Where’s the diversity at the Winter Olympics?

As the Saints and the city of New Orleans celebrate an early Mardi Gras, our neighbors to the North have their own reason to be excited. The 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics Games marks the first time in 22 years that Canada plays host to an Olympics. It also marks 22 years since a black Olympian first won an Olympic medal.


Debi Thomas’ bronze in figure skating at the Calgary Games in 1988 was historic, signaling what, at the time, appeared to be an unofficial coronation of African-Americans into winter sports royalty. Having already made their presence known in summer competitions, Thomas’ mastery on ice allowed her to join the likes of Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis, and Florence Griffith-Joyner in the pantheon of black Olympians as part of Olympic lore. It was the dawn of a new day.

Or at least it should have been.

Thomas’ accomplishment did not cause African-American participation in winter sports to increase exponentially and the list of African-American medalists who serve as Thomas’ successors is a short one. Vonetta Flowers became the first black athlete to win an Olympic gold for the bobsled in 2002 and during those same games Garrett Hines, Randy Jones, and Bill Schuffenhauer were awarded silver in the 4-man bobsled. In 2006, Shani Davis became the first black athlete to win an individual gold medal (1000m).

However, this anomaly is not entirely a mystery. African-Americans simply aren’t participating in winter sports due largely to limited access and exposure to these sports, a lack of resources and opportunities to train, and the high costs associated with them.

It’s ironic that the success of some of these Olympians was not predetermined. Flowers, Hines, Schuffenhauer and Jones all had dreams of being summer Olympians, switching to ice from track and field after achieving moderate success, ultimately trying out for the bobsled team at the suggestion of others. Davis’ switch to ice came much earlier in his career, at age six, when it was recommended to his mother that he transition from the roller rink to the ice rink to try speed skating. His mother had the determination, commitment and sacrifice to train a champion, uprooting the family from Chicago to be closer to the rink in Evanston.

Fortunately, for bobsled and skating, some skills are transferable. But what about the other five sports categories that compromise the bulk of winter gaming competition? It is impossible to train for skiing (including snowboarding), biathlon, luge, ice hockey and curling without access to snow or ice. As a professional athlete, challenges come in many forms, by way of fierce competition, injuries, and securing proper training. However, in the world of winter sports adverse conditions ARE the sport. The elements create the champion. Canadian, Russian, and even Norwegian athletes have excelled in the games for a reason; they come from locales where the climate provides almost perfect training conditions.

Still, there must be alternatives to consider. If the “snow and ice” won’t come to you, you can always go to the “snow and ice”, right? It’s certainly a viable option, but one easier said, than done. The emotional and financial strains associated with winter sports recreationally, much less of getting to a championship level are unbelievably high. The costs of private lessons and coaches, equipment fees, travel and dues to many elite training clubs prices could cost upwards of tens of thousands of dollars a year, making it neither a priority, or reality for many African-Americans. Shred Love, a Bayonne, NJ based non-profit offering free snowboard lessons to underserved youth is attempting to address this very issue.

Perhaps a bit more patience is needed when regarding the next generation of Winter Olympic hopefuls. The impetus for increased participation may come by expected and unexpected means. The record breaking snowstorms currently blanketing the East Coast may prove to be an unlikely source of inspiration and another impressive games from Shani Davis is sure to spike interest in winter sports.

There once was a time when, for African-Americans, participation, much less dominance, in sports like tennis and golf, was preposterous. After all, Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe made a way for Venus and Serena. Along with Tiger Woods, they are now heralded as the “faces” of their respective sports. With success comes exposure; with exposure, endorsements; and with endorsements perhaps facilities to accommodate bubbling interest in the inner cities. If so, then the seemingly impossible can be possible and perhaps the pantheon of African-American winter Olympians will be filled sooner than we realize.