympic History

By Stuart Lieberman | Feb. 22, 2017, 5:24 p.m. (ET)

Simone Biles competes on the floor at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Rio Olympic Arena on Aug. 9, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.


The United States takes pause each February to commemorate Black History Month, a time set aside to observe and remember significant African Americans and their achievements.

One area where black Americans have had a significant impact is in the growth and success of Olympic Movement. As this year’s Black History Month comes to a close, here are 18 of the most influential black athletes in U.S. Olympic history.

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Muhammad Ali: Previously known as Cassius Clay, he won all four of his fights in his only Olympic Games appearance in 1960, when he was just 18 years old. He went on to lead a distinguished pro career — becoming the first fighter to capture three heavyweight titles — lit the Olympic cauldron at the Atlanta 1996 Games and was an activist when it came to race, religion and politics.

Bob Beamon: He made track and field history by smashing the existing world record in the long jump at the Mexico City 1968 Games. His new mark of 8.9 meters stood for 23 years, and was named one of the five greatest sports moments of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated. Beamon was also an activist for African Americans while competing at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Tommie Smith (C) and John Carlos raise their fists during the medal ceremony for the men's 200-meter at the Mexico City 1968 Olympic Games.

Simone Biles: Part of the gold-medal-winning U.S. gymnastics “Final Five” team, she took home four gold medals and a bronze medal from the Rio 2016 Games, including the women’s all-around title. Also in 2016, she became the first female gymnast since 1974 to win four all-around U.S. titles. With 19 Olympic and world championship medals, she’s the most-decorated American gymnast in history.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos: Smith was the gold medalist in the 200-meter at the Mexico City 1968 Games — becoming the first sprinter to legally break the 20-second barrier in the distance — and Carlos won bronze in the same event. During their medal ceremony, they conducted a “Black Power” salute, raising a black-gloved fist during the national anthem to emphasize racial pride, which became one of the most overtly political statements in modern Olympic Games history. Both Smith and Carlos will be guest speakers at the United States Olympic Committee’s 2017 FLAME program this summer.

Alice Coachman: With a gold medal in the high jump at the London 1948 Games, she became the first black woman to win an Olympic medal. In 1952, she became the first black female athlete to earn an endorsement deal when Coca-Cola tapped her to become a spokesperson, and later in life she established the Alice Coachman Track and Field Foundation to help support younger athletes and provide assistance to retired Olympians.

Shani Davis: He is a four-time Olympic medalist, having become the first black athlete to win gold in an individual sport at the Winter Games when he took the 1,000-meter speedskating title in 2006 in Torino. The Chicago native has set nine speedskating world records — three of which still stand today — and is aiming to compete in his fifth Olympic Winter Games in 2018.

Gabby Douglas competes on the floor exercise at the London 2012 Olympic Games at North Greenwich Arena on July 31, 2012 in London.

Gabby Douglas: At the London 2012 Games, she became the first black gymnast to win the individual all-around title, and the first U.S. woman to win individual all-around and team gold medals at the same Games. She also was part of the “Final Five” squad that won team gold at the Rio 2016 Games, has published an autobiography and starred in a reality TV show about her family.

Vonetta Flowers: She became the first black athlete to win a gold medal at the Winter Games when she paired up with Jill Bakken to take the top spot on the podium in the two-woman bobsled competition in 2002 in Salt Lake City. Flowers, a brakewoman, also competed at the Torino 2006 Games, finishing sixth.

Florence Griffith-Joyner: A three-time Olympic champion and five-time Olympic medalist, Griffith-Joyner is considered the fastest woman of all-time — as the 100- and 200-meter world records she set in 1988 still stand today. Also known for her bold fashion choices, she died in her sleep at just 38 years old during an epileptic seizure in 1998.

Michael Jordan: Arguably the greatest basketball player of all-time, Jordan won six NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls and was a 14-time NBA all-star, while also leading Team USA to two Olympic gold medals. He led the 1984 U.S. Olympic team in scoring, averaging 17.1 points per game en route to gold, and was the only member of the “Dream Team” to start all eight games at the Barcelona 1992 Games.

Simone Manuel: Upon winning gold medals in the 100-meter freestyle and 4x100-meter medley at the Rio 2016 Games, Manuel became the first black woman to win an individual Olympic gold medal in swimming. She also won two silver medals in Rio and swims for Stanford.

Elana Meyers Taylor: The two-time Olympian in bobsled won a bronze medal as a brakeman at the Vancouver 2010 Games and a silver medal as a driver at the Sochi 2014 Games, becoming the first U.S. athlete – male or female – to medal in both positions, and the first woman to win two Olympic medals. To this day she’s continuing to stockpile medals on the world cup circuit. In 2015, Meyers Taylor became the first American woman to win a world title, a feat she repeated in 2017.

Jesse Owens competes at the Berlin 1936 Olympic Games.

Jesse Owens: A four-time gold medalist at the Berlin 1936 Games, Owens is still regarded today as one of the most famous track and field athletes in history. He was one of 18 black U.S. athletes to attend those Games in Nazi Germany, where he triumphed over the nation’s ideology of Aryan supremacy.

Wilma Rudolph: Known as the fastest woman in the world in the 1960s, Rudolph won a bronze medal at the Melbourne 1956 Games before becoming the first American woman to win three gold medals in one Olympic Games in 1960 in Rome. Due to the worldwide television coverage of the Games that year, she became a worldwide star and was regarded as both a civil rights and women’s rights pioneer.

Claressa Shields: She is the two-time defending champion in women’s middleweight boxing. At the London 2012, the first Games to include women’s boxing, Shields became the first American woman to win gold in the sport, and she was just 17 at the time. She also became the first U.S. boxer, male or female, to win back-to-back golds when she defender her title in 2016.

Lauryn Williams: An Olympian as both a bobsledder and a sprinter, Williams won gold in the 4x100-meter at the London 2012 Games and silver over 100 meters at the Athens 2004 Games. She also won silver in the two-woman bobsled at the Sochi 2014 Winter Games. Williams is one of five athletes to have won both a summer and winter Olympic medal, and was the first woman to do so.

Serena Williams: The highest-paid female athlete in 2016 holds 23 Grand Slam singles titles — the most by any player in the Open Era — and has four Olympic gold medals to her name. She once held the world No. 1 ranking for 186 consecutive weeks, leading media and other players to start referring to her as the greatest female tennis player of all-time.

Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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