Natural Causes: Black Female Athletes

By Demetria Richardson
Updated: December 6, 2005

Marion Jones & Zina Garrison

Marion Jones & Zina Garrison

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA — In the history of sports, as is true of African American sports, the emphasis has mostly been on male athletes. I would like to endorse the changing status of black, female, professional athletes. Black, female athletes, historically as well as currently, have given their culture a rich legacy in sports.

I’d like to begin with tennis pioneers, Zina Garrison and Althea Gibson. Garrison became the first black woman to reach a Grand Slam Final (1990). She began playing tennis at the age of ten and held 20 major doubles championships before the end of her career. It is also worth noting that Garrison won the Olympic Gold Medal in 1988.

Althea Gibson was a pioneer in both amateur tennis and professional golf. In 1942, Althea entered and won her first tennis tournament (sponsored by the all-black American Tennis Association). In 1947, Althea won the first of ten straight ATA National Championships. In 1956, she won the French Championships and, in 1957, won the All-England Championships at Wimbledon and U.S. National Tennis Championships at Forest Hills. Althea retired from amateur tennis in 1958 after she had won Wimbledon.

In 1964, Gibson launched her golf career, joining the LPGA. She retired in 1971. In the same year, Althea began her career as a “professional” tennis player (this woman had ambition!!).

Both women are sports legends. Yet, sometimes I feel they are overlooked. We don’t hear about them often enough. There’ not so much as a whisper of their names when the new faces of women’s tennis and golf are being praised….Hello?? Who paved the way?

Venus and Serena were first taught the game of tennis by their father, Richard Williams, when they reached the age of four. Both sisters turned professional at 14 and have since moved up in the ranks to become two of the top single and doubles players on the circuit. In 1999, Serena won the U.S. Open title. In 2000, Venus won Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and the Olympic singles title, while Serena and Venus teamed to claim the Wimbledon and Olympic doubles titles. And, in 2001, Venus just won the US Open in a historically unprecedented match against Serena, African American sister against sister.

Black, female athletes are making moves in new arenas, some fairly obscure. One is fencing (touché!). Laura Flessel-Colovic has established herself as the top French fencer and one of the world’s best. Flessel-Colovic started her career at seven years old and worked her way up to winning three Olympic medals and three world championship titles. As a black woman excelling in a sport usually associated with white, European men, Flessel-Colovic has become a positive icon for France’s changing, multi-ethnic face.

It’s inconceivable to discuss black, female athletes without mentioning marquee sprinter Marion Jones! Marion Jones is a pure demonstration of strength — and a thriller to watch. She came home from the Olympics with three gold and two bronze medals. Only one other athlete in history has ever won five track and field medals at one Olympics. Jones’ grace, charm and sheer athleticism has captivated the world press. In the famous words of the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, “Who’s bad?”

I am deeply moved by these women and their accomplishments. I believe that all women in sports send a singularly profound message to the world through performances. And the message is “ We are powerful.” They are intensely powerful. They have the power to give first class productions of achievement, competing with and defeating worthy opponents before thousands (talk about earning potential). Who wouldn’t love to slay their opposition (excluding all violence, of course), get paid for it, and have it televised? I suppose success IS the best revenge. Salaries alone do not tell the entire story. Increasingly, an expanding group of African American athletes receive additional income far in excess of their salaries for endorsing products.

I have been profoundly affected by many of these women. There are moments when I reflect on my choice not to pursue a career as an athlete. I would have pursued Track and Field. I had the talent, but not the drive, and I made a rock/scissors/paper choice of writing vs. running — and here I am. When I read about different women in sports – both back in the day and now – excelling, it often causes me to play that old mind-game of “what if….”

There must be many, subtle layers of emotion experience after winning a gold medal, Wimbledon, or any championship. After all, there was a time when women were not accepted outside of a domestic role. Did anyone really foresee women — much less black women — dominating anything in this world, especially, the “boy’s club”? I doubt it. Black, female athletes have achieved parity with their white female counterparts and are celebrated from the boardroom to the U.S. Olympics.

I salute these women and say, “More power to girl power!!”