Throughout the course of sports history there have been numerous athletes that have defied the stereotypes and broken down barriers, inspiring millions of people along the way. Here at The Mancunion, we believe that black athletes should be celebrated throughout the year, and not just during Black History Month. Our Sports team has compiled a list of some of the most influential black athletes across sports history (in no particular order).
Marcus Rashford is an influence to many for his footballing abilities, being the brightest spark in Manchester United’s era since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013. Having won multiple trophies and broken countless club and international records he is without a doubt a talented young sportsman who only continues to get better. However, we have selected him more for his efforts outside of sport. This football superstar now at the age of only 23 has already made more of an impact on the world than most footballers and activists do in their lifetime.
His achievements speak for themselves, in 2020 he topped The Sunday Times Giving List, also becoming the youngest to ever do so, having donated £20 Million of his own money to tackle child food poverty. The recognition for his work has been received from all over the world, he has been praised by everyone from Jay-Z to Queen Elizabeth II. It is clear to see that free school meals are an issue close to his heart and thanks to his drive he has been able to push the British Government to make changes. He has even been described as a more effective opposition than the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer. A constant fighter against child poverty and racism and one of the largest charity donors in the UK, this young man is not just a sporting inspiration but an inspiration to humanity.
– Ted Hughes
Most have heard the name Arthur Ashe, mainly due to it being the name of the US Open stadium, but not the man and his story. He was one of the most talented tennis players of his generation along with the likes of Jim Connors and Bjorn Borg. He became the first black player to be selected for the US Davis Cup Team in 1963 making a strong statement amidst the civil rights movement in America. He continued to make statements within the sport, winning three Grand Slam Singles titles, two Grand Slam doubles titles and four Davis Cup titles for the United States, making him one of the greatest tennis players of all-time.
Not only was he an extremely good tennis player but he was also a powerful advocate for social change in America and around the world. Ashe was arrested twice for his involvement protesting, first for an anti-apartheid rally in 1985 and then again for protesting against the treatment of Haitian Refugees in 1992. He courageously devoted a lot of his time battling poverty, racism and AIDS up until his death in 1993 at the age of 49.
– Ted Hughes
A household name in the 1960s as Cassius Clay, he won an Olympic Gold for the USA and became a World Heavyweight Champion, all before the age of 22. Following his first World Championship win in 1964, he converted to Islam and changed his name to the one that we all know today, Muhammad Ali. As a conscientious objector for the Vietnam War in 1966, Ali was stripped of his titles and his license to box competitively. He was an inspiration for people around the world to stand up for what you believe in and was a large advocate for peace on earth.
With a pardon and return to the sport in the early 1970s, he came back strong and in 1974 he fought George Foreman as the underdog in “The Rumble in the Jungle.” He went on to win by a knockout in the 8th round, thanks to his introduction of the rope-a-dope tactic and therefore becoming Heavyweight World Champion for a second time. Known also for his charismatic and poetic personality, Ali himself and millions of others often referred to him as ‘The Greatest’ and they’re not wrong. Muhammad Ali is the greatest sporting icon of all time, and his story and legacy will continue to inspire people for generations to come.
– Ted Hughes
A winner of 25 Gymnastic World Championship Medals, 7 Olympic medals and the joint most decorated gymnast of all-time – all at the age of 24 – is there anything this superstar can’t do? She’s the face of modern gymnastics and one of the most highly anticipated athletes for the past two Olympic games. Despite all her success in her early career, it has not been smooth sailing and she’s had to deal with significant problems outside of the sport. In 2018, Biles came out stating she along with many of her team-mates were survivors of a sexual assault scandal in the US gymnast team. Her strong voice and courage enabled the man responsible, Larry Nassar, to be convicted of his crimes and the US Gymnastic system to become a safer environment for young inspired athletes.
Biles has been in the headlines again this year with her promotion of mental health in sport. Having withdrawn from numerous events at this year’s Olympics just days before, to preserve her mental health, many praised her bravery. Thanks to her the conversation of mental health in sport is now far more open. This young inspiration will most probably become one the most decorated Olympians of all time and will continue to be one of the biggest voices in world sport.
– Ted Hughes
She is commonly referred to as the greatest female tennis player of the Open era, and having won a record 23 Grand Slam singles titles along with an additional 14 doubles titles and 2 mixed doubles titles, it’s not hard to see why. She won her first Grand Slam in 1998 and has continued to be the most dominant force in the women’s game for the past 20 years. Her raw strength and aggressive playing style is unmatched in the recent game, with no other female tennis player being a real threat during her tenure. Throughout her career, she has been a large supporter of women’s and black rights and supported countless charities which have helped inspire a new generation of quality tennis players such as Coco Gauff.
Serena’s journey to success is an inspirational one. Born in 1981 she had to fight her way through a toxic environment, when black tennis players were looked down on compared to white equivalents. She had to commit to countless hours of hard work and training along with help from her family and especially her father, Richard, to get into the professional game. Nothing stood in the way of Serena’s goals and she has become an inspiration to all people, showing them they should be strong and break down stereotypes so that we can all make our own stories in life.
– Ted Hughes
Born in 1970 in the Western Cape, Chester Williams became a key part of the South African Rugby team during the 1990’s. He was a winger, who spent most of his career playing for Western Province. After he retired he coached at a variety of levels, including the South African 7s team and the Ugandan national team.
Most significantly, Williams was the only non-white member of the Springboks 1995 World Cup-winning squad. He featured in the final and semi-final, and even scored four tries in the quarter-final. Williams’ was an idol to many non-white children in South Africa, himself identifiying as “coloured”.
Due to his race Williams faced discrimination from fans and even certain teammates.
The Springbok team were a bastion of white Afrikaner identity, mostly not supported by Black South Africans. Race relations were still tense, with the World Cup hosted in South Africa only one year after Mandela became the first black President and the end of Apartheid. Williams was the first non-white South African international since his uncle Avril Williams, who played a decade earlier.
He was portrayed in the 2009 film, Invictus, and was twice selected to carry the Olympic torch for South Africa. He led a trailblazing career until passing away in 2019.
– Adam Pogrund
Generally regarded as the greatest female football player of all time, Marta has led a glittering career with unparalleled achievements. Born in Alagoas, Brazil, the 35 year old has gone on to dominate the women’s game, winning Fifa Player of the Year six times.
Dubbed ‘Pele in skirts’ by the man himself, her contribution to football is spectacular. She was the first player to score in five separate World Cup’s and scored 17 goals in one tournament, the most ever. She is also Brazil’s highest-scoring player of all time. These numbers are record-breaking for both women and men’s football.
Marta currently plays for Orlando Pride, where she is engaged to her teammate Toni Pressley. However, the majority of her career was spent in Sweden, the longest stint of which was playing for Umea IK. She now holds dual Brazilian and Swedish nationality.
Outside of football she is a UN Goodwill Ambassador for women and girls in sport, and was chosen by the UN to be a sustainable development advocate. One of the greatest athletes of her generation, she was named as one of the 100 Women by the BBC, a series focusing on the highest achieving women in the world.
– Adam Pogrund
Widely regarded as one of the greatest basketball players of all time, Michael Jordan was a key figure in the popularization of basketball and the NBA outside of the US. He was the leader of a Chicago Bulls team that won a staggering six NBA Championships, which included two three-peats, one from 1991 to 1993 and then another from 1996 to 1998.
Michael isn’t short of any individual accomplishments either, with five MVP awards, a Defensive Player of the Year award, 14 All-Star appearances, 11 All-NBA selections and six Finals MVP awards to add to his Hall of Fame resume. His influence goes far beyond basketball, with his popular Jordan brand, taking the sneaker world by storm ever since he released the Air Jordans 1 in 1985.
His hard work, commitment and passion towards basketball served as an inspiration for an entire generation of basketball players, such as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and many more.
– Arsh Asthana