Winter Games Still Color Of Snow

By Courtesy of By Shaun Powell
Updated: February 12, 2006
TURIN, Italy—When he first began ice skating, back home in Chicago, he noticed that a fair amount of kids at the rink looked like him. That was the last time Shani Davis saw so many black faces.

“They all disappeared,” he said. “They decided it wasn’t for them.”

He stayed, encouraged by a mother who wanted her son to take a different path, and by her boss, who also happened to be the president of U.S. Speedskating in his spare time. Rapidly, Davis became an international star on skates, mostly because of his ability to master both the long distances and the sprints, and partly his ability to stand out cosmetically.

For the second straight Olympics, he is part competitor, part curiosity. He finished seventh yesterday in the 5,000 meters, the weakest of his three events. There are questions whether his exposure will resonate among people who look like him.

It’s not only speed skating. It’s the luge and the biathlon, curling and hockey, figure skating and snowboarding. It’s all the sports in the Winter Olympics. They don’t lend themselves to black people and quite honestly aren’t pursued by blacks, certainly not in any great numbers. Surely you’ve noticed.

Only the naive will think this will change anytime soon. Debi Thomas was supposed to make figure skating more desirable for little black girls, but the former Stanford premed student won her bronze medal 18 years ago, and an American black woman hasn’t twirled in an Olympic skating rink since. Vonetta Flowers was a track star when nagging injuries nudged her toward the bobsled, where her running and jumping served her well as a brakeman. It also helped her make history in Salt Lake City when she became the first person of African descent to win a winter gold medal. Four years later, she’s still the one and only.

“I wasn’t expecting a big change right away,” she said.

Big changes aren’t coming in our lifetime. These are sports geared to the mountains and the distant northern reaches, places far removed from black populations in the big cities and deep south. That’s one logical reason. Another is financial, and a third is exposure. Plus, there’s no history or link to the culture. Black parents aren’t passing down their knowledge of short track speed skating to their kids.

Therefore, progress won’t be made on strength of numbers. History must be patient and settle for an athlete making a splash in a premier Winter Olympic event. Davis and Flowers can only do so much, because at the end of the day, they’re just skating and pushing a sled.

They’re not in women’s figure skating, the symbol of grace and beauty, where the gold-medal winner carries substantial clout. They’re not in Alpine skiing, which has never had a black Olympian.

A group in the United States is trying to change that. The National Brotherhood of Skiers claims roughly 20,000 black skiers among its membership. The group is primarily a social outlet for adults and avid skiers, but its mission is to put a black skier in Vancouver for the 2010 Games. The organization is encouraging black kids to the mountains and funding those who show potential.

“Access is still very much of a challenge,” said Dwayne Wilkins, an executive of the group. “We’re trying to get more people from urban areas into winter sports. But children don’t grow up with slopes and ice in their backyard. Atlanta is not Aspen. Plus, it’s still a relatively closed industry.”

A few have made the U.S. development program, but finding the young black skier who’ll make an Olympic breakthrough remains a slow, ongoing process. Wilkins is sure it’ll eventually happen, the way Tiger Woods eventually happened in golf, and he can only imagine the ripple a black champion would cause.

“You need someone to be the first and to serve as an inspiration for others,” Wilkins said. “We look at Vonetta and Shani as groundbreakers and leaders in our society.”

Given the success of Davis and Flowers, the U.S. Olympic Committee is shortchanging itself by its inability to reach another audience and tap another resource to find future medal contenders. Until that happens, if it ever does, the Winter Olympics will only get a scattering of black faces who went against the norm.

“If what I do creates a common interest among certain people to try something different, great,” Davis said. “Whatever comes from what I do is a bonus. But I’m just trying to win. People will make their own choices, anyway.”

Given the rare sight of black faces at these Games, many already have.