Historically, minorities have experienced different degrees of exclusion from almost every major sport and competition. That is until pioneer figures with unparalleled talent like Jackie Robinson proved that they not only belonged, but could enrich sports and bring about real, typically irresistible progress. Sadly, this is something that, to a certain extent, still happens; there are plenty of sports and competitions that are disproportionately populated by white participants. But thanks to the fortitude, talent, and grace of some outstanding Black competitors, we continue to see barriers breaking down.
Let’s take a look at some fairly modern examples of these kinds of breakthroughs.
- Tiger Woods
Golf had been a predominantly white sport for its entire history before Tiger Woods began winning titles in the mid ‘90s. From there, he went on to win countless titles, break multiple records, and gain recognition as the best golfer of his generation –– and possibly all time. He defeated his opponents so consistently and decisively that at one point analysts worried that he had turned golf events into competitions for second place, making it less interesting for audiences. But ultimately, Woods’s extraordinary skills ended up raising the popularity of the sport to new levels. And though we haven’t seen very many Black golfers follow in his footsteps, there is no longer a perception that this is a sport in which only white athletes dominate.
- Serena Williams
Serena Williams first became in the late 90s and early 2000s, often next to her older sister Venus in doubles matches. Their early training at the hands of their own parents allowed the pair to develop incredible skill, both mentally and athletically. Eventually, Serena became the more successful of the pair, winning an astonishing 23 Grand Slam titles (and recently telling CNN’s Christiane Amanpour she should have even more!) and establishing herself as the face of a sport that traditionally had seen very few stars from minority groups until the Williams sisters arrived.
3. Lewis Hamilton
Formula One is fast on its way from being a fringe sport to a mainstream one, at least in the U.S. And Lewis Hamilton, who has been so dominant in recent years as to have earned knighthood in the UK, was actually the first Black champion. As a consequence, Hamilton has experienced a lot of harassment and even threats to damage his car during races. Despite this however, he’s become one of the most successful drivers in history, winning seven Formula One Championships, and breaking the record for most victories and pole positions. On top of his achievements on the track, he’s also famous for his advocacy for diversity, human rights, environmentalism, and animal rights.
- Phil Ivey
While not an athletic activity, poker has become a de facto sport in many senses of the word. And it’s another space in which the past few decades have revolved largely around a pioneer who broke down racial barriers. Phil Ivey started testing his skills as a poker player by playing games as a teenager in Atlantic City with a fake ID. “No Home Jerome” as he was then known grew up to become the youngest ever poker player to win 10 World Series of Poker bracelets. He’s considered the best all-around player in the world, and is also known for helping design the online card game Full Tilt Poker (and more recently releasing NFTs portraying some of his most famous moments). And he’s done all of this in an arena that was and remains largely the domain of white competitors.
- Simone Biles
Simone Biles won her first gold medal at the 2016 Olympics, and went on to become by most any measure the most dominant gymnast in history. She was certainly not the first Black athlete to thrive in women’s gymnastics –– and even followed her one-time teammate Gabby Douglas quite closely! However, it has undoubtedly changed the perception of gymnastics that Biles has become the “GOAT.” She was the first American female athlete to win a medal at every gymnastics event, she’s been a seven-time American all-around champion, and those who know the sport describe her as if she’s in a league of her own even as compared to other elite competitors.
These athletes have managed, through dedication and discipline, to go beyond success and dominate their particular disciplines. And as they’ve done so, they have also shown traditional fans (and sometimes hostile audiences) that sports are something that should be enjoyed by everyone, while also serving as inspiration for future generations of outstanding professionals.