Reference Entry

Track and Field.

Curtis Fogel

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century

Published in print January 2009 | ISBN: 9780195167795
Track and Field.

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Track and field, also referred to as the sport of athletics, comprises numerous running, walking, throwing, and jumping events. The sport is popular throughout the world, with more than two hundred countries belonging to the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF), the governing body of track and field. Track and field events were central to ancient Greek festivals dating as far back as 776 b.c.e., which is often credited as the date of the first Olympics. It was not, however, until the nineteenth century that the sport of track and field came to resemble its modern form.In 1896 the first modern Olympics were staged. Though the Olympics did not receive instant popularity, they have grown steadily, making track and field, the centerpiece of the summer Olympics, a truly international sport. More than any other country, the United States has dominated international track and field. Through 2004, in the history of the summer Olympics the United States has had a combined medal count of 2,191, with 718 medals coming from track and field events. This count is more than twice that of any other country. In the summer Olympics and in other international track and field events, countless African American athletes have contributed to the dominance of the United States. Some of the more prominent African American athletes are Jesse Owens, Wilma G. Rudolph, Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Carl Lewis, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Michael Johnson, Maurice Green, Marion Jones, and Tim Montgomery.In the 1936 summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany, Owens won four gold medals for the United States in the 100-meter run, 200-meter run, 4-by-100-meter relay, and long-jump events. Hitler had aimed to use the games to showcase the innate superiority of the so-called Aryan race through athletic prowess. For Hitler and other Nazi supporters, Africans were inferior beings, and the Berlin Olympics were intended to prove this. Though Germany did lead the medal count of these Olympics, Owens stole the show with his four gold medals, thus discrediting Hitler's thesis. Owens received enormous fanfare from German spectators, but many believe that Hitler deliberately did not shake Owens's hand after his victories.Like Owens, Wilma Rudolph broke new ground for African American athletes in track and field. She was the first American female runner to win three gold medals in a single Olympics. In the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Italy, Rudolph won gold medals in the 100-meter run, 200-meter run, and 4-by-100-meter relay races. Later in 1960 she was named the U.S. Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press as well as the Athlete of the Year by the United Press.Track Event. Gail Devers (left) and Jackie Joyner (right) compete in the 4×100-meter relay at a UCLA-USC meet, 1985. Joyner later won the gold medal in the heptathlon in the Olympics in 1988 and 1992 and in the long jump in 1988. Devers won the gold medal in the 100-meter dash in the Olympics in 1992 and 1996. Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public LibraryIn the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City two African American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, became famous less for their world records and medal counts than for their symbolic displays of solidarity with the Black Power movement on the podium while receiving their medals. In the 200-meter race Smith set a new world record on his way to Olympic gold, while Carlos finished third in the event, earning a bronze. On the podium the two African American athletes received their medals shoeless but with black socks on as a symbol of black poverty. Smith wore a black scarf around his neck, while Carlos wore beads. Smith's scarf was intended to symbolize black pride, while Carlos's beads represented the forgotten black Americans who had been lynched. The most striking visual display came when the “Star-Spangled Banner” began to play and both athletes bowed their heads and raised one arm in a Black Power salute. As a result both athletes were suspended from the U.S. team and were forced to leave the Olympics. In the early twenty-first century, however, the image of Smith and Carlos remained one of the most powerful in sports history and in the history of civil rights in the United States.Carl Lewis won a total of nine gold medals in four separate Olympics. Like Owens, his success came in the 100-meter run, 200-meter run, 4-by-100-meter relay, and long jump. While Lewis dominated men's track and field from 1984 to 1996, Jackie Joyner-Kersee dominated women's. In four summer Olympics she won three gold medals, one silver, and two bronze, making her one of the greatest female athletes in American sports history.After the era of Lewis, the next great male track star was Michael Johnson. He won five gold medals in three Olympics and held the 200-meter and 400-meter world records. He also won an unprecedented nine world championships between 1991 and 1999 in the 200-meter run, 400-meter run, and 4-by-400-meter relay.From 1996 to 2004 three African American athletes were at the center of track and field: Maurice Green, Marion Jones, and Tim Montgomery. Green won two Olympic gold medals, a silver, and a bronze in sprinting events in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics. Jones was the first female athlete to win five medals in a single Olympics at the 2000 summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Having less Olympic success with only a gold and a silver medal from Olympic relay events, Montgomery gained stardom in track and field by running the 100-meter race in the world-record time of 9.78 seconds in 2002. The success of these athletes was short-lived, however, when each was implicated in using banned steroids. Subsequently Montgomery's 100-meter world record was officially discredited, and Jones was stripped of her five Olympic medals.Some observers have suggested that the overwhelming athletic success of African Americans is because of innate physiological and psychological characteristics. Some have suggested that the black body is better suited to particular sports because of features like larger body frames, longer arms and legs, and stronger, more powerful muscles. Some have also suggested that African Americans are calmer under pressure. Such theories of the innate athletic superiority of African Americans rest largely on unsubstantiated research results based on nonscientific thinking about what is called “race.” Early twenty-first-century research attributes African Americans’ athletic success to sociocultural and socioeconomic factors that have relegated a disproportionate number of African Americans into a limited number of sports, including track and field.

Reference Entry.  1162 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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