It’s a rarity but no longer a phenomenon to find an African American rising to the top in what used to be called “minor sports.” The 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is proof that with the proper training, history can be made in events that are often overlooked and sometimes ridiculed.
In gymnastics, Simone Biles has flipped and dipped her way to two gold medals, including the coveted all-around title. The three-time defending world all-around champion is a good bet to walk away from the games with more golden hardware.
Her African-American teammate, Gabby Douglas, was the defending Olympic all-around titlist. She too won a gold medal after helping the U.S. win the team title.
In swimming, Simone Manuel, a junior at Stanford University and a two-time defending NCAA champion in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle, became the first African-American woman to win a gold medal in swimming when she and Canada’s Penny Oleksiak tied for an Olympic record in the women’s 100-meter freestyle with a time of 52.70.
Prior to her record-setting performance, the U.S. has had other African-American swimmers on the winner’s podium. In 2004, Maritza Correia received a silver medal in the 400-meter freestyle team. She was born and raised in Puerto Rico but her parents were from Guyana.
Lia Neal, a New York City native who is of African American and Chinese descent, won a bronze in the 2012 Games as a member of the 100-meter relay team. Another Stanford University standout, she is a silver medalist in the same event in Rio.
Anthony Ervin, who became the first person of African-American descent to win Olympic gold when he won the 50-meter freestyle in 2000, has won a gold medal in the (4×100-meter relay) and another individual title in the 50-meter freestyle. Ervin’s mother is Jewish and his father is of African-American and Native American heritage.
Cullen Jones, who learned to swim after nearly drowning at Allentown’s Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdom when he was 5 years old, has earned two Olympic gold medals and a two silver medals by participating in two Olympic games. He now teaches urban youth how to swim.
But there are others in various sports who are raising eyebrows. For example Daryl Homer was born in the Virgin Islands but raised in the Bronx section of New York. A graduate of St. John’s University, he’s won an Olympic silver medal in fencing.
Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first Muslim-American woman to wear a hijab while competing for the United States in the Olympics, was beaten in women’s sabre. However, she has developed a following that could attract more African Americans, especially Muslim women, to the sport.
The Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, were upset in the first round in Olympic doubles tennis, but that didn’t hurt their star status. They are ranked among the best in the world as partners and as solo players.
It’s an African-American athletic tree that keeps sprouting roots. Its branches continue to blossom in sports where sometimes rudeness and eye rolls are common.
There is always an underlying fear by some that if one African American succeeds, others will follow. That hasn’t necessarily been so. When Tiger Woods was in his prime, there was a thought that Blacks would begin to flock to golf. That theory has since been disproven.
In soccer, Freddy Adu, a Ghanaian American, was once thought of as the sport’s up and coming stars. He was expected to begin a wave of Black players playing the world’s most popular sport. He was 14 then. Now, Adu is a 27-year-old journeyman who has played for 12 teams in eight different countries. And the sport’s image among young African Americans hasn’t risen.
When it comes to overall participation numbers, African American’s still haven’t overcome when it comes to the minor sports. However, with the help of the Olympics, that could soon change.