Modern Volume 13

Equal Sporting Chance? How Sport Creates, Continues and Challenges Racism

By Ellie Marlow

Recent events have drawn attention to the marginalisation of non-white actors in history, driving calls for more inclusive historical coverage. The ignorance of historical and contemporary contributions by certain groups of society creates prejudiced and narrow narratives that perpetuate implicit bias and continue racism. Sports provide a valuable route to analyse why and how this racism emerges and offers a platform to challenge it. Unfortunately, sports history has been side-lined from mainstream academia due to ‘intellectual snobbery’. As a part of popular culture, it has been considered unworthy of attention. However, it is precisely this mass appeal as the ‘language of common people’ that allows sport to play a central role in society. In the drive for the establishment of anti-racism practices and beliefs, sport cannot be left out. It has shaped how history has been made and written and will undoubtedly shape how future policy is formed and received. 

Using sporting platforms to erode racism cannot happen without considering how sports underpinned modern racism. Sporting stereotypes are entrenched with racism, as shown by Black athletic success being used to justify late 19th and early 20th century racism. Jesse Owens, an African American Olympic sprinter, won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, with his achievement being exploited to prove the presence of equality of opportunity in the USA. This emphasises the racialised and politicalised nature of sport as results are manipulated to further agendas, causing disjuncture between perception and reality. Whilst narratives pushed the idea that Owens’ accomplishments indicated USA progression away from racial discrimination, racist and dehumanising beliefs that Black athletes only succeeded because of animalistic characteristics infused sport. Owens’ coach, Dean Cromwell, stating Black men were ‘closer to the primitive’ exemplifies the acceptability of theories that non-European people were less evolved and more suited to physical pursuits. This shows the late 1800s to 1930s saw models of race that asserted Europeans were the most advanced being challenged, causing the social construction of race to be changed whilst maintaining European superiority. Sporting events shaped early 20th century definitions of race, with continuing ramifications as racism permeated sports and became ingrained in the culture. There are widespread accounts of hostility by college American football teams towards Black players due to these prevailing racist assumptions of inferiority. This treatment is symbolic of structural factors that discriminate against Black participation in sports, specifically the USA, with sociological explanations focussing on exclusionary patterns like a lack of role models, inadequate coaching or facilities and institutionalised discrimination. These links between sport and racial discrimination in an American context demonstrate the historically racialised nature of sport.

Whitewashed sports history allows this racial bias to continue. Marginalising and undermining Black sporting achievements prevents athletes receiving historical recognition and perpetuates narratives of Eurocentric superiority. A niche example of rectifying this is Palton and Schealock analysing Native American, Mexicans and African American cowboys in rodeo, a sport predominantly associated with White people. Historical omittances are problematic because they provide the foundation for continued racism by designating sport a White space. For a contemporary example of this exclusionary approach, the consistent media vilification of Manchester City football player Raheem Sterling presents these racial biases as acceptable within wider society, fuelling an atmosphere of hate and discrimination. Shropshire argues it is the persistent nature of racism in sports that means efforts to eradicate it have to be widely implemented and enforced. For this to succeed, history has to account for the experiences of all athletes.  

These failures are not to say that sports cannot be used to promote progression, but this relies on active promotion of anti-racism rather than silent complicity. The use of sport as a platform for change is exemplified by Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists in the Black Power symbol during the USA national anthem at the 1968 Olympics. The heavily publicised event spread this image globally, drawing attention to the struggles occurring in the USA and the demands of the Olympic Project for Human Rights. Australian Peter Norman stood in solidarity with the two athletes, wearing a Human Rights badge and bringing attention to racism within Australia, who had a ‘White Australia Policy’ from 1901 to 1966 to limit migration of non-British people. This event shows sports symbolise broader historical changes and draw attention to racial injustice. Similarly, sports boycotts were used as a resistance strategy against apartheid South Africa during the 1970s and 1980s. Campaigns pressurised South Africa to allow non-white athletes to participate in sport, with protests in Britain, Australia and New Zealand against tours by the Springbok Rugby team demonstrating international outrage and the importance of sport to South Africa’s global standing. These actions are just one example in a trend of sports acting as a tool for individuals to influence policy. 

The persistence of sports and its mass appeal highlights its centrality to any social movement. Like all elements of society, sports have not been immune to racism and amongst calls for diversified history this needs to be acknowledged. As sports continue to remain culturally significant and the field of sports history matures, it is vital to ensure these developments are maximised to address societal issues like racism. In modern times, race and sports have always been linked and this cannot be ignored moving forward. 


Blakemore, E., ‘How the Black Power Protests at the 1968 Olympics Killed Careers’, History, 22 February 2018

Booth, D., ‘Hitting Apartheid for Six? The Politics of the South African Sport Boycott’, Journal of Contemporary History 38 (2003), pp. 477-493.

Brooks, S., & D. Blackman, ‘African Americans and the History of Sport – New Perspectives’, The Journal of African American History 96 (2011), pp. 441-447

Dyreson, M., ‘American Ideas about Race and Olympic Races from the 1890s to the 1950s: Shattering Myths or Reinforcing Scientific Racism?’, Journal of Sport History 28 (2001), pp. 173-215

Fifield, D., ‘Raheem Sterling Accuses Media of ‘fuelling racism’ After Alleged Abuse, The Guardian, 9 December 2018

Liew, J., ‘Black Lives Matter has Exposed Sport’s Underlying Failure to Deal with Racism’, The Guardian, 13 June 2020

Markovits, A., & L. Rensmann, Gaming the World (Princeton, 2010)

Munslow, A., Authoring the Past: Writing and Rethinking History (Abingdon, 2012)

Perry, K., ‘Eddie Betts and Racism in Sport: It’s Not Enough to Just Not Join In’, The Conversation, 23 August 2016

Riess, S., ‘The Historiography of American Sport’, OAH Magazine of History 7 (1992), pp. 10-14

Sailes, G., ‘The Myth of Black Sports Supremacy’, Journal of Black Studies 29 (1991), pp. 480-487

Shropshire, K., & K. Winslow, In Black and White: Race and Sports in America (New York, 1996)