The Winter Olympics Needs More Diversity

Here’s hoping the Sochi Olympic Games mark the continuation of a positive trend for African-American athletes.

Historically, the African-American presence in the Winter Olympics has been a disappointment. If it were a book it could be called “The Invisible Olympian.”

But, gradually, that’s been changing.

First there was Shani Davis.

While the speed skater will not win any individual medals this Olympics, he is already a two-time Olympic champion. He won gold in Turin in 2006, which was, amazingly, the first time a black American athlete had triumphed in an individual Olympic winter event. He repeated that gold medal performance in Vancouver in 2010.

Even without more individual medals in Sochi, Davis has single-handedly changed the perception of African-Americans as competitive athletes in winter sports.

This year, there is also the women’s bobsled team. Five of the six members are African-American, which is also historic. Lolo Jones, Lauryn Williams, Aja Evans, Elana Meyers and Jazmine Fenlator are members of the team.

The history of African-Americans in the Winter Olympics has been sporadic. There were no African-American men on the U.S. team until 1980, if you can believe it. That was the year former Olympic sprinters Willie Davenport and Jeff Gadley competed on the U.S. men’s bobsledding team in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Davenport, who said at the time he wanted to break the color barrier of the Winter Olympics, had already won a gold medal in the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

In 1988, Debi Thomas won a bronze medal in women’s figure skating, becoming the first African-American to earn an Olympic winter medal.

In 2002, Vonetta Flowers won a gold medal as a member of the women’s bobsled team.

The dearth of African-Americans in the Winter Olympics has been the source of frustration over the years. Bryant Gumbel, host of HBO’s “Real Sports,” famously compared the 2006 Winter Olympics to a GOP Convention because it had so few blacks participating.

But this is changing, and not just here in the United States. Other nations such as France, Great Britain and Canada also have athletes of African descent on their teams.

The Olympic spirit of peace and solidarity blossoms when the field is full of men and women from nations and backgrounds from all over the world.

Let it be even more diverse in the Winter Olympics in South Korea in 2018.
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Brian Gilmore is a poet and public interest lawyer and author of the forthcoming poetry collection “We Didn’t Know Any Gangsters” (Cherry Castle Publishing 2014). He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org. Copyright Brian Gilmore.

Photo: "Silhouette of running man with torch," via Shutterstock.