"She was there to see the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that "We Shall Overcome." Yes we can.
A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change. Yes we can."So spoke Barak Obama about the 106 year old Ann Nixon Cooper last week in his acceptance speech. Yes they have come a long way and yes, there is hope now and everyone (outside the red states at least) seems to be happy. But before the halo on his head disappears, before the euphoria wanes, before it gets back to politics as usual, I want to take a moment and acknowledge Obama's debt to sports- yes you heard me right- to sports.
There was a time in America not long before Obama was born where not only life for African Americans was segregated, so were there aspirations and heroes. That seems to have changed over the last few decades and I would argue sports has had a bigger role in that transformation than almost any other single factor. Of course, the guy writing the sports blog will say that, I hear you thinking. But allow me to elaborate....
The most successful black political figure in America over the last hundred years or so has been Martin Luther King. Was he really successful in impacting the majority white view on blacks? Not really. Take sports starts on the other hand and you will see where I'm going with this argument.
Exactly 25 years before Obama's birth, the great American athlete Jesse Owens was running past white Germans to get the US national anthem played in a Berlin stadium. Hitler famously refused to shake Owens hand after his victory but then neither did FDR when Owen got back to America. This winner of four gold medals was reduced to novelty shows like racing thoroughbred horses to make a living.
Talking of beating Germans, there was the boxer Joe Louis who saved American pride again by flooring the German world champion Max Schmeling in just over two minutes in the ring. Louis later joined the army to fight for his country in World War II. The army he joined was segregated and when quizzed about it he is said to have remarked "Lots of things wrong with America, but Hitler ain't going to fix them."
The third great black American athlete of that era was baseball player Jackie Robinson. He was reviled nearly everywhere he went but now April 15 of every year is Jackie Robinson day and all major league baseball players, black and white, wear Robinson's number 42 jersey as a sign of respect.
These three athletes took the brunt of American injustice, but came out shining due to the inherent objectivity of sports. In the process, they also softened the perceptions of African Americans for coming generations of Americans. More importantly, they provided black athletes like Muhammad Ali the pulpit to share their views and opinions. Kareem Abdul Jabbar, the hall of fame basketball player, started bridging the perception gap, Michael Jordan converted it into commercial success and Tiger Woods perfected it. Swoosh was the sound of dollar bills being hoovered into their bank accounts, but it was also the sound of the colour barrier coming down.
Yes, Barak Obama stands tall, but partly because he stands on the shoulders of giants- giant athletes!