This year’s Winter Olympics exhibits more black athletes than we’ve seen in previous years. Not only that, but these games have smashed the stereotype that black athletes solely dominate in basketball or track and field. Black athletes represent less than 3 percent of all Winter Olympians this year; however, their increasing attendance challenges the classic image of a winter athlete.
Shani Davis, with four medals already under his belt, is competing this year as a speed skater for Team USA. A man of firsts, Davis was the first black athlete to win a medal at the Winter Olympics. Many have anticipated his performance, but the public initially criticized him for skipping the opening ceremonies after he lost the opportunity to be America’s flag bearer on a coin toss and declined his invitation to the event due to the lack of respect. Nevertheless, Davis has already set nine world records and will perform to the best of his abilities in his last Winter Olympic games. Davis’ speed skating career set the stage for later speed skating athletes of color and pioneered DC-ICE (DC Inner City Excellence), a speed skating program for the inner city kids of Washington, D.C.
Maame Afua Biney, the first African American woman to qualify for the U.S. Olympic speed skating team, also races down the path for gold in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Originally born in Ghana, Biney started skating when she moved to Virginia near the age of six. About 10 years later, she has made tremendous improvement and qualified for the Olympics at the early age of 17.
Biney’s teammate, Erin Jackson, will debut as the first African American woman to compete in Olympic long-track skating and definitely will not be the last. Jackson qualified for the team with only four months of experience, a feat most athletes dream of. She grew up in Ocala and found the sport after years of inline skating. Jackson also graduated from UF.
Jordan Greenway also makes history as the first African American on the U.S. hockey team. He grew up in New York City, New York, where there were ice rinks all over town. As such, he spent a lot of time skating as a child. Being one of the few black kids on the ice didn’t bother him. He says “There wasn’t a lot of African Americans playing and I think, honestly, outside of my brother and I, I can’t think of a ton ... so I just kind of grew up around it and it was kinda the norm.” Black athletes have to learn to desensitize themselves when their sports lack diversity.
There are also athletes outside the U.S. making strides for their own countries. Vanessa James comes back to the Winter Olympics with her partner, Morgan Cipres, after making their debut as the first black figure skating pair at the last Winter Olympics. Nigeria’s bobsled team features past athletes who converted from track and field Olympians. There are also teams from African countries like Ghana, Kenya and Eritrea making their first appearance in Pyeongchang.
Greenway, Biney and Davis found their sports naturally. The lack of diversity within winter sports was not a deterrent from their progress because the sport itself was the prime concern. When a child of color sees a black figure skater win gold at the Olympics, it creates aspiration and encourages them to try for the same success. Seeing athletes of color inspires the youth to go out and try something new, which emphasizes how influential a person’s presence can be.
The quest for self improvement and athletic success outweighs the racial homogeneity, which serves as a common theme in all their stories.
Madisyn Jones is a UF accounting sophomore. Her column focuses on black culture.