Now during the Olympics, and throughout each academic year, we have the opportunity to explore a number of themes that connect the lives and contributions of Black athletes past and present. Beyond the 1988 Jamaican Bobsled Team immortalized in the film Cool Runnings, Black athletes have played more central roles at the Winter Olympics than many people might realize. As we cheer on the 2022 Black Olympians, Black History Month is a great time to look back on the impact that Black Olympians and other Black athletes have beyond the world of sports.
Given the visibility of various civil rights luminaries of the past—think Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks—and their centrality to the way that we talk about the arc of Black history, it’s easy to underestimate the sizable social and political contributions of Black athletes. These are people who may, on the surface, only seem to function as celebrities who have made a minor impact in the fight for equity and justice. But the history of Black athletes in the U.S. serving as world-class performers, pathbreakers, and powerful activists disrupts this taken-for-granted assumption. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. remarked, “Jackie Robinson made my success possible. Without him, I would never have been able to do what I did.” In King’s day, as in ours, the line between public figure and political influencer is thin—and Black athletes have long played important roles in advancing equity and justice within their spheres of influence. From paving the way for more favorable representations of Black people in media to staging explicit protests on the field, Black athletes have long transformed their bodies from sites of marginality and violence to sites of agency, joy, and extraordinary skill.
Below are two condensed timelines highlighting a small sampling of Black athletes who made a social impact beyond their respective sports—in this case, boxing and track.