The idea that Blacks are inherently stronger, faster and feel less pain than people of other races was used to justify slavery, ill-treatment and even unethical medical practices for hundreds of years. Though disproved by countless medical studies, the notion of Black “beastality” or other mischaracterizations are now used to undermine the hard work of Black athletes – claiming their success is based solely on “natural ability,” rather than the hard work, practice, and dedication required to achieve such success.
Although these viewpoints do not definitively capture the whole truth behind why African Americans have excelled in sports, they do highlight stereotypes that Black athletes have battled on their journeys toward greatness.
Despite these obstacles, African-Americans have dominated track and field for nearly a century. During the 1930s, Ralph Metcalfe who was deemed the “world’s fastest human,” and Jesse Owens, who garnered four Olympic Gold medals, set the bar extremely high for track athletes who followed. A decade later, Alice Coachman became the first Black woman to win an Olympic Gold medal. In 1961, a new star was born — and his name was Carl Lewis.
Carl Lewis is one of the most decorated track athletes of all time. With 9 Olympic Gold medals, 1 Silver medal, and 10 World Championships medals, his presence in Olympic history is unparalleled.
Growing up in New Jersey, Carl Lewis had the proper support he needed to prepare for his outstanding career in track and field. Both Carl and his sister, Carol, benefited from use of their parent’s local athletic club. Carol went on to compete in the 1984 Olympics and won Bronze at the 1983 World Championships in the long jump.
As for Carl Lewis, he was recruited by colleges and universities from around the country. Ultimately, he settled on the University of Houston as his first choice. At Houston, he honed his skills as a long jumper and sprinter – – quickly rising through the ranks and becoming one of the nation’s top talents. As a sophomore, Lewis won NCAA championships in both the 100m dash and long jump. Jesse Owens was the only other person in NCAA history to accomplish that feat up until that point.
Lewis later competed in four Olympic Games and set multiple Olympic and world records in the 100m, 200m, 4x100m, and long jump before retiring in 1997. Four years after his retirement, Lewis was inducted into the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame.
Recently, Carl Lewis preserved his legacy by donating several personal items to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Among them include nine Gold Medals, a jersey worn in the 1984 Olympics, two Olympic torches carried by Lewis, a pair of track shoes, and several photographs.
Lewis completely embodied Black excellence in sports. Countless hours of practice, encouraging parents, and dedicated coaches cultivated Lewis into the sensational athlete he became — not simply his genetics. Thus, for his perseverance and uncanny work ethic, he will be remembered as the greatest Olympic runner of all-time.