After a year of upheaval due to the coronavirus, the Olympics are finally underway. More than a year ago, the International Olympic Committee postponed the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics in an effort to safeguard the health and safety of the athletes, as well as all participating in the Olympic Games and the international community. In a host city where a state of emergency is still prevalent, organizers are now tasked with preventing the spread of the novel virus to and from foreign visitors and keeping the Olympians in tip-top shape, virus-free to ultimately compete.
While athletes from past games never had to deal with the presence of a surging pandemic, there were indeed a host of other obstacles set to stop them from greatness — racism and sexism to name a few.
In celebration of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, here are five Black Olympians from the past and present who have represented Team USA and should be considered five of the greatest athletes of all time.
At the height of his athletic powers, Jesse Owens had to deal with not only racism and equality in the states but in the Berlin 1936 Games, he was one of just 18 Black American athletes to journey and compete in Nazi Germany – a place he stood in the face of a national ideology of Aryan supremacy.
Still, he was a four-time gold medalist in the face of danger – a damper in an area in which Adolf Hitler's intention was to use the games as a demonstration of Aryan superiority – which made him the first American track-and-field athlete to win four gold medals in a single Olympics.
Owens held gold medals in the 100 meters (10.3 seconds, a world record), the long jump (8.06 meters or 26.4 feet), and the 4x100m relay (39.8 seconds). He also set a world record in the running broad jump, which stood for 25 years.
Currently, Serena Williams is the second highest-paid female athlete in the world. And it is well earned, as she has racked up 23 Grand Slam singles titles, which is the most by any player in the Open era. She, too, has four gold medals -- one in women's singles and three in women's doubles; it's an all-time record shared with sister Venus Williams.
Overall, the Compton native is a four-time Olympian (2000, 2008, 2012, and 2016). In the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, Williams earned gold in doubles for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, and competing in the London 2012 Olympic Games, the Olympian attained gold in singles and doubles. Paired with her sister, Venus, Serena is a part of the winningest doubles tennis team in Olympic history. Williams, 39, decided she would not compete in the Tokyo Olympics.
Dubbed the Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th Century by Sports Illustrated, Jackie Joyner-Kersee earned three gold medals, as well as one silver medal and two bronze medals in four consecutive Olympics, which, for her, started in the 1984 Los Angeles Games; she took silver because of being hampered by a sore hamstring. The gregarious athletic hero to this day still holds the U.S. record in the long jump – 24 feet, 7 inches – and the U.S and world records in the heptathlon (7,291 points) – seven events that measure speed, endurance, jumping, and throwing.
After breaking the world record in 1986, Joyner-Kersee broke her own world record once more in the 1988 Seoul Games – an event she also won gold in the long jump. This categorized her as the first athlete to win a multi-event competition, as well as an individual event in the same Olympics in 64 years. The East St. Louis native turned into a former UCLA four-year starter and was the first American woman to win Olympic gold in the long jump.
Carl Lewis won nine Olympic gold medals in the 1980s and '90s. While the Sportsman of the Century qualified for the U.S. Olympic team in 1980, he didn't compete in those because of the boycott of the Moscow Games. Still, in the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, Lewis would go on to record gold medals in the 100 meters (9.9 seconds), the 200 meters (19.8 seconds), the long jump (8.54 meters or 28.02 feet), and as a member of the U.S. 4x100m anchored relay team.
The Alabama native is the third track-and-field athlete to win four gold medals in just one Olympic, which put him on a list with Americans Alvin Kraenzlein (1900) and Jesse Owens, who won the same exact four competitions at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin that Lewis won in Los Angeles.
Far from done, Lewis added two more gold medals and a silver medal in the 1988 Seoul Games, catapulting him as the first Olympic athlete to win consecutive long jump gold medals thanks to a leap of 8.72 meters, or 28.61 feet. Lewis racked up another gold medal in the 1988 games in the 100 meters (9.92 seconds), before producing two more in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, including his third straight long jump title with a leap of 8.67 meters or 28.44 feet. Anchoring the 4x100m relay team, Lewis won his eighth gold medal, as the squad cemented a world and Olympic record with a time of 37.40 seconds. At age 35, Lewis tallied his ninth gold medal after a long jump of 8.14 meters or 26.71 feet.
As a member of the gold medal-winning W.S gymnastics "Final Five," Simone Biles won four gold medals and a bronze in the Rio 2016 Olympics-- a feat that also included the women's all-around title.
Competing and proving herself on an international scale in 2016, Biles became the first female gymnast since 1974 to triumph in four all-around U.S. titles. Right now, she is a seven-time U.S. all-around champion (2013-16, 2018-19, 2021). The prodigious athlete is the first woman to win five world all-around titles (2013-15, 18-19), the first woman to win three world balance beam titles (2014-15, 19), and the first woman to win five world floor exercise titles (2013-15, 2018-19).
Biles, a native out of Spring, Texas, registered 30 Olympic and world championship medals, solidifying herself as the most-decorated gymnast in history. The gymnast has 25 world medals (19 gold, three silver, three bronze). We can’t wait to see what she does in Tokyo.
(Photo by Steve Powell/Getty Images; Photo by Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post via Getty Images)