With the XXI’s Winter Olympics coming to a close just days ago, I figured I would add my thoughts to the dialogue before the 14+ days of sporting events escape our consciousness. In my mind, this Olympics in particular highlights how both the United States and our sports institutions (e.g. the United States Olympic Committee) are far from being “post-racial”—a term that is doubtful considering in its most basic form it’s a society in which race is no longer significant or important. Furthermore, since the election of our President, Barack Obama, this catchphrase has been used to describe the current status of race in our country as if the election of one man—who happens to be African-American—has fixed or even helped our country move beyond race and racism. So, you might be asking yourself…how does this relate to the Winter Olympics?
It relates because as one who has studied the sociological and psychological aspects of sports, I did not see the XXI’s Winter Olympics as a sporting event that is open to all. Let me clarify… It is common knowledge (and often the center of jokes) that athletes of color dominate the Summer Olympics. Nonetheless, I was still disappointed to learn of the small number of athletes of color (female or male) representing the U.S. In fact, after reviewing all the female athletes on the Team USA website, the only one…yes, I said, one, is a woman of color. Who’s the lucky woman? Amanda Evora, who competed in Pair Figuring Skating with partner Mark Ladwig.
Now let me clear, what follows is simply my perspective yet I believe this is no coincidence. The low number of athletes of color—female or male—is more than simply just not liking the cold; it’s about privilege and in particular, white and class privilege. For the purpose of this post, I define privilege as the unearned advantages that an individual receives based on social identity (e.g. race, class, gender, education, national origin, etc). That said, I would like to argue that the sports and events involved in the Winter Olympics are not ones that are easily accessible for many of America’s youth and in particular youth of color due to cost (e.g. equipment and gear) or location (not near mountains or snow). What’s more is in a quick Google search, I could only find three people of color, all who turned out to be African-American, who had won Olympic medals for the U.S. during a Winter Olympics:
- Debi Thomas (1988) — Bronze medalist in figure skating
- Vonetta Flowers (2002)—Gold medalist bobsled
- Shani Davis (2006 & 2010)—2-Time Gold Medalist in 1,000 m speedskating
However, as Smith (1992) notes in her article on women of color and sports, “…unless schools, community agencies, and national sport organizations increase their commitment and range of sports offerings to youths, as well as increase the diversity of sport leaders, only limited access to a wider range of sport opportunities and limited elite sport achievements by ethnic minority girls and women may be expected at lower income levels” (p. 238). Furthermore, when “members of ethnic minority communities continue to struggle with depressed economic conditions, […it then] make[s] certain sport experiences inaccessible regardless of the athletic potential of the individual” (p. 238). Of course, we hear the wonderful “American Dream” stories that go against this analysis. I’m sure we all heard Shani Davis’ story—being a Black man whose single mom made sacrifices for him while growing up on the South-Side of Chicago. Although it is not my intentions to take anything away from the dedication, hard work, and heart this athlete exemplifies, we must be careful to not get caught up in these exceptions. Instead, we should be figuring out how to make these sports more accessible to all youth and especially youth of color as well as those from economically disadvantaged homes.
~ In solidarity
Smith, Y.R. (1992). Women of color in society and sport. Quest, 44, 228-250.