Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali, who stands over Sonny Liston during their title-fight, enjoys an exalted position in the social history of sport. Image Credit: Gulf News archives

Dubai: Jesse Owens, Jack ‘Roosevelt’ Robinson, Muhammad Ali...names that would give goosebumps for any student of social history of American - and of course - global sport. They are but a few shinning stars who used their wealth of talent as a tool to act as change agents in the society.

The passing away of Bobby Mitchell, the Pro Football Hall of Famer who broke the Washington Redskins’ colour barrier as their first African American player, surely enough – brings about a churning of emotions. For my generation, it is much easier to relate with the achievements of the one and only Ali, Arthur Ashe in tennis or Tiger Woods – but the history of the Afro-American athletes’ battle against all odds go back much earlier.

Talk of the franchise sports leagues in the US today, and it’s dominated by the billionaire coloured athletes in the field of baseball, basketball or American football. However, the scenario was far different in the America of the 1940s when a certain Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s colour barrier. Every April 15 — the day Robinson played his first game with the Dodgers in 1947 — Major League Baseball recognizes him with a special day.

Arthur Ashe

However, it was nearly a decade before that when in 1936 Berlin Olympics, the irrepresible Jesse Owens had spoilt Adolf Hitler’s party. The sprinter from Alabama, whose iconic picture of a giant stride off the starting blocks stares at us from sports history tomes, broke three world records as he picked up four gold medals in the 100-metres dash, 200 metres, 4 x 100m relay and long jump.

Still, talk about a symbolic gesture to reflect the united colours of sport and nothing could have been more telling statement than the Human Rights Salute on October 16, 1968 Mexico Olympics. After finishing first and third, respectively, in the 200-meter dash, Tommie Smith and John Carlos each raised a black-gloved fist as the United States national anthem played. The duo, along with a lionhearted Peter Norman, the Australian silver medallist who shared the podium, wore jackets adorned with human rights badges.

The gesture came during a period of tense civil unrest in the United States and was an overt statement about the current state of race relations in American society.

Muhammad Ali was, well, Muhammad Ali. It’s not for nothing that he is acknowledged as the Sportsperson of the 20th century – be it for his superhuman feats in the ring or making political headlines when he resisted the draft on religious grounds during the Vietnam War.

Serena Williams

Cut to the Seventies and Arthur Ashe Jr was no less an inspirational figure as the American professional tennis player who won three Grand Slam singles titles. Ashe was also the first black player selected to the United States Davis Cup team and the only coloured man ever to win the singles title at Wimbledon, the US Open, and the Australian Open. He retired in 1980.

The Williams sisters (Venus & Serena), in the current context, are champions of the cause though they have had a worthy predecessor in Althea Neale Gibson. Just ponder what it took to be both a tennis player and professional golfer and be of the first black athletes to cross the colour line of international tennis. In 1957, she became the first African-American to win a Grand Slam title at Wimbledon.