The First African Americans to Win Olympic Medals

Shani Davis

Shani Davis on his way to winning the gold medal in the men's speed skating 1,000 meter finals at the 2006 Turin Winter Olympic Games on February 18, 2006. Davis finished first with a time of 1:08.89 to win the gold medal.
Shani Davis on his way to winning the gold medal in the men’s speed skating 1,000-meter finals at the 2006 Turin Winter Olympic Games on February 18, 2006. Davis finished first with a time of 1:08.89 to become the first African American to win gold in an individual event at a Winter Olympics.Al Bello/Getty Images

In February 2006 at the Winter Games in Turin, Italy, Shani Davis, 23, a speedskater from Chicago, became the first African American to win gold in an individual event at a Winter Olympics.

Davis grew up on Chicago’s South Side, the only son of Cherie Davis, a secretary, who would take her young son to the roller rink. With his love of fast speeds, Davis started taking speedskating lessons, thanks to his mother who encouraged him to take up the sport.

Davis’s gift for speedskating landed him a scholarship to a specialized high school skating program in Lake Placid, New York. But being an African American playing a traditionally white sport came with challenges. A friend told the Chicago Tribune that classmates picked on him, calling him “boy” derogatorily on the basketball courts, and Davis fought back with his fists, eventually getting expelled.

When he made the Olympic team, Davis declined to race in the newly introduced team relay event, in order to better focus on his individual races. When the U.S. men only placed 6th without him, blame landed on Davis. His personal website was bombarded with racial slurs. Defiant and proud, Davis told the Associated Press in Italy: “I am one of a kind. I have a different charisma. A lot of people don’t understand me.”

Per: History

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