Published on May 16th 2011 by Leon Shepherd

The Olympics are the biggest stage in the history of the world for athletic demonstration. This list features the Top 10 greatest African American Olympic Athletes of all time. So, who are the ten greatest African American Olympic athletes of all time? That would depend of course upon the criteria one uses to determine “greatest”. Well, the ranking and criteria I used for this list was based upon 4 factors: (1) Track & Field Athlete, (2) Number of gold medals, (3) Number of records that were set, and (4) Overcoming tremendous odds. (Racism, illness, injury, etc.) So now that you understand the selection process, let the top 10 debate begin.

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10. Gwen Torrence

Gwen Torrence (born June 12, 1965) is a retired sprint athlete, one of the greatest of her generation and an Olympic gold medalist. She was born in Decatur, Georgia. She attended Columbia High School, then the University of Georgia. Torrence has won medals at nearly every major athletics competition, including the Summer Olympics, Outdoor & Indoor World Championships, Pan American Games, Goodwill Games, and World University Games. After retiring from athletics, Torrence became a hairdresser and lives with her husband and their 2 children. Olympic Medals: 3 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze.

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9. Evelyn Ashford

Evelyn Ashford (born April 15, 1957 in Shreveport, Louisiana) is a retired athlete. She has run under the 11 second barrier over 30 times and was the first to run under 11 seconds in an Olympic Game. Ashford was ranked #1 in the world by Track & Field News over 100 meters in 1979 and 1981, and over 200 meters in 1981. She also was named Track and Field News “Athlete of the Year” twice. In 1997, Ashford was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, where she is said to be “one of the greatest track and field runners ever. Olympic medals: 4 gold, 1 silver.

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8. Valerie Briscoe Hooks

Valerie Ann Brisco-Hooks (born July 6, 1960 in Greenwood, Mississippi) won three gold medals as an Olympic  track and field athlete at the 1984 Olympics at Los Angeles, California, making her the first Olympian to win gold medals in both the 200- and 400-meter races at a single Olympics. She also won a gold medal for the 4×400 meters. Olympic medals: 3 gold, 1 silver, 1bronze.

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7. Florence Griffith Joyner

Florence Griffith-Joyner (also known as Flo-Jo (December 21, 1959 – September 21, 1998) was a track and field athlete. She holds the world records in the 100 meters and 200 meters races. She was the wife of triple jumper Al Joyner and the sister-in-law of heptathlete and long jumper Jackie Joyner-Kersee. She was the 1988 recipient of the James E. Sullivan Award as the top amateur athlete in the United States. Griffith-Joyner retired from competitive sports shortly afterwards. Among the things she did away from the track was design the basketball uniforms for the Indiana Pacers in 1989. Olympic Medals: 4 gold, 3 silver.

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6. Edwin Moses

Edwin Corley Moses (born August 31, 1955) is an American track and field athlete who won gold medals in the 400 meter hurdles at the 1976 and 1984 Olympics. Between 1977 and 1987, Moses won 107 consecutive finals (122 consecutive races) and set the world record in his event four times. Despite the Olympic boycott that kept him from competing in Moscow, Moses was the 1980 Track & Field News Athlete of the Year. A year later, he became the first recipient of USA Track & Field’s Jesse Owens Award as outstanding U.S. track and field performer for 1981. He received the AAU’s James E. Sullivan Award as outstanding amateur athlete in the United States in 1983. He was being named as ABC’s Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Year in 1984. Moses also shared the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year with fellow American gymnast Mary Lou Retton in 1984. Olympic medals: 4 gold, 1 bronze.

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5. Wilma Rudolph

Wilma Glodean Rudolph (June 23, 1940 – November 12, 1994) was an outstanding athlete. In the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome she became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field during a single Olympic Games, despite running with a sprained ankle at the time. A track and field champion, she elevated women’s track to a major presence in the United States. The powerful sprinter emerged from the 1960 Rome Olympics as “The Tornado,” the fastest woman on earth. The Italians nicknamed her “La Gazzella Nera” (the Black Gazelle); to the French she was “La Perle Noire” (The Black Pearl). Olympic medals: 3 gold, 1 bronze.

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4. Michael Johnson

Michael Duane Johnson (born September 13, 1967) is a retired sprinter. He won four Olympic gold medals and was crowned world champion eight times. Johnson currently holds the world record in the 400 meters and 4 x 400 meters relay and formerly held the world record in the 200 m and Indoor 400 m. His 200 m time of 19.32 at the 1996 Summer Olympics stood as the record for over 12 years. He is the only athlete in history to win both the 200 m and 400 m events at the same Olympics, a feat he accomplished at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. Johnson is also the only man to successfully defend his Olympic title in the 400 m. Johnson was noted for his unique running style. His stiff upright stance and very short steps defied the conventional wisdom stating that a high knee lift was essential for maximum speed. Olympic medals: 5 gold.

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3. Jackie Joyner Kersee

Jacqueline “Jackie” Joyner-Kersee (born March 3, 1962) is a retired athlete, ranked among the all-time greatest athletes in the women’s heptathlon as well as in the women’s long jump. Sports Illustrated for Women magazine voted Joyner-Kersee the Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th century. Olympic medals: 3 gold, 1 silver, 2 bronze.

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2. Jesse Owens

James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens (September 12, 1913 – March 31, 1980) was an American track and field athlete. He participated in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany, where he achieved international fame by winning four gold medals: one each in the 100 meters, the 200 meters, the long jump, and as part of the 4×100 meter relay team. Just before the competitions Owens was visited in the Olympic village by Adi Dassler, the founder of Adidas. He persuaded Owens to use Adidas shoes and it was the first sponsorship for a male African-American athlete.  Olympic medals: 4 gold.

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1. Carl Lewis

Frederick Carlton “Carl” Lewis (born July 1, 1961) is a retired track and field athlete. His career spanned from 1979 when he first achieved a world ranking to 1996 when he last won an Olympic title and subsequently retired. Lewis was a dominant sprinter and long jumper who topped the world rankings in the 100 m, 200 m and long jump events frequently from 1981 to the early 1990s, was named Athlete of the Year by Track and Field News in 1982, 1983 and 1984, and set world records in the 100 m, 4 x 100 m and 4 x 200 m relays. His world record in the indoor long jump has stood since 1984 and his 65 consecutive victories in the long jump achieved over a span of 10 years is one of the sport’s longest undefeated streaks. His lifetime accomplishments have led to numerous accolades, including being voted “Sportsman of the Century” by the International Olympic Committee and being named “Olympian of the Century” by the American sports magazine Sports Illustrated. He also helped transform track and field from its nominal amateur status to its current professional status, thus enabling athletes to have more lucrative and longer-lasting careers. Olympic medals: 9 gold, 1 silver.

Sports | Comments (14)


14 Responses to “Top 10 Greatest Black Olympic Athletes”

  1. Desiree Says:

    Great list, very inspiring…makes me want to go run.

  2. Leon Says:

    Thanks Desiree! I’m glad the list inspired you!

  3. Shack Says:

    Wow so many athletes come to mind but over the years I get them mixed up! Was Reynaldo Nehimiah an American? I remember his classic battles with Greg Foster with the 110 hurdles back in the 80′s. Steve Williams and a Jamaican named Curry in the 100m in the 70s.

    Guess boxers don’t qualify since they win/get one gold medal and turn pro but of course we’re talking Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Leonard, Spinks Bros. H. Davis etc.

    From an historic perspective (you know me), what about Ralph Metcalfe, Rafer Johnson and Woody Strode? Bob Hayes…

  4. Shack Says:

    I’m sure Gail Devers was considered as well…

  5. Leon Says:

    Shack…It was a toss-up between #10, Gwen Torrence & Gail Devers. They both won 3 gold medals, but I gave the edge to Torrence because she also won a silver & a bronze.
    The other great sprinters you mentioned:
    Woody Strode never participated in the Olympics.
    Ralph M. – 1 gold
    Rafer J. – 1 gold
    Bob Hayes – 2 gold
    And Reynaldo N., never participated in an Olympic game. He was highly favored to win a gold in 1980, but that was the year the U.S. boycotted the Olympics. He did have great battles with Greg Foster, and set numerous track records, but those were indoor records, not Olympic records.
    And regarding boxers, see criteria #1 listed in the Olympic Great’s heading.

  6. Shack Says:

    Leon – Thx. for the research/correction. W. Strode was listed as a decathlete so I assumed he’d participated.

  7. Lenora Dorsey Says:

    I love this list. I am always inspired by athletes that are at the top of their game without enhancements. Wilma Rudolph is my favorite because of the hurdles that she was able to get around. Great Job Leon!

  8. Leon Says:

    Thanks Lenora!

  9. Shonee Says:

    This list is awesome..I love, love, love the Olympics! I can’t wait for Olympics 2012 because I will be cheering from home!!

    I agree about Michael Johnson’s running style, it was different and he looked funny but look what he achieved with it.

  10. Leon Says:

    Thanks Shonee! I’m glad you like the list.
    And I agree with you regarding Michael Johnson’s running style. Kind of funny, but quite effective.

  11. Shack Says:

    Although disgraced I’m trying to remember Marion Jones’ Olympic awards.

    What about Willie Gault?

  12. Leon Says:

    Shack, Marion Jones won 4 gold medals in the 2000 Summer Olympics. And as you know, she had to return the medals.
    Willie Gault won 1 gold in the 1980 Olympics.

  13. Trisha Says:

    Leon,
    Great list as usual but I would switch Jackie Joyner-Kersee with Wilma Rudolph. Even though Joyner-Kersee had 2 more medals than Rudolph, Rudolph ran on a sprained ankle and also overcame a childhood illness. I think it was polio, I’am not sure. Not to mention paving the way for female athletes.

  14. Leon Says:

    Good point, Trisha.
    And you’re correct regarding Rudolph’s childhood illness. She did have polio.