BLACK HISTORY MONTH: SPORT
WRITTEN BY CHARLES ODUGBESAN
This week 14HQ continues Black History Month with an ode to the great sportsmen and women of our time. Much in comparison to last week’s musicians, a truly great professional athlete is measured not only by their talent, but also for their character and the ability to inspire others. There are so many I could’ve picked but only 4 will be selected. However, I must acknowledge the likes of George Weah, Florence Griffith Joyner, Usain Bolt, Lewis Hamilton, Simone Manuel, Carl Lewis, Arthur Wharton, Benjamin Odjeje and Jackie Robinson among others for their sporting contributions. Now let’s consider the chosen ones!
Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr / Muhammad Ali
How do you know someone is for real? Because they can talk the talk and damn sure walk the walk. Look no further than Muhammad Ali. He gave us 19 years of brutal honesty and did it with charisma, style, charm and a champion’s mentality.
The sad truth about 1960’s America (which you could argue is true even today) is that no matter what a person of colour may achieve athletically, at the end of the day, you’re still considered as ‘inferior’. An Olympic gold medal winning Cassius Clay learned this when he was denied entry at a restaurant in his home town fresh from his triumph in Rome. He couldn’t gain equality in the world he was in, regardless of his success. Four years later, he would win the Heavyweight Title, shocking Sonny Liston in the process. He would then shock the world by announcing both his conversion to the faith of Islam and the adoption of a new name; Muhammad Ali.
In 1966, Ali refused to serve as part of the armed forces in the Vietnam War. His famous words were the following:
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”
Ali was an incredible talker as we all know, and made his voice heard as an activist amidst the civil rights movement in the US in the early 60’s. Ali was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in jail, stripped of his title and given a 3 1/2 year boxing ban.
What was to follow on his release? More talking. More walking. His in ring wars with Smokin’ Joe Frazier and George Foreman, saw Ali cut some of the greatest promos and produce some of the most memorable performances in all of sporting history. He retired in 1979 with a 56-5 record and a storied career that many believe to be the ‘greatest of all time’.
A political figure, an activist, a revolutionary. A smooth talking, stiff jabbing once in a lifetime artist. Ali was indeed The Greatest.
James Cleveland ‘Jesse’ Owens
Jesse Owens from Oakville, Alabama is one of the most famous and important sportsmen in black history. Similarly to Ali, he was born in a time period where racism and segregation in America were at large. To this day his legacy is both well-known and synonymous with boldness and brilliance in the face of great adversity.
Owens boasts 2 eternal moments in athletics. The first was in 1935, a year before the Berlin Olympics, at the Big Ten track meet in Ann Arbour, Michigan. Owens equalled the world record in the 100 yard dash before setting 3 world records in the long jump, 200 yard dash and 200 yard low hurdles… ALL WITHIN 45 MINUTES!!! Since then it has been hailed as ‘the greatest 45 minutes ever in sport’. Brilliant.
Fast forward to August 1936 and in the midst of Nazi Germany, where Chancellor Adolf Hitler reigned and wanted to use the Olympics to showcase his theory of a dominant Aryan Race in which his German athletes of Aryan descent would dominate the track and field medal tally, Jesse was defiant. He would go on to win gold in the 100, 200, long jump and 4x100, cast aside Adolf Hitler’s bold statements and achieve greatness despite the racial hardship he suffered his whole life in the same country he now represented. Bold.
Carl Lewis mirrored Owens’ achievements almost 50 years later at the Los Angeles, Olympics. But his feats pale in comparison to Jesse. Jesse Owens was the pioneer. The great man. Bold and brilliant.
Serena Jameka Williams
The arrival of two sisters from Compton, California in the late 90’s were revolutionary to the game of women’s tennis. Venus and Serena Williams have been raising the bar, dominating with their speed, strength and accuracy for nearly 20 years now. But even as dominating as 7x Major Champion Venus Williams is, it is her younger sister Serena who stands as one of THE all-time greats of the sport.
In 1999, an 18 year old Serena won the US Open and in doing so became the first black woman to win a Grand Slam in 41 years (since Athea Gibson). $80 million and a further 22 Major titles later, Serena is the highest earning female, most successful ACTIVE tennis player (more so than Federer) and 2nd most decorated female athlete in singles competition ever!
We can also add 16 doubles titles and 4 Olympic gold medals to her list of honours while we’re at it!
Perhaps the most testing time of her playing career and her life was between 2009 and 2012. Banned for two years for swearing at an umpire in November 2009, she would suffer a serious tendon injury to her right foot the following year and in February 2011 undergo surgery to remove a blood clot in her lung. Though her career and even more importantly, her life was hanging in the balance, things turned out fine in the end – she would go on to win at both Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows in 2012 and reclaim her position back at the top of the sport.
Her frequent charity work, appearances in TV shows and music videos along with a high sense of fashion are all well-known besides her physical dominance. Serena is a barrier breaker who conveys style, beauty, strength and excellence in all her endeavours.
Michael Jeffrey Jordan
When you talk Basketball, a large part of the conversation will be about His Airness, Michael Jeffrey Jordan. Michael took over from Hall of Famers like Larry Bird and Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson in the early 90’s as the NBA’s next superstar. He was a transcendent player whose high flying ability, prolific scoring and Championship dominance globalised the sport. Jordan became a 3x Champion and finals MVP from the 1991-1993. Following the murder of his father in July of ’93, Jordan retired from basketball but would return to the sport 21 months later and from 1996-1998, would win 3 more Championships and 3 more finals MVP’s. Jordan is often described as the greatest Basketball player and arguably the greatest athlete ever in American history.
Off the field Jordan supplemented the global appeal of his on court exploits with incredible business savvy. In 1985, he partnered with Nike to release his own brand of footwear known as the Air Jordan’s. No doubt the success during his career greatly contributed to the relevance of his brand. And even to this day, 32 years on, following a split with Nike to develop on his own, a host of superstar endorsements and over $1 billion in profit, the Jordan brand is one of the most relevant and globally successful urban businesses today. He is also the only black principal owner of an NBA team, the Charlotte Hornets.
Michael Jordan is great example of a combination of sporting and business excellence. He brought the NBA to the attention of the world and is influential in the way that players now conduct their business. We won’t see another like Mike in Basketball for a very very long time.
For the final instalment of our Black History Month next week, we pay tribute to the brilliant business minds of our time. Keep your eyes peeled!