The Rich History Of Black Track & Field Athletes & Their Manicures

36 years ago, one woman changed everything.

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It was the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles when Florence Griffith Joyner took the silver medal in the 200-meter dash. As she crossed the finish line, spectators near and far couldn’t help but notice that her hands sported a mile-long, embellished, candy apple red acrylic manicure. It was the first time a style or beauty statement of that magnitude was made by any female athlete, and the look ultimately became a Joyner signature, with the Olympic gold medalist never competing without them. Since Joyner’s first Games, countless Black track and field athletes have embraced a signature manicure, following in the icon’s footsteps — proof that her legacy and unmistakable style is still revered nearly 40 years later.

Not only are young athletes looking to Griffith Joyner for inspiration, but in 2012, artist Pamela Council created "Flo Jo World Record Nails,” a sculpture comprised of “2000 artist-made replica acrylic fingernails in the shape of an ascending 200m running course,” to honor Joyner’s awe-inspiring manicures. In 2019, sixth-fastest woman in the world, Sha’Carri Richardson made an Instagram post in honor of Joyner after receiving criticism for her long, acrylic manicure, stating, “Y’all love talking about my hair & my nails like the greatest woman to ever enter the game didn’t run in style.” And now, the 2021 Olympic contenders are already planning what manicure designs they’ll be rocking when the games (finally) begin.

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“There’s not a long enough answer to [adequately] pay tribute to Black women in track and field,” Lolo Jones, Olympic hurdler and author of OVER IT, (in-stores July 20) tells TZR. “The swag, the cool, the freshness, the changing of looks. You think about Flo Jo — she brought fashion to track and field. Even with this very small uniform, she figured out how to dress it up, and she did it with her nails. It’s pretty incredible to see how track athletes, and especially Black female athletes, can turn something so basic into something so full of individuality. That’s what sets everyone apart.”

Allyson Felix, six-time Olympic gold medalist and star of P&G’s Olympics Campaign, Your Goodness Is Your Greatness, agrees. “Flo Jo and Gail Devers — they were so fearless in their style and aesthetic,” she says. “I absolutely love it. And I think it's so interesting now because you see it coming back around with some of the newer athletes.”

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The tone set by the likes of Joyner and Devers empowered those following in their (extremely fast) footsteps to embrace beauty on the track — something they say has made them better athletes overall. “There is nothing like feeling confident when you’re on the start line,” Jones says. “That extra confidence helps you perform. That’s why people dress up for job interviews; that’s why people dress up on dates. That level of confidence exudes out.”

Felix insists that incorporating beauty into the Olympics via ornate manicures is more than just an aesthetic — particularly for Black women. “I think that there's something really beautiful about really owning that aspect of how I choose to express myself,” she says. “When I started running when I was a teenager there was so much of an importance placed on ‘Can you crossover?’ or ‘Can you match up to the standard of beauty?’ And I think as I've grown older, I've just become much more unapologetic about who I am and much more confident to embrace all of my differences and celebrate those. It's definitely evolved.”

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Speaking to that evolution is Keni Harrison, a world champion hurdler poised for Olympic gold, who’s never seen in action without a bold nail look. “Over the last couple of years, especially in my sport, we've continued to see Black girls express themselves through beauty,” Harrison says. “For myself, I like to feel cute and have my nails, hair, and makeup done because when you feel good, you run good. I think it's changed a lot since like when I was in college.”

And just like Joyner, Harrison’s nail of the moment is decided by however she’s feeling at the time. “I just go on either Instagram or Pinterest and look up nail designs and choose a look,” Harrison says. “I'm like the brighter, the better, you know? I think just getting on the line and getting in the blocks and just seeing fresh, sparkling nails or a cool design is amazing. There's no certain pattern or color that I’m drawn to — it’s just whatever I'm into in then.”

But now, with the Olympic Trials in just a few weeks, Harrison already has a few design ideas in mind for the Games. “I think I want to do bright nails, like neon colors,” she says. “My uniform has neon in it, so I think having some type of glitter with neon incorporated is perfect for summer and the trials.”

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Felix hopes that the impact of Black women flexing their creativity on the track will make a larger impact for the next generation of athletes, much like the what Joyner has done for her. “I’m so excited to see the beauty of so many different athletes with so many different styles and unique looks at the Olympics this summer,” she says. “I just always think of those little girls, and even little boys sitting at home, watching, being able to see people that look like them. Some will come out with a full face, some will come out more natural, some will have these long, decorative nails that have such history. It's so important to be able to see yourself in these athletes — especially for us.”

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Joyner’s impact (and of course her now legendary nails) is further proof of the way Black women blaze trails in beauty everywhere they go. And now, 22 years later, viewers can expect to see her presence reflected in the next generation of Black track and field athletes taking the stage in this year’s Olympic Games — with enviable manicures to match.

To learn more about all the Olympic hopefuls, visit TeamUSA.org. Watch the Tokyo Olympics this summer on NBC.

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