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African American Runners who have shaped today’s sport

Updated: Feb 15

Running history is filled with trailblazing African American athletes whose talent and activism initiatives were vastly ahead of their time. African American athletes have paved the way and made huge contributions to the sport of running while advancing human rights and progress around the world.

February is Black History Month, a time for “honoring the triumphs and struggles of African Americans throughout U.S. history”.  The true reality is that every day should celebrate Black excellence and achievement, what better way to contribute to Black History Month than highlighting incredible African American runners who changed history?

Take a moment to learn about some of the runners who defied the odds to make incredible achievements in the world of running while combatting racism in the process.

James Cleveland "Jesse" Owens 

Jesse Owens was an American track and field athlete who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games.  Jesse took gold in the 100-meter dash (tied the world record), 200-meter dash (an Olympic record), and broad jump (another Olympic record) before helping lower the 4 x 100-meter relay world record.]

Owens specialized in the sprints and the long jump and was recognized in his lifetime as "perhaps the greatest and most famous athlete in track and field history".  He set three world records and tied another, all in less than an hour, at the 1935 Big Ten track meet in Ann Arbor,—a feat that has never been equaled and has been called "the greatest 45 minutes ever in sport".

Wilma Rudolph

An absolute Black female icon, Wilma Rudolph is an inspiration for girls and boys the world over. Wilma faced great adversity in her early career when she was diagnosed with poliomyelitis (polio), a disabling and often life-threatening disease. She was regarded as the “fastest woman in the world,” in the 1960s and became the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics. She retired in 1962 to become an educator, coach, civil rights, and women’s rights activist pioneer. Her legacy is honored with a US postage stamp, many documentaries, and more.  

Ted Corbit

Known as "the father of long-distance running," Ted was the first Black American runner to compete in the Olympic marathon and the founding president of New York Road Runners. He completed 223 marathons and ultramarathons—winning 30 of them—and ran more than 170,000 lifetime miles. He was also an innovative physical therapist, the inventor of accurate course measurement, and a tireless champion of inclusivity across all ages, races, genders, and abilities.

Allyson Felix

In her life, Allyson Felix has earned not 1, not 2, but 11 Olympic Medals! Her focus is track and field with her forte being the 200-meter sprint and the 400-meter sprint. Felix has also taken part in both the 4x100-meter and 4x 400-meter relays. Off the running track, Felix is an advocate for female athletes and has started an incredible fund that supports pro-athlete mothers. 

Carl Lewis

In a career that spanned almost 20 years, Carl Lewis won nine Olympic golds, one silver, and 8 World Championship golds, competing in the 100m, 200m, 4x100m, and the long jump.

Lewis competed in four consecutive Olympic games (1984, 1988, 1992, and 1996), taking home the gold in the long jump on all four occasions. The 1984 games in Los Angeles would be a clean sweep in the 100m, 200m, 4x100m, and long jump, matching Jesse Owens' legendary performance by winning 4 golds in a single Olympics.  

Marilyn Bevans

Her running life is a litany of firsts: In 1975, Bevans became the first African-American woman to win a marathon. Her time, made not too far from her hometown of Baltimore, was 3:04:32 at the George Washington’s Birthday Marathon in Beltsville, Maryland. That same year, she finished fourth at the Boston Marathon, and became the first African-American woman to run sub-three hours with a time of 2:55:52. In 1977, she finished second and became the first African-American woman to medal in Boston, with a time of 2:51:12.

Sha’Carri Richardson

Present day champion!

Sha’Carri Richardson is a world champion runner, who competes in 100 and 200 meters and surprised everyone by breaking records in 2019 after running 10.75 seconds to smash the 100-meter records, making her one of the 10 fastest women in history – at just 19 years old. Richardson went on to smash her record in 2021, by hitting 10.72 – making her the sixth fastest woman in the world and the fourth-fastest American woman in history! Richardson also won gold in the 100 meters at the 2023 World Championships and won gold as part of Team USA in the women’s 4x100-meter relay final with a championship record of 41.03 seconds.

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