Black American Pioneers on Ice and Snow

1st U.S. black American winter Olympians
Willie Davenport & Jeff Gadley, 1st African-Americans on a Winter Olympics team, courtesy of ESPN

The achievement was a historical footnote at Lake Placid, an asterisk among the ALL CAP raves for the “big” notables like Team USA’s hockey upset of the Soviets and Eric Heiden’s five gold medals. Willie Davenport and Jeff Gadley, push men for the four-man bobsled, were the first black Americans included on a U.S. winter Olympic team. As the 2018 Winter Olympics kick off in two days, the intersection with Black History month provides a perfect opportunity to discuss diversity and to celebrate notable achievements by athletes in the Games.

I was somewhat bewildered immediately in seeking information. First, while data on medal winners came easily, detail about the first Olympic participants was harder to find. Boxer George Poage was cited as the first black medal winner at the summer Olympics in 1904, only the third time the Games had been staged. Whether he was also the first participant is hard to determine. It took quite a bit of digging to ferret out the ESPN analysis that showed Davenport and Gadley as the first winter participants.  Secondly, it was a bit shocking to realize that while only eight years passed before African-Americans were added to the summer U.S. teams, a full 56 years occurred before blacks were included on TeamUSA in the winter.

Not a Lot of Snow in Mississippi

Perhaps it seems obvious that black participation in the winter Games would be limited. There are geographical challenges, as the population of African-Americans in the U.S. is heavily concentrated in the south and in the cities.

African-American population concentration
African-American population concentration, courtesy of Wikipedia

There isn’t a lot of snow in Mississippi and not too many bobsled venues in Atlanta. Moreover, the economic barriers in certain winter sports such as skiing and snowboarding limits participation to the affluent, which has typically meant whites. You’re less likely to become an expert in a sport that you don’t try until you’re an adult. But there are other factors.

Role models, access to resources, and coaching and mentoring also play a big factor. When the bobsled team in 1980 starting recruiting track and field athletes–hurdlers in particular–to improve their standing against powerful Swiss and German teams, they included black athletes. Only six Games later, the U.S. was winning more bobsled medals than they had in years and diversifying an increasingly large percent of the discipline. In 2014, five of the six women bobsled athletes were black, on their way to capturing two of the three available medals.  In comparison, there were no black American skiers in Sochi. Or in Vancouver. Or in Torino.

The Mozart of Speed Skating

Unlike skiing and bobsled, skating doesn’t require as much infrastructure. You just need a track. It doesn’t even require ice. Shani Davis, returning to compete in his fifth Olympics as a long-track speed skater started on roller skates. Davis now joins a very short list of American athletes qualifying in five winter Games. He is the most decorated black athlete, with two gold and two silver medals on his mantel. He holds a long list of world records and championships as well as being the only person to qualifying at a world championship level in both long and short track.

Shani Davis winning his second gold
Shani Davis winning his second gold in Vancouver, courtesy Christian Science Monitor

Davis was a child prodigy. Taught to roller skate in Chicago practically as soon as he could walk, by age 3 he would skate so fast that the roller rink guards had to slow him down. A colleague of his mother’s knew of a local elite skating program, so he was enrolled at age 6 and was soon winning regional races. By the time he was a teenager, he was on the junior world team and racing in both the long and short track venues, including winning a bronze in the 2006 World Relay team event alongside Apollo Anton Ohno.  He even qualified for the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics in short track.

He turned to concentrating only on long track for the 2006 Games in Torino and medaled in two of the three events he entered. Returning in 2010 to Vancouver, he again won gold in the 1000-meter event, the only man to ever win back-to-back for that discipline. This would make him a huge celebrity in Amsterdam–not so much in the U.S. He did not medal in Sochi but is returning once more to Pyeongchang. At 34, he is an outside shot to medal, but Bonnie Blair was still racing at the same age, and it will surely be helpful to have a veteran calming presence on the team.

Black Girls Just Wanna Skate Fast, Too

One of Davis’ younger teammates in Pyeongchang is 25-year-old Erin Jackson, who is the first  black American woman to qualify in long track. Jackson hails from Florida, again proving that cold weather isn’t required to develop as an outstanding athlete. Like Davis, she crossed over to speed skating on ice from being a champion as an inline skater. While her transition to the ice is less than a year old, her times have been dynamite. Her only problem–she doesn’t really like the cold.

Another young woman to watch is Maame Biney, the first African-American woman to qualify in short-track. Biney, whose family emigrated from Ghana, is only 18. Like Jackson and Davis, she wanted to go fast even as a five-year-old. Now she wants to go fast to help the American women earn medals.

Olympic firsts inspire me. They’re like adding babies to a family. In these Vancouver Games, we watched the first Winter Olympian from Ghana and the first from Peru. We watched the first black ice-skating pair. We watched the first Korean win a figure-skating gold medal, the first U.S. team to win a nordic combined gold and, as narrowly defined as it sounds, the first Canadian to win gold on home soil.
Jerry Brewer, Seattle Times

A Lot on the Bobsled Track, Virtually None on the Slopes

Most athletes competing on the bobsled start in another discipline, so the decades-long tradition of seeking strong and fast pushers from football and track athletes has paid off in the U.S. with success. Three of the four women on the 2018 bobsled team are black; five of the six members in 2014 were as well, in part due to strong recruiting by two-time medalist Elana Myers.

Flowers gold-medal bobsled
Vonetta Flowers winning gold in the bobsled in 2002, courtesy ESPN

Women were only allowed on the Olympic bobsled track starting in 2002, and in that very first two-person race, there was another first. Vonetta Flowers became the first black American person to win a gold medal. By the time Sochi ended, the U.S. had won five of the twelve medals ever contested in the bobsled.

The story for diversity among the skiers is not as positive. The youngest skier–not just youngest black American, youngest skier of any background–ever to qualify at the Olympics was 14-year-old Seba Johnson, an American born in the Virgin Islands, who competed for that nation in Nagano in 1988.  Nearly 30 years later in Sochi, she was still the only black person to ski competitively at the Games.  Team USA currently does not have any black athletes on the ski team.

Diversity Numbers to Consider

The Olympic organizations have lagged decades behind their counterparts in many ways compared with industry and other venues. Statistics on diversity weren’t even tracked until recently. There are arguments that numbers shouldn’t trumpet “natural” talent and that counting heads is the wrong way to improve the strength of a team.  Those arguments were made in the 1980s; tons of data show that broadening the talent on a team–adding women, different ethnic backgrounds, different geographies, different experience–leads to a better team. But you have to start with some numbers, so here are a few.

Ten athletes on Team USA for Pyeongchang are African-American, out of 242 (4%). In Sochi, as best as can be estimated, the number was six (five on the bobsled team remember?) with two or three on each U.S. team back to 1980.  Ten isn’t a big number, but at least it has increased quickly over the last decade. For comparison, 123 of the 556 summer 2016 U.S. Olympic team was black (22%).

In that light, consider that one of the three black American teammates won a medal in 1988. Two of three won in 2002, two of three in Torino and the same number in Vancouver.  That’s 67%. Two medals were also won in Sochi across the six athletes competing (some in team events), which is still a ratio of a third, well over the average for the team as a whole.  That’s a pretty good argument for diversity.

The First Medalist Is Never a Disappointment

All of which makes Debi Thomas’ achievement in 1988 all the more remarkable. Thomas, one of my subjects from last week, was considered something of a disappointment because she was a former world champion competing in the women’s figure skating events at Nagano and had a legitimate shot at the gold medal. She was even in the lead going into the Long Program but struggled with her jumps, eventually coming in 4th in that segment.  On the other hand, the pool of skaters was incredibly strong–East Germany’s Katarina Witt was returning to win her second gold–and Thomas’ strong start did pay off. She won a bronze medal, and, as a wise athlete once said, “there’s only three medalists in the Olympic games in the world.”* Thomas picked up one of them, and by doing so cemented her place in history.

Debi Thomas, figure skater on cover of TIME
Expect much? Debi Thomas on the cover of TIME, 1988

Expectations for women figure skaters were already out of control. Expectations on the shoulders of one of the few  black Americans ever to be allowed to compete must have been gigantic. In that setting, to win any kind of medal put her deservedly into the Figure Skating Hall of Fame. Debi Thomas became the first  black American athlete ever awarded a medal in the Winter Olympics, 68 years after the first U.S. team started on the ice and the slopes back in 1924.


Today’s DailyPost word: Bewildered

*Chris Huffins, bronze-medal-winning decathlete in 2002, famously coined this phrase.

Huffins is cited along with many other famous firsts  in the summer Games in my book on notable achievements in the Rio 2016 games. See for more details.


4 Replies to “Black American Pioneers on Ice and Snow”

  1. Not just African Americans are underrepresented but Africans as well, or really people from anywhere that doesn’t get cold enough for winter sports, which makes sense … it was up to an Ethiopian cross-country skier to be the few (or lone?) participants from the African continent in the 2012 and 2016 games.

  2. Yes, but… it does seem “obvious” that people who don’t live in cold weather would not succeed in winter sports… and that probably would have been very true in 1950.But nowadays that’s not the best argument — given that the bobsled team is primarily recruited from non-winter athletes. Or consider that one of the best places to become an expert figure skater is in San Jose, which has produced Debi Thomas, Kristy Yamaguchi, Rudy Galindo, and other world champions. San Jose isn’t exactly known for snow. So while there is some argument to the no-snow, no-athlete argument, it could be solved in the U.S. with better recruiting.

Leave a Reply