As the nation watches the U.S. Olympic team compete in Beijing, it’s hard to ignore that the team is unrepresentative of the United States as a whole — even as Black athletes won medals, with speedskater Erin Jackson capturing gold and bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor winning silver. In 2018, the U.S. Olympic team was roughly 92 percent White. Of the 20 athletes of color who competed, 12 represented either figure skating or bobsledding. In snow sports, though, talented White athletes make up a vast majority of the American team. This composition is no accident — rather, it reflects deep historical roots.
While many have pointed to a lack of interest or fewer economic or social opportunities for athletes of color to become involved in winter sports, one overlooked factor is that these sports are often played in states in the country’s West that have long histories of excluding people of color, through both segregation and violence.
When winter sports grew in popularity in the United States after World War II, the boom centered in the West, thanks to the advantages provided by altitude and topography. And due to the history of exclusion, these places were overwhelmingly White.
Today, snow-sports athletes largely train at elite facilities in the West, such as Park City, Utah; Mount Hood, Ore.; Copper Mountain, Colo.; or Mammoth Lakes, Calif. Due to the history of exclusion, this geographic concentration fueled a culture around these sports that is distinctly White.
For the United States to maintain and grow its success in winter sports, the sports federations need to grapple with this history and its legacies.
In the wake of the Civil War, White Americans disproportionately benefited from the 1862 Homestead Act, which redistributed over 270 million acres of land taken from Native Americans by military force. A head of household could receive the title for up to 160 acres of land after living on and improving it for five years.
Officially, this offer of free land was open to any U.S. citizen (or “intended citizen”) head of household, including women. However, with a few notable exceptions, Black citizens, many of whom had recently been freed from enslavement, found it nearly impossible to take advantage of the land bonanza.
Among the formerly enslaved, most restarted their lives with little more than the shirts on their backs. They lacked the capital needed to transport their families to the West and start homesteads. Odious labor contracts began forcing many of them back into agricultural labor for others in the South, almost immediately after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. These predatory labor arrangements ensured that many formerly enslaved people would never gain the resources necessary to take advantage of the Homestead Act.
Even the relatively small number of Black Americans who did make it to the West found themselves confronting a range of different institutional obstacles, which made full participation in society difficult. As Mormons sought religious freedom in modern-day Utah, the Church of Latter-day Saints in 1849 banned Black members from serving in the lay priesthood, a rite of passage begun by boys at age 12 that allowed full participation in church activities. This essentially barred Black men from full membership in the church, including church leadership, until 1978 when the ban was overturned. The ban effectively kept Black Americans out of the church and out of a state dominated by Mormon leadership.
Oregon went even further, excluding Black Americans from the state altogether during its founding. The state’s 1857 constitution legally made it a Whites-only state: “No free negro or mulatto, not residing in this State at the time of the adoption of this constitution, shall ever come, reside, or be within this State, or hold any real estate, or make any contract, or maintain any suit therein.”
If official church or state policies did not enforce racial boundaries, as happened in Utah and Oregon, segregation was enforced by racialized violence directed at non-Whites. Within a 14-month period between 1885 and 1886, a wave of anti-Chinese violence targeted 168 Chinese communities across the Pacific Northwest. The Sept. 2, 1885, massacre in the coal mining town of Rock Springs, Wyo., proved especially bloody: White townspeople murdered at least 28 of their Chinese neighbors. In the aftermath, they also burned and looted Chinese homes and bodies.
Between 1848 and 1928, White Americans also lynched at least 600 people of Mexican descent across the West. Six of those lynchings occurred in Colorado, where one 1923-1924 Ku Klux Klan membership ledger from the Denver area contained over 30,000 entries.
Put together, the areas of the country with millions of acres of snowy, mountainous terrain — which would later prove ideal for skiing, snowboarding and other winter sports — excluded people of color through a variety of legal tactics and intimidation. People of color came to see snowy mountain towns and cities as places that outlawed and murdered those who looked like them — places to avoid.
The legacy of this exclusion kept people of color from taking part in large numbers in the explosive growth of skiing after World War II, because this boom was centered in Western states such as Utah, Colorado and Oregon, which benefited from more ideal, powdery snow due to altitude. As a result, these places became the cultural heart of winter sports.
There were also more subtle negative impacts of exclusion. Because the Homestead Act’s benefits disproportionately enriched White Americans, it exacerbated the wealth gap between them and Black Americans, which only compounded over time due to other legal exclusions, including redlining and the lack of access for Black veterans to GI Bill loans after World War II. This made taking up expensive winter sports — which required hefty outlays for equipment — much more difficult for many Black American families.
And exclusionary practices didn’t magically vanish when laws changed and racial violence diminished. Implicitly and explicitly, exclusionary practices and their legacies have shaped the culture surrounding winter sports. Advertising for outdoor winter sports largely portrays White participants. Culturally insensitive practices surrounding these sports range from using treated wastewater to make artificial snow on mountains deemed sacred by Native Americans to coaches demanding that a Black athlete braid her hair.
Those athletes from minority backgrounds who do take up winter sports and make it to elite levels of competition face further challenges and pressures. Athletes such as snowboarder Chloe Kim, snowboardcross rider Callan Chythlook-Sifsof and bobsledder Taylor have spoken out about the racism they have confronted from the public, coaches and other athletes. Hockey player Abby Roque, a member of the Wahnapitae First Nation and the only minority player on the 23-person U.S. women’s Olympic roster, has spoken about the necessity of being a role model for Indigenous youths to pave the way for more Native participation in the sport.
American snow and ice sports federations have begun to try to diversify their teams, with some success. Rather than focusing on recruiting those with bobsledding experience, the USA Bobsled and Skeleton Federation has focused on recruiting elite athletes regardless of their experience or background, including from track and field and bodybuilding. This expanded recruiting pool, in turn, has diversified the sport.
But for the broader diversity push to succeed, the federations need to understand the painful historical context in which they are operating. Committing to funding athletes or having more inclusive advertising is a start, but addressing the past will help make people from communities that have been previously excluded feel more comfortable in the environments surrounding winter sports. Moreover, understanding these past contexts will help athletes from nonminority backgrounds become better teammates.
The displays of skill and strength from athletes competing in the Olympics have dazzled children of all backgrounds watching the games. For Team USA to be competitive and successful in the future, these children need paths to participation and success. Creating an inclusive environment is part of offering such a path.
At the 1992 Olympics, Kristi Yamaguchi became the first Asian American woman to win a gold medal. This year, four out of the nine members of the U.S. figure skating team that medaled in the team event are of Asian descent. Twenty years after Vonetta Flowers won a gold medal in bobsledding at the 2002 Olympics, Black women now make up a majority of the women’s U.S. bobsledding team. The evidence is clear: opening up opportunities for athletes to compete helps strengthen their sports.