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The Black Women Who Forged New Paths And Set Records At The Olympics

This article is part of our Tokyo Olympics series.

Formiga competed in the first Olympic women’s soccer tournament in 1996. Last week began her record-setting seventh Games.

The Brazilian footballer is one of many Black sportswomen who have made Olympic history — whether they are the firsts, the record-setters or the most decorated athletes in their country. These feats have often been achieved despite their environments. Black women athletes face sexism, racism or both while attempting to compete, depending on the region.

Formiga was born during her country’s ban on women’s soccer. American Alice Coachman, the first Black woman gold medalist, was discouraged from participating in sports. Could Aída dos Santos have medaled in 1964 if she’d been provided guidance, an interpreter, a coach or a uniform? She finished fourth in the high jump in those Tokyo Games.

“Athletics is still the poor cousin of national sport, so imagine what it was like in those times,” dos Santos told Universo Online. “Me, a woman, poor and Black.”

Black women athletes often achieve despite their lack of resources. Globally, there remains a lack of investment for women and girls who want to participate in sports from the youth to the professional level. Still, Santos, Formiga, Coachman and many other Black women have helped make the Olympics what they are today. And whether their achievements were downplayed or ignored, their names remain in the record books. These are just some of the Black women who have broken down sports barriers in front of them — and some who’ve followed in their footsteps.

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The firsts

Many Black sportswomen broke barriers by simply going first. Alice Annum, Jean Robotham, Charlotte “Carlota” Gooden and Graviola Ewing were the first women to represent their countries at the Olympics — for Ghana, Costa Rica, Panama and Guatemala

Ewing, who died in March 2020, was the first to make her debut, at the 1952 Olympic Games in Finland. Gooden qualified for those Games, but Panama refused to pay to send its all-Black track delegation to Helsinki. Robotham competed in the 400 meters, long jump and pentathlon at the 1968 Mexico City Games. Annum, who competed as an Olympic sprinter and long jumper, appeared in four Olympic Games beginning in 1964.

Twenty-eight years after Annum last competed in the long jump, Chioma Ajunwa became the first Black African woman to win the long jump — or any field event — in 1996. Ajunwa was also the first Nigerian athlete to win an individual Olympic gold medal — and she did so while working as a police officer. She was the underdog — beating out two other Black sportswomen, Italy’s Fiona May and Jackie Joyner-Kersee of the United States. Ajunwa made her jumps first, and she was nervous, watching everyone warm up around her.

“I was so afraid. I was sitting there, something came into my brain, and said, ‘Come on, will you get up? Their legs are not made of iron.’ Then power, strength, came into me,” Ajunwa told Arise News.

An illustration of five Olympic medals arranged like the Olympic rings (and with corresponding colors).

related: Which Countries Are Doing Better — Or Worse — Than Expected At The Tokyo Olympics? Read more. »

María Isabel Urrutia — dubbed “La Negra de Oro” — was Colombia’s first-ever gold medalist, winning the heavyweight category during the first women’s weightlifting competition at the Olympics. Urrutia, a world champion weightlifter, paid for her training through her job as a phone operator. Before her historic win at the 2000 Summer Games, she competed in shot put and discus at the 1988 Games in Seoul.

While competing for the Netherlands, Enith Brigitha became the first Black woman to medal in Olympic swimming, winning bronze in the 100- and 200-meter freestyle at the 1976 Montreal Games. The East German athletes who won gold and silver ahead of her were later revealed to have been involved in “systematic doping.” Those results haven’t been disqualified, but Brigitha considers herself a gold medalist.

Ethiopia’s Derartu Tulu won three Olympic medals in the 10,000-meter run and is the first Ethiopian woman and the first Black African woman to win an Olympic gold medal. While working as a policewoman, Ethiopia’s Fatuma Roba became the first African woman to win a gold medal in the women’s Olympic marathon race in 1996.

Those firsts laid the foundation for the athletes that came after them, including some we’ll see in Tokyo over the next few weeks. Through their accomplishments and breakthroughs, they made room for the next generation to dominate. 

The most decorated

Becoming an Olympian takes a unique blend of talent, hard work, investment, opportunity, sacrifice, grit and more that most people won’t know. But being able to sustain that over time, through an event cycle that is a minimum of four years, is remarkable. 

The Cuban women’s volleyball team has won four medals — three gold — and is the only team to win three consecutive titles since women’s volleyball joined the Olympics in 1964. The team, featuring all Black athletes, is called the greatest volleyball team of all time

Las Morenas del Caribe — The Caribbean Girls — competed at the Olympics for the first time in 1972 and finished in sixth place. After finishing in fifth place in both the 1976 and 1980 Games, they didn’t attend the Los Angeles or Seoul Olympics, nor did any Cuban athletes, but they returned in 1992 and vaulted to the top of the podium – and stayed there.

“Our motivation for winning was our country,” said Regla Torres, a member of the 1992, 1996 and 2000 gold-medal teams. “Cubans love sports, and our victories brought joy to our people. Some people might not understand it, but those living in Cuba in those difficult years can understand it very well. The people needed some sort of joy. That was our motivation at the time.”

When they were the team to beat, they delivered, dominating the Olympics for a decade and finishing with bronze in 2004. They finished fourth in 2008, the last time the team competed in the Olympics.

During the first Olympic women’s basketball tournament, Team USA’s Lusia Harris became the first woman to score during an Olympic basketball game. The U.S. has won eight of the 10 Games it has competed in and is hoping to win a seventh straight gold this year. Teresa Edwards was the first U.S. basketball player to compete in five Olympic games and win five medals.

Fencer Laura Flessel-Colovic has won five Olympic medals, the most of any French sportswoman. Driulis González, a Cuban judoka, has won four Olympic medals and is one of four female judokas to compete at five Olympics.

Both Merlene Ottey and Allyson Felix have won nine Olympic medals, and Felix is attempting to go for more this year. Ottey competed in seven Olympics, first for Jamaica and then Slovenia. With her 200-meter bronze in Moscow, Ottey inspired her Jamaican countrywomen after her — who would become golden. 

In 2004, Veronica Campbell Brown became the first Jamaican woman to win gold in a sprint event. Campbell Brown won eight total Olympic medals throughout her career and is the first woman to win three track medals in three Games. With that first gold, Campbell Brown started a “golden generation” for Jamaican women’s sprinting. While Florence Griffith-Joyner’s records in the 100- and 200-meters haven’t been broken, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce is inching closer (as is Nigeria’s Blessing Okagbare). Since the 2008 Beijing Games, either Fraser-Pryce or fellow Jamaican Elaine Thompson have won the 100m gold. 

When Campbell Brown announced her retirement earlier this month, Fraser-Pryce thanked her and said she would be “carrying the torch and continuing the legacy for Jamaica.”

Forty years after Enith Brigitha won her bronze medals, Simone Manuel of the United States became the first Black woman to win an individual swimming gold medal. In 2021, Alice Dearing became the first Black woman swimmer to represent Team Great Britain at an Olympics. Brazil’s Etiene Medeiros is also competing for a swimming medal. 

The Black sportswomen of the past carved their place in sports history; this summer, we have the opportunity to watch Black women athletes create more.

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Bria Felicien is an Atlanta-based writer and the founder of The Black Sportswoman.