The U.S. Olympic Committee says it’s taking its most diverse team ever to a Winter Games, an impressive and deserved boast that requires a caveat of sorts.
“We’re not quite where we want to be,” said Jason Thompson, the USOC’s director of diversity and inclusion. “. . . I think full-on inclusion has always been a priority of Team USA. I think everybody’s always felt it should represent every American.”
Team USA numbers 243 athletes, which is the largest team any nation has sent to a Winter Olympics. Of that group, 10 are African American — 4 percent — and another 10 are Asian American. The rest, by and large, are white. The Winter Games contingent is typically much smaller than its summer counterpart, but the demographic differences are striking. The United States took more than 550 athletes to the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. Of that group, more than 125 were African American — about 23 percent.
This year’s winter squad includes the first black long-track speedskater — Erin Jackson, who transitioned to the sport from inline skating — as well as the first black hockey player, Jordan Greenway, and first black short-track speedskater, 18-year-old Maame Biney, who moved from Ghana to the Washington area when she was 5 years old.
“It means a lot. I’m just really, really honored to have that title because then that means I get to inspire young African American athletes,” Biney said, “or any other race . . . to try this sport or try any other sport they think they can’t do.”
Asian Americans have seven spots on the figure skating team, two in speedskating and another in snowboarding, and five of the American bobsledders competing in PyeongChang are African American.
The lack of diversity on the winter teams is certainly not a new issue, and it’s not unique to the United States. But the USOC has identified it as an area for targeted growth. Thompson was hired to his post in 2012, shortly after the job was created, because the USOC saw room for improvement at every level: from athletes and coaches to the officials who run the national governing bodies for each sport and executives who work for the USOC.
“Since that point, we’ve just been trying to find ways to make sure our team looks like America,” he said.
The Ted Stevens Act requires each sport’s governing body and the USOC to send a report to both Congress and the president every four years that, among other things, details participation of minorities, women and people with disabilities. In a step toward even more transparency, the USOC now requires each sport’s governing body to submit a diversity scorecard each year. While the reports include benchmarks and goals, the results offer statistical snapshots of each sport and, especially for the winter offerings, underscore the areas that are lacking.
“We wanted to see what that diversity looks like, how we could measure it, track it,” Thompson said. “That has had an incredible impact. I think it means we’re being transparent with our fans, so people can see, No. 1, it’s a priority, and, No. 2, we’re being honest about it. In some areas, we got some work to do.”
Sports such as figure skating, speedskating and bobsledding consistently boast a stronger mix of athletes, according to a review of the annual scorecards, but other sports struggle from year to year. For example, of the 188 athletes counted by the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Association in 2014 — the year of the Sochi Games — just 2 percent were minority. USA Hockey reported 131 national team players in its system in 2016 and reported no minorities. USA Luge had 87 national team athletes in 2015, and for a second straight year had zero percent minorities.
“I don’t think there were any surprises,” Thompson said. “I think most people knew we had some challenges.”
Most of the winter sports face two major hurdles in diversifying their respective ranks: geography and economics.
Most winter sports can be practiced only in specific areas. For example, there are only two tracks in the United States for aspiring bobsledders, luge or skeleton racers, one in Utah and another in Lake Placid, N.Y. That could eliminate a large swath of potential competitors. Other sports, such as curling, might be popular in certain regions; some take place on snow or on the mountains; and others, such as speedskating, have rinks or coaching only in certain parts of the country.
Greenway, the 20-year-old forward for the men’s hockey team, grew up in Canton, N.Y., just 10 miles from Canadian border. He laced up his first pair of skates at a young age and had no shortage of rinks nearby. But he knows many other African Americans don’t have the same resources.
“I think it’s great that I’ve gotten to where I’ve gotten,” he says. “It kind of feels like an inspiration, trying to get more African Americans like me trying to play hockey, not falling into stereotypes of playing football, basketball. . . . Obviously, there’s not a ton of African Americans playing hockey. It’s worked out great for me. I’ve had a great experience with it. I hope kids see that it’s good to play hockey, too.”
Costs and benefits
Many winter sports also come with a heavy cost. Competitors can’t simply roll a ball onto a field or lace up a pair of running shoes. There’s winter gear, lift tickets, ice time, specialized equipment, coaching, travel.
“I think all of our winter sports realize that’s one of our challenges,” Thompson says. “. . . We always come from this assumption that minorities are poor. That simply isn’t true. So we need to nuance our delivery to reach different communities.”
A handful of grass-roots programs across the country try to make winter sports more accessible — perhaps with free ice time to P.E. classes during the school day, transportation to ski lifts or ice rinks, donated equipment and free instruction.
Speedskater Shani Davis will be competing in his fifth Olympics, and in 2006, he became the first black athlete to win a gold medal in an individual sport at a Winter Games. But even before that, he was integral to the launch of DC-ICE, a nonprofit that has helped introduce the sport to thousands of inner-city youth in the District of Columbia. He still serves as honorary chairman and travels to Washington regularly for events.
“The No. 1 thing for us, it has nothing to do with natural athletic talent. That’s the least important factor,” said Nathaniel Mills, a three-time Olympic speedskater who runs DC-ICE. “By far, the biggest factor is parent support. Is there a parent who’s going to bring their kid at 6:30 a.m. in January to practice? The commitment of time and the financial outlay is significant.”
When Biney was barely 5 years old, she was pointed to DC-ICE and made weekly treks to Fort Dupont Ice Arena from her home in Northern Virginia. Her father, Kweku, who works in maintenance for a company in Reston, poured thousands of dollars and sacrificed thousands of hours for his daughter to pursue the sport.
“For every Maame, there’s 20 other kids who are more naturally talented in speedskating but didn’t have the family support, either economically or from a nurturing perspective to get to that next level,” Mills said.
Bobsledding has become the most diverse American winter team by carefully selecting its elite competitors. USA Bobsledding actively recruits from other sports, which means its ranks are filled with athletes who have excelled in sports such as track and field or football.
Aja Evans grew up in Chicago. She was a sprinter who dreamed of competing in the Summer Olympics. But she was recruited to bobsledding, won a bronze at the 2014 Games and is hoping for gold this month in her second Olympics. She had to suffer through a lot of jokes in recent years about “Cool Runnings,” the 1993 Disney movie on the Jamaican bobsled team — “literally, I’ve heard them all” — but is now an ambassador for her sport.
“It’s just a lack of knowledge,” she said. “A lot of people don’t know. Everyone has different body shapes. It’s a lot of diversity. I think that’s the direction the sport is headed.”
While the USOC is happy to celebrate the makeup of its PyeongChang-bound Olympic team, it knows even bigger strides can be made over the next four years.
“We still have some work to do,” the USOC’s Thompson said. “I think it’s raising the visibility of the importance of diversity and inclusion. I hope we’re seeing some of that. We’re not quite there yet.”
Adam Kilgore contributed to this report.
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