It has not been easy for people of colour to reach the top in any area of human endeavour. The legacy of hundreds of years of slavery, colonialism and racial discrimination has combined to keep black people away from the pinnacles in social and economic life.
Sport reflected this reality and both historical and economic circumstances restricted the participation of black, brown and yellow people at the highest levels at both the international level and even at their own national levels.
Take West Indies cricket as an example. In spite of making its debut as the fourth Test-playing team in 1928, and producing the likes of George Headley, ranked alongside the Australian Don Bradman as the greatest batsman and Learie Constantine who later became a member of Britain’s House of Lords, the leadership of West Indies cricket remained in white hands until the incomparable Sir Frank Worrell took over in 1960, as decolonization spurred social changes in the world.
On the actual field of play, those same economic and social conditions restricted participation of black people in a range of sports, notably in lawn tennis and in the swimming pool. No matter how talented, opportunities for using facilities considered the domain of white people were few and far between and depended on some white benefactor.
In spite of all these barriers, talented black athletes still managed to force their way to the top. One of these was a black young woman in then segregated USA by the name of Althea Gibson, who broke the colour barrier in 1956 by winning the French Grand Slam at a time when black people in her own country couldn’t even use the same facilities as whites. She went on, not only to win seven grand Slam titles but to open the door for others.
Through that door emerged Arthur Ashe, rated as the greatest black tennis player. But he did not restrict himself to the tennis courts, becoming a leading spokesman both for improved conditions for tennis players but also for black civil and political rights in the USA. He died after reportedly contracting the HIV virus from a blood transfusion during a heart bypass surgery in 1983. Much suspicion over the circumstances still remains today.
Those pioneers kept the doors open through which burst two black women who were to exercise domination not just over the sport but to place black women in an unprecedented position on the global scale.
The tennis accomplishments of Venus and Serena Williams are well-known and documented. Never has a brace of sisters established such dominance in a sport to the extent that when, as on numerous occasions, they faced each other in the final of global competitions, the racially-based media would often cry foul.
Tennis has not been the same since their emergence nor has power relations in the sport itself. Their success has inspired millions the world over, in the USA, Africa and the Caribbean, who would never have imagined themselves on a tennis court now taking up their mantle as they leave the sport. In addition they were not afraid to challenge racial discrimination and sexism in the sport.
The world is all the better because of them. As we salute their accomplishments, we know that their trailblazing has stoked an eternal fire. We will surely miss them.