Team USA: Diversity Paying Off

By Courtesy of The Philadelphia Daily News
Updated: February 10, 2006

TURIN, Italy – Before the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, nearly all the athletes who made up the previous 18 U.S. Winter Olympic teams had one thing in common: skin color.

With just a few exceptions, the athletes were white.

Slowly but surely, however, the U.S. Winter Olympic team is diversifying – and not coincidentally winning more medals. In Salt Lake City, eight non-white Americans who medaled helped the U.S. to its best medal total ever (34)

The U.S. team in Turin has gold medal-contending minority athletes in short-track and long-track speedskating, bobsled and figure skating. Black, Hispanic and Asian athletes account for at least 16 of the 211 U.S. athletes. That represents about 8 percent, nearly double the 2002 total.

Thanks to the U.S. Olympic Committee supporting outreach programs and the national governing bodies of several sports actively seeking to identify and train talented athletes in urban areas, the U.S. team is beginning to look more like a cross-section of America.

“Certainly, that’s our goal,” said Jim Scherr, chief executive officer of the USOC. “Because that would mean we’re doing a better job of providing opportunities to more Americans.”

In Salt Lake City, Vonetta Flowers became the first black athlete to win a gold medal at a Winter Games when she teamed with Jill Bakken in the women’s bobsled.

“I truly feel blessed and honored to have that title. I’m really excited that my grandkids will be reading about me in history books.” said Flowers, a former All-American in track and field at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

Also in 2002, speedskaters Derek Parra and Jennifer Rodriguez became the first Mexican-American and Cuban-American, respectively, to win medals. Asian-Americans Apolo Anton Ohno (short-track speedskating), and Michelle Kwan (figure skating) also won medals. Garrett Hines and Randy Jones (bobsled) became the first black men to win medals at the Winter Games. All but Hines are back. They are joined by, among others, Korean-American phenom Hyo-Jung Kim in short-track, black star Shani Davis in long-track speedskating, Asian-American defenseman Julie Chu in women’s hockey and Aaron Parcham, the first African-American male figure skater in the Games.

“To me, personally, it doesn’t matter what color I am,” said Davis, the reigning world all-around champion. “Black or white, Asian or Hispanic, it doesn’t matter to me as long as the message I’m portraying to people that watch me on TV is positive and it shows that they can do things that are different besides catching a football, hitting a baseball or shooting a basketball. I’m just showing them that stepping outside the bubble is OK and they can be successful at it.”