By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 9, 2006
TURIN, Italy, Feb. 8 -- Back when figure skater Dorothy Hamill, hockey player Mike Eruzione and speedskaters Eric Heiden and Bonnie Blair were winning medals for the United States, the joke was that the snow wasn't the only thing that was white when it came to the Winter Olympics.
The joke may be getting a little old. Once composed almost exclusively of white athletes from small communities in the Northeast and Midwest, the U.S. team that will march into the Olympic Stadium on Friday night for Opening Ceremonies will be the most racially and ethnically diverse in the history of the Winter Games.
It will include a Cuban American from Miami, a Puerto Rican American from Chicago, a Japanese American from Seattle and African Americans from Chicago, Alabama and North Carolina, all among the country's strongest medal hopes. At least 23 of the 211-member U.S. team have Hispanic or non-white backgrounds, and the team includes natives of Florida, Georgia and Texas, as well as South Korea, Russia and Japan.
Though the U.S. Olympic Committee does not keep official records on race or ethnicity, the number of black, Asian American or Hispanic athletes on the U.S. team is more than double that at Salt Lake City in 2002, which included at least 12 minorities. It is nearly four times the number on the U.S. teams that competed in 1998 in Nagano and 1994 in Lillehammer.
"I've definitely seen the winter sport side of it evolve," said men's bobsledder Randy Jones, an African American who has competed in two previous Olympics and won a silver medal in 2002. "There's more color getting involved in all sports."
The evolution of the U.S. team has major implications for the U.S. Olympic Committee, whose congressionally defined mission includes increasing the number of minorities in athletics, and its various winter-sport national governing bodies, which for years have fought what was often a losing battle to attract more of the country's top minority athletes. Sports officials say there is no greater recruitment tool than a more diverse lineup of American Olympians.
NBC, which paid $1.5 billion for the broadcast rights for Turin and the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, sees a benefit as well. As NBC expands its coverage of the Olympics beyond network prime time to its cable channel lineup, it is banking on appealing to a younger and diverse viewing audience.
"The Winter Olympics used to present a promotional challenge," said Mike McCarley, the vice president of communications and marketing for NBC Universal Sports & Olympics. "Now there's speed, danger and an Olympic team that is more identifiable to a more diverse cross-section of America."
U.S. officials say there are several reasons for the evolution. Athletes who grew up roller skating and inline skating far from the ice, snow and mountains of the North and West have been switching to Olympic sports such as speedskating and hockey. In addition, recruiting efforts by winter sport governing bodies have begun to pay off. They've been helped by the success of black and Hispanic athletes at recent Olympics.
"What you're seeing -- and we're very proud of it -- some of it has been very fortuitous and some of it has been by design," U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Jim Scherr said.
Though some winter sports such as skiing and curling remain predominantly white and non-Hispanic, figure skating and bobsled have become increasingly diverse. Speedskating is at the leading edge of the transformation, with a diversity that is on par with, or exceeds, that of most U.S. summer Olympic teams.
Speedskating's long-track team includes Shani Davis, an African American from Chicago; Derek Parra of Carson, Calif., who was the first athlete of Mexican descent to win a Winter Olympic medal when he claimed a gold in 2002; Ryan Leveille, who is part Native American; and Jennifer Rodriguez, who is of Cuban descent and in 1998 became the first Hispanic American to compete in the Winter Games.
Among short track speedskaters, Apolo Anton Ohno is of Japanese descent; Hyo-Jung Kim was born in Pusan, South Korea; Allison Baver is part Native American; and Maria Garcia is Mexican American.
"I noticed it traveling with our team," Baver said. "We're the only team that has coaches from three other countries and athletes that are all different in terms of our diversity. Look at our team as a whole. It is the United States. . . . It's a melting pot."
Despite the evolving composition of the U.S. team, the Winter Games remain a largely exclusive club.
Unlike the Summer Olympics, in which 10,000 athletes from more than 200 nations participate, the Turin Games will include about 2,500 athletes from 87 countries. At the last Winter Olympics, 24 European, North American and Asian countries, and Australia, won all of the medals. At the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, 75 nations from all over the globe earned medals.
When American Vonetta Flowers finished first along with Jill Bakken in the two-man bobsled four years ago in Salt Lake City, she became the first black athlete from any nation to win a gold medal in the 82-year history of the Winter Games.
"It's a great contribution to all minorities of the country," Davis said of Flowers's achievement. "It just opens the eyes of everyone, because somebody is doing something different, something you don't see every day. . . . You don't see someone of color out on the track."
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, inline skates -- those with wheels in line rather than two in front and two in back -- became the rage in roller skating. Many of the country's top inline skaters were drawn to ice sports because they wanted the chance to compete in the Olympics, which inline sports did not offer. Rodriguez, Parra, Chad Hedrick, Baver and many others in elite speedskating programs followed this path.
"I'd love to say this is something we planned, but that wouldn't be the case," U.S. Speedskating President Andy Gabel said. "Now we have people from different parts of the country who normally wouldn't be part of the sport."
Bobsledding, which benefited from the publicity it received after football players Herschel Walker and Willie Gault tried the sport and Walker finished seventh at the '92 Games, began recruiting at U.S. track and field championships and football camps. That's what lured Flowers, Jones and perhaps a dozen other athletes whose primary sports once were track and field or football.
Luge drafted sliders by traveling around the country in the summer and putting wheel-equipped sleds on asphalt for kids to ride. Ninety percent of the sport's top athletes came into the program that way, USA Luge spokesman Jon Lundin said, including Dan Joye, an Olympian who was born in Venezuela and says he is a descendant of South American independence leader Simon Bolivar.
Figure skating, which recruits far less actively than the more obscure winter sports, has nonetheless managed to expand its talent base; five of this year's 14 Olympians have non-white or Hispanic backgrounds. The change is perhaps a reflection on the success of athletes such as Debi Thomas, who became the first black person to win an Olympic medal when she took the bronze in Calgary in 1988; Kristi Yamaguchi, a Japanese American who won gold in '92; and Michelle Kwan, a Chinese American who won a silver in '98 and a bronze in '02. Kwan is on this year's team.
Dave Ogrean, executive director for USA Hockey, and other officials said they will never succeed in making their sports fully accessible given the necessity of ice or snow for training. Though this year's Olympic team has roots all over the country, nearly all of the athletes have moved to one of a handful of training towns that cater to their pursuits. "Forget the barrier of somebody buying skates and a helmet," Ogrean said. "It's a proximity issue because they are such venue-specific sports."
Jones said that issue can be overcome with exposure. "When one person does it from the South, and another person does it from there, from wherever, they can go home and tell their story," Jones said. "It's just introducing those sports to different cultures or different areas."