Black lives in Europe

Sports people

Black athletes in sport

black and white photograph, two men in a sports field

Sport has become more popular, professional and lucrative, from the 19th century to today, and Black athletes have excelled. But even though they have been acclaimed for their sporting achievements, Black sports people have often faced racism and prejudice from the authorities, supporters and society at large.

The first Black athlete to participate in the Olympic Games was Constantin Henriquez de Zubiera, as part of the French Rugby team in Paris in 1900. Born in Haiti, de Zubiera was also the first Black Olympic gold medalist when France won the rugby tournament.

The following two posters symbolise the kind of prejudice faced by Black athletes in the 20th century. The first poster is from 1950, and promotes the Harlem Globetrotters, one of the most successful basketball teams in the world. On the poster, the Globetrotters were described with a racist label ahead of their match held in Antwerp which was billed as a game between 'Black and White'.

colour poster for a basketball game with green headline text Sportpaleis, illustration of a sport venue and text reading ' The Harlem Globetrotters en The American Stars, Negers tegen Blanken'

This second poster is from 1978 and advertises a wrestling match between Bert Mychel and ‘Negro Samson’, a Colombian wrestler known as Billy Samson (real name Pedro Murillo). Reducing Murillo to just the colour of his skin and not using his name exoticised and dehumanised him.

Orange, white and black poster with headline Sportpaleis Antwerp with photographs of 'Negro Samson' and other wrestlers

Throughout the 20th century, Black athletes have had to compete under these contradictory circumstances - celebrated for their achievements while facing adversity and racism. This chapter highlights the personal and professional achievements of five Black sportspeople from the modern era, telling their life stories and highlighting their sporting successes.

Abebe Bikila

Abebe Bikila was the first Ethiopian athlete to win an Olympic gold medal, taking gold in the marathon at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome while running barefoot and setting a new world record

Abebe Bikila was born in Shewa on 7 August 1932. He moved to Addis Ababa around 1952 and joined the 5th Infantry Regiment of the Ethiopian Imperial Guard, an elite infantry division that guarded the emperor of Ethiopia. Bikila rose to the rank of shambel (captain) in the army.

Black and white photograph of Abebe Bikila winning a marathon. His arms are raised in celebration while a race official watches and the crowd cheer

Bikila participated in a total of sixteen marathons. He came second in his first marathon in Addis Ababa, won twelve other races, and finished fifth in the 1963 Boston Marathon. Abebe won his second gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, becoming the first athlete to successfully defend an Olympic marathon title.

Colour painting with 12 panels showing scenes from the life of Abebe Bikila

In July 1967, Abebe sustained the first of several sports-related leg injuries that prevented him from finishing his last two marathons. In March 1969, Abebe was paralysed from injuries he received in a car accident. He regained some upper-body mobility but never walked again. While receiving medical treatment in England, Abebe competed in archery and table tennis at the 1970 Stoke Mandeville Games in London, which was an early predecessor of the Paralympic Games. He also competed in a 1971 competition for disabled athletes in Norway, winning a cross-country sleigh-riding competition.

Abebe died aged 41 in October 1973, of a cerebral haemorrhage related to his accident four years earlier. He received a state funeral, and Ethiopia also marked a national day of mourning. Today, many Ethiopian schools, venues, and events are named after him, including Abebe Bikila Stadium in Addis Ababa.

Helmut Köglberger

Helmut Köglberger was the first Black footballer to play for Austria, making his debut in a match against Hungary in September 1965. Born in Steyr, Austria in 1946, Köglberger was the son of an Austrian woman and an African-American soldier who was part of the post-World War II allied occupation forces. Köglberger said in interviews later in life that he grew up without knowing his father.

Black and white photograph of six men, footballers wearing sweaters

His professional football career began in 1964 playing for Linz Athletic Sport Club (known as LASK) who were winners of the Austrian Football Championship that season. In 1968, he moved to FK Austria Wien, who also won the Austrian Championship that season - helped in part by Köglberger who was the league's top scorer in 1968/69. During the 1974/75 season, he returned to LASK and was again the league's top scorer with a total of 22 goals.

Black and white photograph of Helmut Köglberger who is skipping, wearing a tracksuit with word Austria written on it

Köglberger played for the Austrian national team 28 times, scoring 6 goals and was also the team's captain.

After retiring as a player, Köglberger managed a number of Austrian teams, as well as supporting the ACAKORO Football Academy in Nairobi, Kenya. Helmut Köglberger died in September 2018, aged 72.

Nelli Cooman

The Dutch sprinter Nelli Cooman excelled in running short distances, and won many championships. She was World Champion twice and European champion six times in 60 metres races at indoor championships throughout the 1980s.

Born in Suriname in 1964, Cooman moved with her family to Rotterdam in the Netherlands when she was eight years old. Initially interested in football, her running speed gained her the nickname 'Miss Pelé'. As a teenager, she changed sports and began athletics training, taking part in the European Junior Championships in Utrecht in 1981, where she finished seventh in the 100m race. She became a professional athlete in 1984, taking a bronze medal at the 1984 European Indoor Championships in Gothenburg.

Black and white photograph, five athletes running a race

Two years later, at the 1986 European Indoor Championships in Madrid, she won a gold medal, running the 60 metres race in 7 seconds, a world-record time. That year, she was named Dutch Sportswoman of the Year. Her world record remained until 1992, but it still is a Dutch national record today.

Black and white photograph of athlete Nelli Cooman in a stadium

Gold medals in the European Indoor Championships followed in 1987, 1988 and 1989, as well as gold medals in the World Indoor Championships in 1987 and 1989. Nelli Cooman retired from athletics in 1995.

Martin Dahlin

This commemorative postage stamp for the 1994 World Cup depicts Swedish footballer Martin Dahlin - a formidable striker who was part of the Swedish team that reached the 1992 European Championships semi-finals and finished third in the 1994 World Cup.

Postage stamp with red text Sverige 320 VM i football 1994 and blue-toned illustration of four footballers running for a ball

Martin Dahlin was born in 1968 and grew up in Lund, a town in the south of Sweden. He was the son of a Venezuelan father and Swedish mother, who encouraged his interest in football. He played for local teams Lunds BK and Malmö FF, before being selected for the Swedish national team for the 1988 Olympic Games. In 1991, he scored a goal in his debut for the Swedish National team, one of the first Black players to represent the country.

In the 1990s, Dahlin played club football in Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom. In 1993, he won the Golden Ball (Guldbollen), an award for the best Swedish player of the year, after scoring seven goals in World Cup qualifying matches. At the 1994 World Cup, he scored a further four goals in the tournament which saw Sweden reach 3rd place. His 60 caps and 29 goals for Sweden rank him in the top 10 Swedish goalscorers of all time.

Colour photograph, footballers wearing yellow t-shirts in an open top car, waving a Swedish flag while crowds all around celebrate

Nicola Adams

British boxer Nicola Adams made history on 9 August 2012, by becoming the first woman to win a gold medal in boxing at the Olympic Games. Adams's win in the flyweight tournament was yet another history-making moment in her career.

Colour photograph of Nicola Adams wearing a red singlet and red boxing gloves, she flexes her biceps

Born in Leeds, West Yorkshire, Adams began to box in her childhood, winning her first bout aged 13. Through the early stages of her boxing career, Adams struggled with finding funding - in part due to the lack of recognition for women's boxing. During this time, she worked as a builder and an extra for TV shows, all while maintaining her training. It was not until 2009 that the International Olympic Committee backed funding for women’s boxing.

With her Olympic gold in 2012, Adams was the first openly LGBTQ+ athlete to win an Olympic boxing medal. 11 years previously, in 2011, she was the first female boxer to ever represent England in a fight against an Irish boxer. In 2007, she became the first ever English female boxer to win a medal at a major tournament, taking silver in the European Championships in Denmark.

Colour photograph of a circular plaque with rainbow design around the edges with text about Nicola Adams

At the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Adams defended her title, winning gold.

In 2016, she was the reigning Olympic, World and European Games champion at flyweight, having won all possible amateur championships. In 2017, Adams turned professional, becoming the WBO champion in 2019. Later that year, she retired from boxing to prevent further injuries, and she now pursues a career in media.