9 Athletes Who Didn't Let Biases Stop Them
They made history by putting #LoveOverBias.
When the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 kick off on Feb. 9, the diverse procession of athletes from around the world at the Opening Ceremonies will remind us that greatness come in all shapes, sizes, genders, and ethnicities.
But not all athletes get to compete level playing fields. For many, biases and prejudice pose additional hurdles on their journeys to greatness. Several of the world’s greatest sports stars have faced racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of bias throughout their childhoods and athletic careers.
Yet these 9 athletes who overcame such obstacles through determination and the support of their loved ones became more than just star athletes — they became champions.
1// Michelle Kwan
Michelle Kwan, one of the world’s most accomplished figure skaters, would not be where she is today if not for the unwavering support of her parents.
Between the costumes and equipment necessary, figure skating is an expensive sport, and Kwan’s parents, who moved to the US from Hong Kong, did not have much money. But they worked hard to make their daughter’s dreams a reality, supporting her through every slip and fall on the ice until she skated her way into the Olympics.
“My parents juggled multiple jobs to put food on the table and a roof over our head, and I always say it was a lot of pressure, but it made me appreciate everything that much more,” Kwan — an ambassador for the latest installment of Procter & Gamble’s “Thank You, Mom” campaign, called “Love Over Bias”— told Global Citizen. “I understood the hard work and the sacrifices they were making to give me this opportunity and chance.”
With her parents support, Kwan never let bias or criticism get to her. Today she is a two-time Olympic medalist, five-time world champion, and nine-time US titleholder.
2// Jim Abbott
Few sports require as much manual dexterity, precision, and hand-eye coordination as baseball. It’s a challenging game even for able-bodied athletes, which makes Jim Abbott’s athletic accomplishments all the more astonishing.
Abbott pitched in the Major Leagues for a decade, tossed a historic no-hitter, and led Team USA to a 1988 Olympic gold medal with a seemingly large disadvantage, Abbott was born without a right hand.
The former All Star player could have let this hold him back, but with the support of his family and community, he triumphed.
“I didn't face a lot [of] outward discrimination,” he told the Washington Post. “For the most part growing up, I was surrounded by people who had an optimism, an ingrown optimism that if you had the talent you could accomplish what you wanted.”
But anytime he did experience prejudice, Abbott let it fuel his motivation.
“One time I had a high school coach who said I should never play in the major leagues and that only made me work 50 times harder,” Abbott once said in a cameo on the sitcom “Boy Meets World.”
3// Billie Jean King
In 1973, tennis star Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs — a former tennis champ infamous for his chauvinism — in a match that was watched by more than 50 million people and was dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes.”
The lead-up to the match highlighted major injustices and gender inequalities in sports and cultural attitudes, making King and her ultimate victory important symbols of the Women’s Liberation Movement.
But for King, a 12-time Grand Slam singles winner who identifies as a lesbian, that was just the start.
After she was publicly outed in 1981, the tennis legend became an important advocate for LGBTQ-rights and marginalized individuals around the world. Today, King runs the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative, which champions inclusive leadership and helps companies foster more diverse workplaces.
4// Jackie Robinson
This list would not be complete without the man himself, Jackie Robinson, the first black player to play for a Major League Baseball team.
In 1947, Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers — and he changed American culture forever. Known for his speed and daring, Robinson broke through the “color barrier” and paved the way for Hall of Famers like Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and Buck Leonard.
The pioneer player credited much of his success to his mother, who moved her family from Georgia to Pasadena, California where she worked as a maid to support her children and make their dreams come true.
"Jackie was proud of his mother, who would not allow the white neighbors to drive her away or frighten her or mistreat her kids,” Robinson’s biographer Manfred Weidhorn wrote. “From her he learned to stand up for his rights. He learned to respect himself, demand respect from others, and never back down."
5// Aja Evans
Aja Evans is was an all-around track and field star in college — she competed in both sprinting and shotput, even participating in the 2008 Olympic shotput trials. But when she didn’t make it to the 2008 Summer Olympics, Evans didn’t let that put an end to her Olympic dreams; instead, she shifted her focused to the Olympic Winter Games.
Evans, a “Love Over Bias” ambassador, then took up bobsledding and in 2014 rode her way to a bronze medal. Evans is one of just a few dozen black athletes to have competed in any of the Olympic Winter Games.
Until figure skater Debi Thomas took home the bronze in 1988, no African American athlete had ever won a Winter Olympic Game medal. And while more black athletes have gradually begun participating in the Olympic Winter Games, in 2010 there were still only around 20 black athletes from around the world who participated.
The US bobsledding team, which Evans is a part of, has been a major part of the effort to increase diversity in winter sports. In their quest to find the best possible athletes to pilot their sleds, the bobsled team remains at the forefront of diversity.
6// Cathy Freeman
Australia's indigenous people have contended with prejudiced policies and dealt with bias from fellow Australians for generations, and Cathy Freeman — an Olympic gold medalist and indigenous Australian — was no exception.
Growing up, race organizers handed first-place trophies to her white competitors for races Freeman had won, she told National Indigenous Television.
"I think at the time I didn't really know what was going on," she said. "Goodness gracious, I didn't really need to get a gold medal or a trophy because to me, all that mattered was that I crossed the line first."
But her parents would not stand for the racism and they wouldn’t let tolerate it either.
“They were more upset than me,” Freeman said, but with her parents’ support, she overcame the prejudices and biases she was confronted with to become one of the world’s greatest sprinters.
In 2000, Freeman made history by lighting the Olympic flame at Sydney Olympics, one of the highest honors an athlete can achieve.
7// Muhammad Ali
Just four years before Freeman lit the Olympic flame, Muhammad Ali had the honor of lighting it in Atlanta, Georgia.
By then, Ali, a charismatic boxing champion and gold medalist, was considered one of the most beloved athletes in US history, but he wasn’t always so well-loved. In fact, Ali faced intense hatred, racism, and religious discrimination for much of his life and career.
Ali grew up and trained in Louisville, Kentucky during the Jim Crow era, when black and white residents were kept separate, the former forced to attend substandard schools and use inferior public services. Shortly after winning the heavyweight championship of the world, Ali encountered further nationwide prejudice when he converted to Islam and changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, as he is most famously known today.
Because of his beliefs, Ali refused to join the US Army and fight in the Vietnam War three years later, resulting in a conviction for draft evasion. He was also stripped of his championship belt, and banned from boxing for three years during the peak of his career.
But Ali didn’t give up. Soon after being reinstated, Ali reclaimed the heavyweight championship and dominated the sport once again to become one of the world’s most celebrated athletes.
8// Lee Elder
For decades, golf was a sport almost exclusively played by wealthy, white men. The idea of a black golf champion seemed far-fetched and, in fact, the Augusta National Golf Club, one of the world’s most famous golf courses, didn’t even allow black players.
That is, until 1975 when Lee Elder took to the course for the Masters Tournament, the US’s most important golf event.
Elder became the first black person to play the in Masters Tournament and was also the first black competitor to participate in South Africa’s professional golf tour during apartheid. His courageous role as a pioneer helped pave the way for other black golf players.
9// Zahra Lari
In 2012, Zahra Lari skated onto the ice to compete in the European Cup in Italy and made history, becoming the first skater to compete at an international event while wearing a hijab, but it was not without controversy.
“In my country women don't do much sport and even less figure skating,” Lari, who is from the United Arab Emirates, told the Agence France-Presse. So when Lari first began competing, her father was reluctant to let her participate in the sport — but her mother interceded.
“I had to convince him. In the beginning he saw it as his daughter dancing in front of a male audience,” Lari’s mother said.“But he came along to watch, he saw how beautiful she was on the ice, and he loves her, he wants her to be happy. She’s covered, she hasn’t done anything anti-Islamic.”
Lari said many people have made Islamophobic comments about her participation in the sport, and that she’s even been the subject of death threats. But within her sport, she feels safe. “The other girls are very nice to me,” she told AFP. “I think they accept me very well. I haven’t had any problems, people are open.”
Now, with the full support of her parents, Lari, a “Love Over Bias” ambassador, is pursuing her dreams of one day competing in the Winter Olympics.
The stories of athletes like Kwan, Lari, and Evans, who overcame different forms of bias, inspired Procter & Gamble’s “Love Over Bias” short film. To discover more, visit LoveOverBias.com and join the conversation using #LoveOverBias.