Since the first Olympic Games debuted in Athens, Greece in 1896, the gathering of the world’s dominant athletes has become a global event. But with historic discrimination and fewer opportunities for elite training, Black athletes faced immense challenges to compete. Nonetheless, starting in the early 20th century, African American athletes began competing in the Games—and shattering records.
Though Olympians like Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis and Simon Biles are household names, there are many African American athletes who broke barriers in the Winter and Summer Games. Below are six Black American Olympian pioneers.
1. John Baxter Taylor
John Baxter Taylor, a student and runner at the University of Pennsylvania, became Dr. Taylor, a veterinarian, in 1908—the same summer he competed in the London Games. “He had a clean-cut business way of covering the ground, with a length of stride seldom seen today, which was firmly impressed on one’s mind,” wrote the Pittsburgh Courier.
Taylor was the first African American athlete to win an Olympic gold medal, triumphing in the 1600-meter relay race at the 1908 Games. Tragically, the damp, cold climate in London took a toll on the 25-year-old’s body. While abroad, he developed a case of typhoid-pneumonia so severe that it proved fatal just months after the Olympics.
“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
Born in Albany, Georgia in 1923, Alice Coachman was one of 10 children and a sports prodigy from an early age. As an African American, she could neither practice in local training facilities like gymnasiums or tracks, nor compete in local competitions, due to Jim Crow segregation laws in the South. Instead, she tied rags, ropes and sticks together in a field near her home and practiced her high jump for hours on end.
In 1939, as a 16-year-old high schooler, Coachman broke the national high jump record. She remained American high jump champion for 10 consecutive years. But when World War II broke out, the 1940 and 1944 Games were canceled. When the Olympics resumed in London in 1948, Coachman jumped 5 feet and 6 ⅛ inches, setting a new Olympic record. At age 25, Coachman became the world’s first Black woman to win Olympic gold.
3. Wilma Rudolph
By the age of 20, Tennessee’s Wilma Rudolph was the fastest woman in the world. She’d won one bronze and three gold medals, including in the 100 meters at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Italy. But for her family, the fact Rudolph could walk, let alone run, was the greatest miracle.
At her 1940 birth in the St. Bethlehem section of Clarksville, Tennessee, Rudolph, the 20th of 22 children, weighed just four and a half pounds. At the age of 4, she suffered from double pneumonia and scarlet fever. Her left leg was paralyzed.
“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.
As a 15-year-old, Rudolph broke her school’s basketball record, scoring 803 points in 25 games. Ed Temple, a Tennessee State University track coach took notice of Rudolph's speed on the court and mentored her from high school to college and onto the Olympics.
When Rudolph returned from the Games in Italy, she refused to participate in a racially segregated banquet planned in her honor. The 20-year-old’s activism forced organizers to adjust, and her Olympic victory party became the first-ever integrated public event in Clarksville, Tennessee.
4. Debi Thomas
At the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada, figure skater Debi Thomas performed her four-minute program to the music of Carmen, the opera by Georges Bizet. And her rival, Germany’s Katarina Witt, chose the exact same song, with the media dubbing the famous showdown as “The Battle of the Carmens.”
While Witt won the gold, Thomas took home bronze making her the first African American woman to ever medal in the Winter Games. It was just one of many glass ceilings the 20-year-old shattered on and off the ice.
Born in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1967, Thomas grew up in California’s Silicon Valley where her mother Janice worked as a computer programmer analyst. Ice-skating lessons for Thomas cost around $25,000 a year. With an annual salary of $35,000, Janice needed help, and Debi’s father, grandparents and stepbrother all pitched in.
When Thomas’s coaches pressured her to leave school to practice more and opt for homeschooling, Thomas applied to Stanford instead. On a pre-med track, she was the first U.S. figure skating champion in 30 years to be enrolled in college.
5. Vonetta Flowers
In 2002, Vonetta Flowers of Birmingham, Alabama, became the world’s first Black athlete to win Olympic gold at a Winter Games. In Salt Lake City, Flowers, 28, sprinted on ice while pushing a 450-pound bobsled with her teammate Jill Bakken inside, before jumping in, and winning gold in the bobsled—less than two years after she picked up the sport by chance.
In college, Flowers was an All-American track and field athlete at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She was so successful in the 100-meter dash and long jump that she was invited to the Team USA Olympic tryouts twice—for the 1996 and 2000 Summer Games. She narrowly missed out both times. But at her second Summer Games tryouts, Flowers’ husband Johnny, also an athlete, spotted a flyer. It was a wanted ad encouraging track and field athletes to try out for the American bobsled team—at the Winter Games.
"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
In February 2006 at the Winter Games in Turin, Italy, Shani Davis, a speedskater from Chicago, became the first African American to win gold in an individual event at a Winter Olympics.
Davis grew up on Chicago’s South Side and began skating—on wheels—at the roller rink. With his love of fast speeds, Davis started taking speedskating lessons and became skilled at the sport. Davis went on to win five National Age Group Championships between 1995 and 2003 and a North American Championship in 1999. Shani was 23 when he won gold and silver medals at the 2006 Olympics in Torino, Italy.