Sporting Equals Top 10 pioneering black athletes

Sport and Recreation Alliance member Sporting Equals gives us their Top 10 pioneering black athletes.

Logo of Sporting Equals

Who is Sporting Equals:

Sporting Equals exists to actively promote greater involvement by all communities that are disengaged especially the black and minority ethnic population in sport and physical activity. It is the primary driver and funding channel for national and regional programmes in this field.

Sporting Equals' Top 10 pioneering black athletes:

1. Muhammed Ali

Photo of Sporting Equals pioneering black athlete Muhammed Ali

Muhammed Ali is acknowledged as one of the greatest boxers and sportsmen of all time. His influence extended into politics and he was a cultural icon and social activist. The 1960 Olympic Gold medalist won the Heavyweight Title three times, his legend was secured through his unorthodox fighting style, employing techniques such as the Ali Shuffle and rope-a-dope alongside historic battles with Smoking Joe Frazier and George Foreman. Ali often displayed elegance and grace in the brutal heavyweight division.

2. Jesse Owens 

Photo of Sporting Equals pioneering black athlete Jesse Owens

Jesse Owens the American track and field athlete won four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. His achievements in the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay and long jump had greater significance as it took place against the backdrop of Hitler’s Germany, with Nazi propaganda proclaiming that the Aryan race was superior and ethnic Africans inferior. Despite his achievements he returned to a segregated USA, but his legacy has inspired many sprinters including modern greats Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson.

3. Pele

Photo of Sporting Equals pioneering black athlete Pele

Edison Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pelé is a veteran of four World Cups and scorer of 1,283 first-class goals – 12 of them in World Cup final tournaments. Arguably the greatest football player the world has ever seen, he was an instrumental member of the magical Brazilian squads that won the World Cup in 1958, 1962 and 1970. Statistics don’t often tell the full story but 77 international goals in 92 appearances confirm that he was exceptional.

4. Daley Thompson, CBE

Photo of Sporting Equals pioneering black athlete Daley Thompson

Daley Thompson, the former decathlete won the gold medal at both the Moscow Olympic Games in 1980 and Los Angles Olympic Games in 1984. The man who inspired a generation to get involved in sport broke the world record for the multi-event discipline four times. He also won World, European and three Commonwealth Games titles and is considered one of the greatest all round athletes of all time.

5. Althea Gibson

Photo of Sporting Equals pioneering black athlete Althea Gibson

Long before the all dominant Williams sisters another African American woman broke the colour barrier in both tennis and golf. Born in 1927 Althea Gibson loved all sports but was a very talented tennis player. Gibson was unable to compete at the highest level due to professional tennis being segregated in America. Her talent and performances in winning titles led to her becoming the first African American to join the world tennis tour, and the first to win a Grand Slam, the French Open in 1956. She also won Wimbledon in 1957 and the US Open in 1958, and in 1960 she made history as the first black woman to compete on the Golf pro tour.

6. Andrew Watson 

Photo of Sporting Equals pioneering black athlete Andrew Watson

Andrew Watson is widely considered to be the world's first black association footballer to play at international level. Although he never went professional like his contemporary Arthur Wharton in England, Watson was capped three times for Scotland between 1881 and 1882, captaining the national side on his debut. He was also one of the first black administrators in football, when he signed for Parkgrove FC in 1876 becoming their match secretary.

7. Billy Boston MBE 

Photo of Sporting Equals pioneering black athlete Billy Boston

Rugby league has a rich history of diversity and providing opportunities for black players. Billy Boston wasn’t the first black player to play for Great Britain, that was Cec Thompson in 1951 – he also wasn’t the first black captain of Great Britain, that was fellow winger Clive Sullivan in 1972. However after first playing Rugby Union in Wales, Billy Boston became one of the greatest try scorers in rugby league history during a 15 year career (between 1953 and 1968) and with Wigan RL he scored 478 tries in 487 games. He also represented Great Britain 31 times, scoring 24 tries, and his total of 571 career tries is second only to Brian Bevan.

8. Abebe Bikila

Photo of Sporting Equals pioneering black athlete Abebe Bikila

In the Rome during the 1960 Olympics a black Ethiopian coached by a charismatic Swede called Omni Niskanen, amazed the world when just in his second marathon he not only won, but also broke the world record, all while running shoeless. Africa was adjusting to post colonial rule and his performance and victory for Ethiopia was a turning point in long-distance running. In the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, Bikila won the marathon Gold medal again this time wearing shoes. He was the first of a succession of black East African long-distance running champions, whose dominance continues to this day.

9. Cathy Freeman

Photo of Sporting Equals pioneering black athlete Cathy Freeman

Cathy Freeman is a former Australian sprinter who was a 400m specialist. She became the first ever Aboriginal Commonwealth Games gold medalist in 1990 aged 16. At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Freeman who had lit the Olympic Flame to open the games had the hopes and expectation of a nation on her shoulders. The pre-games favourite who had dominated all the major 400m races during the season became Olympic Champion and a nation celebrated with her.

10. Jackie Robinson 

Photo of Sporting Equals pioneering black athlete Jackie Robinson

The American baseball player became the first black Major League Baseball player in 1947 when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke the colour barrier. This pivotal moment started the integration process in American professional sports. During a 10 year career he led the Brooklyn Dodgers to six pennants, the World Series and joined the Hall of Fame in 1962. After retiring he campaigned for better conditions for African Americans and society as a whole.

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