The Gryphon’s Guide to Fifteen Black Athletes Who Changed the World

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From refusing to let Black athletes compete to segregating the playing field so that Black athletes weren’t allowed to perform at the same time as White athletes; it is clear to say we have come a very long way. Although you may not be able to imagine a life of sport without the likes of Usain Bolt or Raheem Sterling, there are many African-American athletes which once ignored these barriers in order to not only pave the way for their fellow Black athletes in forthcoming centuries but to make the world a more equal platform. Over time, we have had the opportunity to witness many exceptional Black sporting figures that have made history and have changed the world of sport for good. We should be privileged that we were able to witness this. 

This year’s Black History Month we take the time to look at and appreciate those that have completely changed the game and continue to do so. It’s been difficult, but here are your 15 Black Athletes Who Changed the World.

1. Jack Johnson

Image Credits: NPR; AP

Also known as “the Galveston Giant”, Jack Johnson was the very first Black heavyweight boxing champion of the worlds after knocking out reigning champ Tommy Burns in 1908. Johnson faced many issues regarding his race over the years. Before smashing White boxer James Jefferies into his first career loss in 1910, Jefferies hit out in the media, saying that he was “going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a White man is better than a Negro”. But Johnson played to his strengths and rocked the system with his almost flamboyant image and dating of White women. In 1912, Johnson was convicted after bringing a White woman across state lines before marriage. But despite all the accusations against him, Johnson was an extraordinary athlete who really put boxing on the map.

2. Jackie Robinson

Image Credit: Washington Post; AP

Jackie Roosevelt Robinson became the first African American to play baseball in the modern era. Johnson’s achievements are so extraordinary because he broke the race barrier at a time when it was at its most severe, in what was America’s favourite sport. Not only was Robinson the first African American but he was also the first athlete of any colour to win varsity letters in four sports (baseball, basketball, football, and track). Robinson is treasured in the National Baseball Hall of Fame for his Civil Rights activism, and in 1949 Robinson led his team to win the NL MVP where history was made. Despite all the setbacks and death threats that Robinson received, he let his play on the field speak more powerfully than he ever could.

3. Althea Gibson

Image Credits: BBC; Getty Images

Before the likes of Serena Williams, Althea Gibson was the queen of the court. She was the first-ever Black player from any nation to compete professionally in Tennis and the first African American to ever win a Wimbledon title. She dominated every competition that faced her in the late 1950’s and won the French Open in 1956. In total, Gibson won 56 national and international titles in both singles and doubles. Due to there being such little funding in Tennis at the time, Gibson took up professional Golf and will inevitably go down as a true champion for making history in two sports that were predominantly White.

4. Bill Russell

Image Credits: NBA

Bill Russell is a former professional Basketball player who as the centre piece for the Boston Celtics, bringing home 11 championships during his 13-year career (1956-1969). Crazy right? But it gets better! Boston was seen as an extremely racist city and despite the sheer talent that Russel had he was challenged by its citizens – who threw both rocks and tomatoes at his bus to school.  Despite all setbacks, Russel went on to be the first Black coach in NBA history, and he led his former team (the Celtics) to 2 championships. Proving that, not only was Russell a successful player, but a brilliant coach too. 

5. Wilma Rudolph

Image Credits: Olympics; Getty Images

In terms of Track and Field for women, no one made more of an impact for Black females then Wilma Rudolph. From growing up in poverty with 21 brothers and sisters, as well as suffering from polio at a young age, her determination and sheer talent was not impacted in the slightest. Due to her illness, Rudolph had to wear a brace on her left leg and foot but after many years of correction, Rudolph went on to achieve not one, not two but three gold medals during the 1960 Olympics. This great success inspired many other young females too take part in track and field. An international star. 

6. Jesse Owens

Image Credit: Pixabay

Now, there were lots of people that would have loved to have told Hitler where the door was, and Jesse Owens really did just that. Track and Field athlete Owens is most well remembered for the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where Adolf Hitler planned to use the Games as a platform to support his Third Reich and attempt to highlight the dominance of the Aryan race. But Owens performance didn’t half stick a nail in the works after he became the most successful individual at the games winning a total of 4 gold medals. Not only did Owens receive the cold shoulder from Hitler after he refused to shake his hand, but he also battled racism at home as his own president did not recognise him by even sending a telegram for his success. Nonetheless, Owens made history not only for America but for the sporting world.

7. Muhammed Ali

Perhaps the most well-known boxing star and greatest athletes of all time. Ali was an African American professional boxer who became an Olympic gold medallist in 1960 alongside winning heavyweight championship titles three times. Not only is Ali the G.O.A.T of boxing but he is also admired for standing up for what he believed in. After refusing to enlist the Vietnam war, Ali was arrested and convicted losing his boxing licence. But this did not shy him away from voicing his own opinion. Ali convinced Iran to free American hikers that were being held in prison and after being out of the ring for almost 70 months, on his return he knocked out his opponent Jerry Quarry in the third round. Despite all odds and every setback Ali faced, he remained focused and unfazed proving that anything was possible. #GOAT

8. Arthur Ashe

Image Credits: BBC

Arthur Ashe is still a history breaking tennis champion. Ashe became the first and only player to ever win the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open championship within the same year. He did not just stop there though as his ability seemed to only improve. Ashe won three Grand Slam titles and was the only Black man ever to win the singles title at Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open. Illness forced Ashe to retire from tennis and in 1992 Ashe went public on his diagnosis of AIDS. Before his death in 1993 (Aged 49), Ashe worked hard to educate others about HIV and AIDS. Ashe received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and his legacy will live on forever. 

9. Vivian (Viv) Anderson

Image Credit: The FA

Viv Anderson MBE was the first Black man to ever win a senior England cap. After his debut match in 1978 against Czechoslovakia Anderson then went on to win 30 caps for the England side. Anderson played for Nottingham Forest, Arsenal, Manchester United, Sheffield Wednesday and Barnsley before beginning a career in coaching at Barnsley and later as Assistant Manager at Middlesbrough. Anderson: “At the time, I wasn’t really aware of the significance of being the first Black England international. We were all young footballers trying to get on and make a living.”

10. Michael Jordan

The NBA would not be as well-known as it is now if it wasn’t for the likes of Michael Jordan.  Not only is Jordan considered as the best basketball player of all time, but he also helped Nike to convert athletic trainers in to a must have fashion want all over the world. Jordan paved his way to the top by winning five NBA MVP awards, six NBA titles and six NBA Finals MVP awards. After retiring from Basketball, Jordan then perused a career in professional baseball which was a remarkable achievement for anybody in any professional sport highlighting his excellence athleticism. For America, Jordan bought with him tons of advertising with campaigns showing children shouting “I wanna be like Mike!”. And children of all colours, from all backgrounds really did. 

11. Debi Thomson

Thomas is renowned as the only African-American to ever win a medal, not only in figure skating but in any event during the Winter Olympic games. The ice queen famously challenged the International Skating Union after she wore a Black unitard in the 1988 Olympics which has been banned. Thomas faced discrimination from both the media and even judges. However, this didn’t faze her as she became the first Black woman to win a U.S Figure Skating Championship title followed by winning Bronze in the Winter Olympics just 2 years later. 

12. Tiger Woods

Image Credit: Pixabay

Tiger Woods is an African American professional golfer whose successes and achievements rank him as one of the most successful golfers of all time. Woods changed the finances of golf for the future. After being endorsed by Nike, golfing has excelled, and the brand wasn’t even involved in the sport until Woods came along. He is the youngest player to achieve a career Grand Slam after winning all four of the major tournaments (PGA Championship, U.S. Open, British Open and the Masters) at the tender age of 24 and since then has won 16 World Golf Championships. With Woods being one of the most recognisable golfers of all time, he is constantly inspiring young Black golfers in a traditionally high-class White man’s game. 

13. The Williams Sisters (Venus and Serena)

Two young girls trained by their father grow up to be two of the greatest players in tennis history. Seems legit? Venus has won two US Open titles, five Wimbledon championship and an Olympic gold medal in singles. Her younger sister, Serena, maybe the greatest tennis player in history with a 23 Grand Slam singles titles and a total of 100 titles including an Olympic gold medal. Enough said? I think so.

14. Lewis Hamilton

Lewis Hamilton is known as the first and only driver of Black heritage to compete in a Formula 1 championship. He explains how “I tried to ignore the fact that I was the first Black guy ever to race in the sport. But, as I’ve got older, I’ve really started to appreciate the implications. It’s a pretty cool feeling to be the person to knock down a barrier”. Hamilton has gone on to win five Formula One World Championships and is believed by most to be the best driver of his generation and one of the greatest in the history of sport. 

15. Simone Biles

Simone Biles has recently just won ANOTHER world title. This now places Biles in a tied record for the most world-title medals won by both any males and females. The pocket rocket has now extended her unbeaten title to six years and has achieved her 22nd world medal. ESPN magazine named her the “Most Dominant Athlete” of 2018 and this year she is still continuing to dominate. Times have changed and Biles is now the flag bearer for a new breed of American Gymnasts. Her legacy is still to be decided.