Gabby Douglas’ accomplishments in the 2012 Olympics has placed her amongst the top athletic heroes in Olympic history (Photo courtesy of Rolling Stone).

Athletic Heroes: Defining the New Great Ones

By Meta J. Mereday



According to the World English Dictionary, a hero is defined as someone who is “distinguished by exceptional courage, nobility and fortitude” and one who is “idealized for possessing superior qualities in any field.”

The London 2012 Olympic games are now a wrap, but a number of athletic heroes, such as Gabby Douglas, rose brightly and she warrants a historic review to compare her to other athletic heroes who medaled at prior Olympics.

As the first African American female to win an individual Olympic gold in gymnastics and a leading figure in helping Team USA win the gold medal in the gymnastics all-around, Douglas has added her name to athletic hero consideration in addition to her rising star on Madison Avenue.

“Gabby Douglas is right up there with our other late great Olympians. She has proven this, as she is the first Black young lady to win Olympic gold in the women’s gymnastics individual and all-around division,” noted Tiffany B. from New York.

Douglas’ courage and fortitude was highlighted in the publicity that her teammates continued to receive while Douglas’ coverage was more of an afterthought despite her exemplary performance as one of the two who earned the position to represent the United States in the all-around competition.

Tiffany added, “Gabby was poised, confident and courageous just like our other Olympic heroes. Like them, she excelled and moved forward despite criticism, the naysayers and not being expected to win; she transcended it all and came out on top – making history at the same time!”

While Douglas may not have been the immediate media darling on the gymnastic floor, she earned her spot and took it to another level.

She stands on the shoulders of other athletic heroes who performed with “courage and fortitude” under more extreme conditions than biased commentators.

Overcoming challenges from a racially divided country and under the hostile scrutiny and disrespect of Adolph Hitler, Jesse Owens went to Berlin in 1936 and won gold medals in the 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump and the 4×100 relay.

 Wilma Rudolph, who was a sickly child and overcame wearing a leg brace, went on to win not only a bronze medal at 16 years old at the 1956 Melbourne, Australia games, but followed up her success and became a sports superstar at the Rome games in 1960 by becoming the first American woman to win three gold medals at an Olympic track event, winning in the 100 & 200 meters and sprint relay events.

“The ‘first Black’ to achieve something will – and should – eventually get old, especially in sports. (Gabby’s) accomplishment means a lot to her, her loved ones, her community, those who helped her become the gymnast she is and many Black folks. Black female gymnasts have prominent roles on the rosters of SEC teams, so a Black female U.S. citizen winning the gold was inevitable.

“I think Jesse Owens winning gold at the Berlin Olympics – a direct and dramatic refutation of Hitler’s propaganda of Aryan supremacy and also the White supremacy of Owens’ native country – is difficult for anyone to match. I’ve wondered how Owens returned home alive. Wilma Rudolph was one of the first Black female athletes to make a mark, and she did it during a time when female accomplishments regardless of hue were hardly valued,” stated Michael H. from New Jersey.

Athletic heroes who stood with fortitude despite the odds would find it hard not to recall the heroism highlighted in 1968 during the Mexico City games when Tommie Smith and John Carlos Williams, who not only took the podium after winning the gold and bronze respectively in the 200 meters, but also took a heroic stand in protest to the poor conditions of the underserved in the global community represented at the Olympics.

With a black gloved hand each, they bowed their heads and raised their arm with the closed fist in protest against international human rights violations that sparked an uproar that not only caused them to be outcast, but also Peter Norman, the White silver medal winner from Australia who wore a human rights badge in support of his podium mates.

He was railed against in his home country as it too has had a poor history with its own citizens of color.  

Michael added, “While we cannot forget what Tommie Smith and John Carlos Williams did, their actions in Mexico City will be remembered more as political and social commentary than athletic achievement.” 

 We have looked at the stellar achievements of a number of Olympians of color from the early days to the present, with Carl Lewis, the gold medal track star and athletic hero of the 1980s along with Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who won gold in the heptathlon in 1988 and 1992.

Michael Johnson, the athletic hero whose trademark gold shoes flashed to victory in the 200 meter and 400 meter races at the Atlanta games in 1996, still holds the record for the 400 meters. Closer to Douglas’ heart is following Dominique Dawes, who was a part of the “Magnificent Seven” USA gymnastics team where she became the first African American  to win a gold medal in gymnastics at the Atlanta games in 1996 and the first to win any individual gymnastics medal when she also won a bronze.

The most poignant athletic hero continues to be Muhammad Ali, who as Cassius Clay won gold at the Rome games in 1960 in the light heavyweight category.

Ali, who helped to light the flame at the Atlanta games, was only able to touch the London 2012 Olympic flag before it was raised.

Johnson, who set records in Atlanta, was part of the relay team that brought the flame to London to start the games.

 According to Randye B. from Detroit, “Anytime you train hard to achieve a goal that comes with fame and recognition, then you achieve it, then it’s grand … to accept it with humility. In doing so, you stand tall, walk with other Olympic heroes, and embrace what is God-given.”  

Douglas is off to a great start towards making even more history.  We celebrate her and all the athletic heroes who made their mark on the podiums of London and will continue to build on the purpose of the Olympics which is focused on building a cooperative international community.


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