Olympics

Figure skating’s diversity history

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If comedian Leslie Jones’s tweets during the Olympics were any indication, there seems to be a special pride in watching black figure skaters take the ice.

But this year, they all came from France. The United States had none. Why?

The sport’s racial history provides some clues.

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In the 1930s, there was Mabel Fairbanks and her potential skating brilliance. But she was banned from rinks and clubs because of her race. She later coached, pairing up Randy Gardner, who was white, and Tai Babilonia, who identified as multiracial but was often portrayed by the media as African American.

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After years as a team, the pair won the world championships in 1979 and entered the 1980 Olympic Games as gold medal favorites. Observers believed Babilonia’s success could expand the color line in figure skating.

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And performing at the Olympics, they hoped, would make the pair superstars. But an injury before the competition forced Gardner to withdraw from the Olympic Games, and that dream fizzled.

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The dream picked back up with Debi Thomas, who in 1986 became the only black singles skater to win a U.S.championship on the senior level.

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She then won the world championship, entering the 1988 Olympics with a high-pressure label: the only woman who could defeat German skating superstar Katarina Witt.

Their showdown was made more dramatic when both skated to musical selections from Bizet’s “Carmen.”

Thomas won bronze, which made her the first African American athlete to win a medal at the Winter Olympics.

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Other African American skaters came before and after Thomas, but none achieved her level of success at the senior level or internationally. Aaron Parchem is the only other African American to represent the United States in Olympic figure skating. He finished 13th in pairs.

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Meanwhile, the sport blossomed among Asian Americans.

U.S. figure skater Tiffany Chin won the national championship the year before Thomas won her first, inspiring Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan.

The sport also grew in popularity in Asia — particularly Japan and China — and the global diaspora inspired skaters to look to the sport.

Today, seven of the 14 members of the American figure skating team are Asian American. So why did Asian Americans cling to the sport when African Americans didn’t?

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For Thomas, the challenge was breaking into the mainstream. Observers were intrigued by East Germany’s Witt, who was seen as a sex symbol.

Thomas was perceived as less bubbly and more studious — and she got less exposure after losing to Witt. More broadly, few majority black communities have access to high-quality rinks. Even if they do, African American children don’t necessarily have equal access to elite coaches and clubs.

U.S. Figure Skating is trying to address the issue, but the sport remains expensive — costing between $50,000 and $70,000 at its most elite levels, with limited opportunities for financial success. Compare that to basketball or football, with its relatively inexpensive, accessible leagues nationwide. Achieving stardom yields more prestige and money.

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But other countries in Western Europe more regularly produce black skaters – particularly France. While Yamaguchi captured American hearts in the 1990s, Surya Bonaly transfixed Europe with her dynamic jumps and flexibility.

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Bonaly skated in three Olympics and earned five European championships and three silvers at the world championships. She wasn’t a smooth skater but wowed crowds when she performed her signature backflip — a move long banned in amateur competitions but allowed in shows.

Bonaly felt her style was undervalued, and in 1998 she backflipped anyway — a final snub to the judges. Today, France has a national champion of African descent in three of four disciplines — Mae Berenice Meite in women’s, Vanessa James in pairs and Chafik Besseghier in men’s.

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German Robin Szolkowy, now a coach in Russia, won five world championships and two Olympic bronze medals with his partner, Aliona Savchenko. They all admire Bonaly, but it was not just her success that aided their own.

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Meite and Szolkowy saidthey were discovered at a local rink and offered a chance to join more elite skaters. Those schools worked with skating federations and were not overwhelmingly expensive. It is the same model that helped Russia produce an army of dynamic, teenage female figure skaters. This recruitment model simply doesn’t exist in the United States.

As with many things racial in the United States and across the world, the lack of black figure skaters is just a matter of access and opportunity.