On Being a Black Olympian

The Washington Post came out with a tongue-and-cheek article this past week on the complete and utter lack of racial diversity at the Olympics. The article tells the story of a black Olympic intern who was greeted in Sochi by a group of police officers who wanted to take their picture with him based on a fascination with seeing a black person in the flesh. Something else I learned from this article was that the first black Olympian to win a medal at the winter Olympics happened as recently as 2002, followed by Shani Davis winning the first male, African-american individual gold in 2006.

While Russia is a land of much ethnic diversity (Armenians, Ukrainians, Georgians, Greeks, among others), the country is still almost 100% Caucasian. Coincidentally, so are the Olympics. The first question this brings up for me is a tension between stereotypes and reality. One supposedly “positive” stereotype of African-Americans is that they are good at sports. So, if this was based upon reality, why aren’t we seeing more black athletes at the Olympics? If there are a large percentage of black athletes competing in professional sports in the US, why are the numbers of black Olympians so tiny? One major factor to consider is that this is the WINTER Olympics, and these sports are not mainstream sports. What does this translate to? These sports require a lot more money in order to train.

Shani Davis is quoted in the article as saying “Unfortunately, I don’t think that will ever happen,” he said. “The price of an oval is very [expensive]. It’s not a mainstream sport like football or basketball. It’s not easily accessible like things at the park district. You have to kind of go out of their way to find such things.” Even with corporate sponsorship and backing a necessity for most Olympic athletes, the contingency of US Olympians does not match the diversity of our general population or professional athlete population.

After discussing a history of legislation and practices in the US that have systematically kept whites in positions of power and blacks disadvantaged, it is unfortunately not surprising that we aren’t seeing more black athletes. It has become concretely more difficult for black families to accrue the same kind of wealth as white families, or even obtain loans, a factor which is hugely important in the years and countless (expensive) hours required to train to become a world-class Olympian. So, what do you think? Do you think the US is ready to see more black Olympic athletes? How might we influence financial backers to support black athletes and bolster opportunities to become olympians?

1 thought on “On Being a Black Olympian

  1. It would be my hope that at an event like the Olympics, the desire for your home country to bring home the gold is so strong that you just want there to be a champion to win it–racial biases aside. Perhaps that’s a bit naive or optimistic, but I think if there were a sincere and significant way to attract and fund more black athletes to the winter sports featured in the winter Olympics, we would see a significant change happening in the racial makeup of our Olympic teams, without a ton of pushback. Is the identity of American enough to smooth over racial prejudices? I don’t know, but a gal can dream.

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