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African Americans in Sports: Jackie Robinson of Gymnastics

A Dream Denied

By Todd A. Smith

            “What happens to a dream deferred?  Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun,” asked Langston Hughes in his classic poem “A Dream Deferred.”

            For many African Americans in sports before the Civil Rights Movement, the dream of competing in the largest arena was permanently deferred by America’s version of apartheid.  Athletes like Josh Gibson and James “Cool Papa” Bell and countless other African Americans in sports were outlawed from playing against the best competition simply because of the color of their skin.

            However, for African Americans in sports such as gymnast Ron Galimore, track and field star Gwen Gardner and future basketball legend Isiah Thomas, the United States’ boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow became a crushed dream, especially for Galimore.

            “My goal was to make an Olympic team, win a gold medal at the Olympic Games, and then maybe do some color commentary afterwards, perhaps make all kinds of money because it was so new and unique,” said Galimore.  “And all of a sudden, I hit a brick wall.  I didn’t know what to do.  I woke up and I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.”

            Ironically, Galimore’s early life started off with much promise as well and led to tragedy.  His father Willie Galimore was also one of many successful African Americans in sports, whose career did not reach its full potential because of uncontrollable circumstances.  The senior Galimore was starting his eighth season as a running back for the Chicago Bears when his life was cut short in a car accident when his son was just five years old.

            Nevertheless, Galimore chose to showcase his athletic prowess in gymnastics instead of on the gridiron.

            According to the official website of Iowa State University athletics, Galimore transferred to the Ames, Iowa campus from Louisiana State University in 1979, bringing with him a pair of NCAA titles.

            Leading Iowa State to a second-place finish in 1981, Galimore won two individual NCAA titles on the vault.  He also won nine All-America honors, placing in the all-around, vault and floor exercise twice at the NCAA championships, becoming one of the best African Americans in sports, especially on the collegiate level.

            Despite his accolades on the collegiate level, Galimore wanted to prove himself against the best gymnasts in the world but had his dream stolen, despite being the first African American to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics team.  Because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, former president Jimmy Carter elected to boycott the entire competition in Moscow, leaving many African Americans in sports unable to compete for their country.

            “What it could’ve meant for me financially to be the first African American gymnast to win a gold medal could’ve been huge if I had any personality to go along with it,” Galimore said.  “And so, I thought about those things selfishly…I thought it was so bad to think of those things, but I felt it.  I think I ran the gamut on all of that.  Today it is different.  I don’t feel that way.”

            Galimore eventually retired from gymnastics and returned to his alma mater as an assistant coach and later worked as national men’s program director for the U.S. Gymnastics Federation.

            The story of Galimore, and so many other forgotten athletes, not just African Americans in sports, is featured in the new book BOYCOTT: Stolen Dreams of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games by identical twins Jerry and Tom Caraccioli.

Smith is publisher of Regal Black Men's Magazine.

This article was published on Tuesday 01 July, 2008.
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