Forget about using #OlympicsSoWhite when the 2018 Winter Olympics open in Pyeongchang, South Korea next Friday
The XXIII Winter Olympics will have the largest contingent of black athletes and coaches in Winter Games history, helping to shatter the stereotype that blacks are averse to so-called non-traditional winter sports. Many experts, though, think the numbers should be higher.
The United States this year will have its most diverse team ever. Ten black, 11 Asian-American, and two openly gay male athletes will be among the record 242-member U.S. team that will march into a Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremony of the Feb. 9-25 Winter Games.
In addition, three Caribbean and Sub-Saharan African nations will join the U.S. in the diversity parade. Jamaica is back at the Winter Games, this time with its first women’s bobsled team and its first skeleton athlete.
“It’s important because it demonstrates that there is progress being made through the hard work perseverance and talents of athletes of color who are making the U.S. Winter Olympic team look like the United States, and that’s something we should celebrate,” said David Leonard, a Washington State University’s Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies.
But Leonard and others say the diversity issue is far from settled. Some winter sports, notably biathlon and speedskating, fell short of the United States Olympic Committee leadership’s 2016 diversity and inclusion scorecard benchmarks for athletes of color on U.S. national teams, the most recent data available.
The diversity goals are different for each sport and include criteria such as financial resources, staff size, and a particular sport’s NCAA pipeline.
“The fact that there’s still work to be done demonstrates that issues surrounding access, surrounding inequalities, persist,” Leonard said.
Jason Thompson, the USOC’s director for diversity and inclusion, acknowledged that the organization “Is not where we want to be” in terms of diversity but is encouraged nonetheless by the number of players of color competing in Pyeongchang.
He said the some of the gains can be attributed to athletes like bobsled pilot Elana Meyers Taylor, who has personally recruited minority athletes from track and field and other sports for the U.S. bobsled program.
Three of the four members U.S. women bobsledders — including Meyers Taylor — competing in Pyeongchang are African American, as is the team’s backup athlete. Seven of the nine women on the 2017 U.S. women’s national bobsled team are black.
“She creating an incredible legacy,” Thompson said of Meyers Taylor. “Every female that we interview on the team says ‘Yeah, she recruited me.’ It’s a simple thing that she did, it didn’t cost anything. It just shows what can be done.”
However, several winter sports continue to lag when it comes to racial diversity, despite achievements by black athletes at previous Winter Olympics.
Sixteen years ago, Vonetta Flowers became the first African-American athlete to win an Olympic gold medal when her two-person bobsled finished first at the Winter Games in Salt Lake City.
Figure skater Debi Thomas captured a bronze medal at the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary. Shani Davis earned speedskating gold medals at the 2006 and 2010 Winter Games in Turin and Vancouver.
The 2014 U.S. women’s Olympic bobsled team, which featured featured five black women, captured silver and bronze medals at the Winter Games in Sochi.
Some experts say economics and geography as barriers that keep communities of color from participating in winter sports in large numbers.
Sports such as ice hockey, speedskating, skiing and figure skating are expensive and often require traveling distances to get to slopes or rinks to practice or play.
“The NHL has done a good job in trying to make hockey popular in urban areas and I think they’ve had some success in the last 15 years or so,” said Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.
“However, when you look at all the sports across the board, there just aren’t facilities in urban areas where such a significant percentage of African Americans live. And they’re expensive sports to play, for the most part.”
But others say that attitudes and stereotypes within some winter sports are bigger obstacles for athletes of color to overcome. Jazmine Fenlator-Victorian, the Jamaican bobsled team’s pilot, recalled the looks she and her teammates received when they arrived at a recent meet in Europe.
“When you walk into a place and you’re expected to look a certain way to do your job or a sport, that’s very demeaning,” said Fenlator-Victorian, who was a member of the 2014 U.S. women’s Olympic bobsled team. “To me, it’s a lack of education and lack of representation. If we can continue to get representation out there that means there are more opportunities to educate more people.”
The U.S. delegation is a team of firsts. Jordan Greenway, a forward for Boston University hockey team and a 2015 second-round draft pick of the National Hockey League’s Minnesota Wild, will be the first African-American to play on a U.S. Olympic hockey squad.
His path to Pyeongchang was paved when the league announced that it wouldn’t suspend its operations to allow players to compete for their countries at the Olympics, as it had since 1998. The move forced U.S. hockey officials to build an Olympic team with collegiate and minor league talent and Americans playing professionally in Europe and Russia
Black athletes will compete in a host of other sports. Erin Jackson, a 25-year-old competitive inline skating veteran and roller derby skater from Ocala, Fla., is the first black American female long track Olympic speedskater, qualifying for the team after making the transition from wheels to steel blades in four months.
“It’s kind of a known thing that there aren’t many people of color in the Winter Olympics,” Jackson said. “If there’s a young black girl out there watching the Winter Olympics and she says, ‘There aren’t many people like me out there,’ she might feel discouraged trying some of these sports that she sees.
“I’m looking forward to being someone who she can see in the Olympics, on TV, and think ‘There someone out there like me, so I can do it, too.’”
Maame Biney, a Ghanian-born 18-year-old from Reston, Va., is the first U.S. black female Olympic short track speedskater. Many predict she’ll become a star.
“She’s got the physical tools to be the world’s best,” said Nathaniel Mills, a three-time Olympian who coached Biney when she was younger at a learn-to-skate program at a Washington, D.C. indoor ice rink. “If she stays healthy, she could rewrite the record book.”
Biney and Jackson are among five African-Americans on the speedskating teams. Long track legend Davis, the first African-American to win an individual gold medal at the Winter Games, returns for his third Winter Olympics.
Kimani Griffin, 28-year-old long track skater from Winston Salem, N.C., makes his Olympic debut. And Anthony Barthell, from High Point, N.C., coaches the U.S. short track team.
“We’re taking over another sport,” Griffin joked. “I don’t know why this is happening, but I like it.”