‘Once we get exposed, we can do anything’: U.S. Winter Olympics team has never been more diverse

"Black people just need exposure to activities other than basketball and football."

Maame Biney and Shani Davis. CREDIT: Getty Images/Illustration by Diana Ofosu
Maame Biney and Shani Davis. CREDIT: Getty Images/Illustration by Diana Ofosu

When the parade of nations takes place Friday, officially opening the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, a record 10 African Americans will be among the 243 U.S. athletes marching into South Korea’s Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium.

Given the longstanding prominence of black athletes in American sports, that’s a relatively small number of African Americans preparing to compete in ice hockey, bobsled, and speed skating events. But their presence, tiny as it may appear, represents the most racially diverse U.S. team in Olympic winter sports history.

This year’s team, the largest contingent sent by any nation to Pyeongchang, doesn’t come close to comparing with the multiculturalism on display during the 2016 Summer Games, however. In addition to the 10 black athletes on Team USA, there are 10 Asian American athletes. In other words, roughly 92 percent of the athletes representing the U.S. in South Korea are white.

Advertisement

According to a Washington Post analysis, the demographic composition of the athletes competing in the much larger 2016 Summer Games was “striking” by comparison. “The United States took more than 550 athletes to the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro,” the Post reported. “Of that group, more than 125 were African American — about 23 percent.”

Who gets the opportunity to compete — and win medals — at the Olympics is serious business for a number of reasons. For one, the athletes become de facto role models, embodying all the virtues of the nation itself. On an individual level, the games often serve as springboards for greater wealth and celebrity for the most successful participants.

For example, the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Operation Gold Program pays winning athletes $25,000 for gold medals, $15,000 for silver, and $10,000 for bronze, plus there are other financial incentives from individual sports’ governing bodies. And that’s not counting the product endorsements, public speaking engagements, and other forms of remuneration that can tally into the millions of dollars. But if they’re not in the games, African Americans and other non-white athletes are shut out before the competition begins.

While expressing pride over the increased numbers of black and Asian American athletes at the games, Olympic officials have expressed concerns about the slow pace of progress on the diversity front. “We’re not quite where we want to be,” Jason Thompson, the Olympic Committee’s director of diversity and inclusion, told the Washington Post. “I think full-on inclusion has always been a priority of Team USA. I think everybody’s always felt it should represent every American.”

Advertisement

After this year’s games draw to a close and if, as expected, black athletes are among the many medal winners, young black kids watching across the U.S. may no longer eschew Olympic sports such as ice skating, skiing, and bobsledding as exclusively for white athletes and fans. Given black role models and, perhaps, medal-winning champions, more black kids and their parents will have a rooting interest in following the games and giving new sports a try. Even if young black kids don’t become competitive skiers or skaters, their improved familiarity with winter sports promises to expand their horizons, introduce them to different people and offer opportunities they might not otherwise have.

William Douglas, author and founder of The Color of Hockey, a blog that focuses on the history and growing impact of people of color in ice hockey and other winter sports, bristled during in an interview at shibboleths suggesting members of racial minority groups won’t engage in cold-weather Olympic sports. 

Douglas has played ice hockey since growing up during the 1960s in Philadelphia, where he often was the only black person joining in pickup games or playing on club teams. Now, he said, he sees more black people on the ice, “not enough, but many more than in the past.”

“It’s funny because we talk about the myths of blacks in winter sports and believe this is a myth perpetuated by the majority community, but it’s also a myth that we in the minority community buy into,” Douglas said, listing the theories and excuses that he’s heard over decades for the paltry number of black Americans in the Winter Olympics. “They say, ‘We don’t like the cold. Our ankles are too weak.'”

Of course, none of that is true. Rather, black Americans have shied away from winter sports largely because of the costs of participation and proximity to training sites. Unlike football and basketball — sports that require little more than sneakers, balls, and park space — winter sports are learned and perfected on ski slopes or ice rinks that aren’t as accessible to black kids.

Advertisement

Consider, for example, the challenge faced by anyone who aspires earn a spot on the U.S. bobsled, luge or, skeleton teams; they would have to find their way to one of the two training tracks in the nation — in Park City, Utah or Lake Placid, New York — neither of which are heavily trafficked by people of color.

“We talk about the myths of blacks in winter sports and believe this is a myth perpetuated by the majority community, but it’s also a myth that we in the minority community buy into.”

 

What’s more, the costs of winter sports can be prohibitively expensive with cold-weather gear, lift tickets, ice time at rinks, as well as unique equipment and travel to remote training facilities. Douglas, who still enjoys playing ice hockey, estimated he wears $3,000 of padding, skates, and other team apparel to play goalie on his recreational adult “Beer League” ice hockey team.

Still, black athletes have managed nonetheless to produce historic Winter Games memories. Bobsledder Vonetta Flowers was the first black Olympian to win a gold medal in the quadrennial winter games as a member of the 2002 U.S. bobsled team, and figure skater Debi Thomas was the first African American to win an individual medal for her performance in the 1988 Calgary Olympics.

For the most part, Flowers, Thomas, and a handful of other black Winter Olympians have been singular exceptions, typically the one and only African American on largely white U.S. Olympic teams. Their medal-winning performances were dwarfed by the attention and celebrity of their white teammates.

Advertisement

This year, however, black athletes from the U.S. enter the games with high expectations and the pregame media narratives have made them “must-see” participants in Pyeongchang.

“The fact that you’re seeing black athletes competing at the highest levels, it gives promise to kids, not just the kids, but parents, too,” Anson Carter, a retired black professional hockey player, said in an interview with Douglas’ blog. Carter is attending the Winter Games as an analyst for NBC, which is broadcasting the games to U.S. viewers. “So when you turn the TV on and see these stories on NBC about these black athletes competing in the Olympics, and competing at a very high level, that will more likely open some eyes,” he said.

Few American athletes in the Winter Games enter with the headline-grabbing hype of 18-year-old Maame Biney, the first black female U.S. speed skating contestant. Biney has garnered widespread media attention, largely because of her skill as a short track speedster and her effervescent personality off the ice.

Ty Newberry, executive director of the Fort Dupont Ice Arena in southeast Washington, D.C., told me in a recent interview that Biney, who started out as a speed skater in the Kids on Ice program at the inner-city skating facility, is already influencing kids and their parents.

He said for all the pride he and the arena shares with Biney, her success poses a bittersweet challenge for the skating programs at Fort Dupont, where the phones ring seemingly nonstop with parents wanting to enroll their kids in the program that produced a budding Olympic medalist.

“My fear is that everybody will show up and say to our staff, ‘Get my kid to the Olympics,'” Newberry said. “That’s not our goal here. We’re interested in introducing as many kids as possible to ice sports, where we can teach them life lessons.”

“My fear is that everybody will show up and say to our staff, ‘Get my kid to the Olympics.'”

Another black athlete to look out for during the games will be veteran Olympian Shani Davis, who became the first African American man to win an individual gold medal at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.

As the most honored black Winter Olympian, Davis, 35, first participated in the games as an alternate on the U.S. speed skating team at the 2002 games in Salt Lake City, Utah. Four years later, in Turin, he became the first black male athlete ever to win an individual gold medal in the Winter Olympics from any country, placing first in the men’s 1,000 meters. At those games, he also won a silver medal in the 1,500-meter event. In 2010, he won another gold (1,000-meter) and silver (1,500-meter) medal at the Vancouver games.

Although this year is likely his final glide on Olympic ice, Davis said in a recent interview with the Team USA website that he plans to continue racing until he can no longer skate. “I still love the sport of speed skating and I always find a challenge in competing and trying to be the best I can be,” Davis said. “So as long as I have that in me, age doesn’t mean a thing.”

Jordan Greenway, an outstanding college ice hockey forward at Boston University, will produce a barrier-breaking performance by simply skating onto the ice as the first black American on the U.S. Olympic hockey team.

“I’ve been able to accomplish a lot of good things and just allowing a lot of African American kids who are younger than me who see kind of what I’m doing, I hope that can be an inspiration for them,” Greenway said in a profile by The Sporting News. “Go out and do something different against the typical stereotypes that most African-Americans play basketball, or whatever the case is.”

Biney, Davis, and Greenway will be joined by these notable black athletes in Pyeongchang:

  •  Erin Jackson, the first African American female in long track speed skating.
  • Three of the four-member U.S. women’s bobsled team are African American, including Elana Meyers Taylor, who competed in the 2010 Vancouver games (bronze medal winner) and 2014 Sochi games (silver medal winner); Aja Evans, a member of the 2014 U.S. team; and Briauna Jones, who is making for first Olympic appearance.
  • The U.S. men’s bobsled team features Hakeem Abdul-Saboor, a former football star at the University of Virginia College at Wise, and Chris Kinney, a former Georgetown University track athlete.

Black Americans aren’t the only people of color likely to turn heads in South Korea. Team Jamaica, which created something of a sensation at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada with its “Cool Runnings” bobsled team, returns this year with the Caribbean island nation’s first women’s bobsled team and its first skeleton athlete, Anthony Watson, who was born in the United States to a Jamaican father.

Two African nations are sending athletes to the games for the first time, including Nigeria’s women’s bobsled team and Simidele Adeagbo, a female skeleton athlete, and Ghana’s Akwasi Frimpong, a male skeleton athlete.

The swelling array of diverse athletes are expected to be among the U.S. medal winners, raising the likelihood that after the games conclude later this month, they will be among the most watched and talked about celebrities returning from South Korea. At the very least, more people of color competing on the most prominent global stage will help bust the racist myths and stereotypes of black people as unable or unwilling to play nontraditional winter sports.

“I think it might make more black people curious,” Douglas told me. “I think at the very least, it might inspire some kids to go to an ice rink and try to do a public skating session.”

Some aren’t waiting for the Olympics to give skating a try. On a particularly frigid day last month, Max Maurice stood in the bleacher section of the Fort Dupont Ice Arena, cheering on the 30 or so black students from a nearby middle school as they circled the circled the smooth ice. 

“Black people just need exposure to activities other than basketball and football.”

“That’s it,” Maurice, a social worker at Charles Hart Middle School, shouted, urging a few wobbly-kneed skaters to catch up with faster ones. “Keep going. Don’t stop. You can do it, too.”

For many of the kids, who were being treated to skating lessons as a reward for academic excellence and perfect attendance, it was the first time they’d ever been to the arena.

“We chose this activity because it was something that they don’t ordinarily do and because this is an opportunity of them to be exposed to something that will challenge them in new ways,” Maurice said. “Black people just need exposure to activities other than basketball and football. Once we get exposed, we can do anything — even dance on ice.”