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Black athletes are challenging what a Winter Olympian looks like

More than 40 black athletes are competing at the Winter Olympics. That’s a big deal.

Olympian Maame Biney competes during the Ladies' 500m Short Track Speed Skating quarterfinal on day four of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games.
Harry How/Getty Images

Bobsledder Jazmine Fenlator-Victorian suddenly found herself fighting back tears during a press conference on Saturday.

The New Jersey native representing her father’s home country Jamaica at the Olympic games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, was asked about the representation of black athletes at the games. “It’s important to me,” she answered, “that little girls and little boys see someone that looks like them, talks like them, has the same culture as them, has crazy, curly hair and wears it natural, has brown skin, included in different things in this world. When you grow up and you don’t see that, you feel that you can’t do it. And that is not right.”

Fenlator-Victorian’s words touched on a noticeable difference during this year’s Olympic games: She’s one of more than 40 black athletes competing in South Korea according to a tracker from BuzzFeed, representing Great Britain, Brazil, and others while also giving countries like Nigeria and Eritrea their Winter Olympics debut.

With the arrival of women’s bobsled teams from Jamaica and Nigeria, both the first women’s teams in the event to qualify for their respective countries, as well as rising stars like the US’s Maame Biney, the first black woman on the US speedskating team, and Jordan Greenway, the first black member of the US hockey team, black athletes at the 2018 games are making history before they even compete for medals.

As a matter of numbers alone, it might not seem like much. Out of nearly 3,000 athletes, black athletes make up just 1.45 percent of those vying for medals, according to BuzzFeed. Nonwhite athletes (10 black Olympians and 11 Asian-American Olympians) account for just under 9 percent of the American team, according to team data.

The uptick of athletes of color participating in the games this year is easing the #OlympicsSoWhite controversies of years past, at least a little. But even with the increase in black participation this year, clear disparities and the high cost of winter sports in particular remain a factor in preventing more athletes of color from participating in winter sports like skiing or luge. The 2018 games serve as a good indication of progress, but they also serve as a reminder of how much further things will need to go.

Black athletes have been making history at the Olympics for decades

When it comes to black athletes and the Olympics, the summer games are much more likely to come to mind. Black athletes have become reliable medal contenders in various sports, like track and field and basketball. According to the Washington Post, black athletes accounted for 23 percent of the US team that competed at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janiero.

Track and field has become a particularly dominant space for black athletes, and black women in particular, explains Amira Rose Davis, a historian at Penn State who examines the intersections of race, gender, and sports.

In 1932, Davis notes, the first two black women to qualify for the US Olympic team, Tidye Pickett and Louise Stokes, were part of the US 4x100-meter track and field relay team. (They ultimately did not compete, being passed up in favor of white runners, but Pickett would later appear on the Olympic track in 1936, marking the first time that a black woman competed in the Olympics.)

Black athletes have a shorter history of competing in the Winter Olympics, but they’ve succeeded. In 1988, Debi Thomas became the first African-American athlete to medal at the Winter Olympics, winning a bronze medal in figure skating. In 2002, Vonetta Flowers, a member of the bobsled team, became the first black athlete to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics (Canadian hockey player Jarome Iginla would also win a gold medal that year). Four years later, speedskater Shani Davis, a five-time Olympian competing at the 2018 games, became the first black athlete to win a gold in an individual competition.

Each was part of a rare group within an already small number of black Winter Olympians. As the Outline noted recently, citing Olympic historian Bill Mallon, there have been “a mere 22 African-American Winter Olympians, from 1976 through 2018.”

Some of these figures, like Davis and Aja Evans, a bobsledder and 2014 bronze medalist, are repeat competitors. But black athletes have continued to make strides in Olympic events in the years since. The majority of members of the US women’s bobsled team for both the Pyeongchang and Sochi games have been black.

And athletes like Biney and fellow speedskater Erin Jackson, the first black woman to compete in long-track skating for the US, are challenging what some Olympic athletes typically look like. (Beyond the US, its worth noting that athletes like alpine skier Shannon-Obgnai Abeda of Eritrea will be the very first to represent their countries at the Winter Olympics.)

“It demonstrates that there is progress being made through the hard work perseverance and talents of athletes of colour who are making the US Winter Olympic team look like the United States, and that’s something we should celebrate,” David Leonard, a professor in the Washington State University Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies, told McClatchy.

Breaking through the barriers that keep so many athletes from winter Olympic sports

The successes of black winter Olympians in 2018 should not be seen as proof that winter sports have “solved” racial disparities. Many of these sports, due to a combination of equipment and travel expenses, coaching fees, and geographic realities, continue to present high barriers to entry for black people.

Athletes like French figure skater Surya Bonaly and Fenlator-Victorian, a New Jersey native who competed on the US women’s bobsled team in 2014 but will compete with the first Jamaican women’s bobsled team this year, also say that attitudes and stereotypes about winter sports can make it difficult for black athletes to break through.

“It’s starting to be a little better, but back in the day, skating was so expensive. I mean, it’s still an expensive sport,” Bonaly, who competed in three Olympics, told the Root in 2014. “Also, when you’re black, you don’t really consider winter sports.”

Recently, some black athletes have seen success in winter sports after transitioning from other events like track and field, often at the suggestion of their peers. Davis, the Penn State historian, points to Elana Meyers Taylor, competing this year with the bobsled team. Taylor helped introduce more black women to the sport and recruited some of her teammates.

Like Taylor, Fenlator-Victorian, and dozens of others, black athletes competing this year recognize the historic nature of their participation in the Winter Olympics. Just by being so visible they’ll potentially open doors for future black athletes.

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