On the slopes, a fight for the Olympic dreams of black skiers
BEIJING – Do an informal survey of elite American downhill skiers and snowboarders, and most can name an organization that exposes black and Hispanic kids in urban areas to winter sports.
From the inland halfpipes of New Jersey to the slopes of the Rockies of Colorado and Wyoming, there seem to be plenty of programs aimed at developing a diverse new generation of skiers and snowboarders.
So where are the black and Hispanic athletes at the Winter Olympics?
The US alpine ski team in Beijing is all-white. American snowboarders and freestyle skiers include Asian American riders, but none are black or Hispanic.
“It’s incredibly unfortunate,” said Ryan Cochran-Siegle, an American super-G silver medalist in Beijing. “We all want to find ways to bridge these gaps between different minorities and their access to skiing.”
Both the past and the present of alpine sports point in this direction. White and elitist, they were born in the mountains of Europe, and mostly flourish in mountain communities with little racial or ethnic diversity.
Then there’s the cost: a single day of skiing can cost $100 or more, not including travel and equipment rental; owning your own equipment is even more expensive. Wealth and easy access to resorts make a significant difference in a person’s ability to move from participation at the recreational level to an Olympic path.
It’s one of the reasons few first-generation skiers make it to the Olympics, said Bode Miller, whose six Olympic medals in alpine skiing are the most for an American skier.
“If your family didn’t ski or you weren’t exposed to it during your upbringing, that’s just very unusual,” Miller said. “Your friends have to kind of push you into it.”
The solution to the lack of diversity in skiing and snowboarding, according to Miller and others, is to create access to the slopes for underserved communities.
“Accessibility (breaks down into) sub-categories of affordability, geographic accessibility and cultural accessibility,” said Miller, who is part of a group working on building indoor ski facilities in across the United States.
Supporters say the kind of two-day-a-week programs that create space on the snow for black and Hispanic kids are making a difference. But still not enough to be seen at the Olympics.
A young athlete’s chances of making an Olympic team increase dramatically with intensive training in boarding schools or elite academies, which cost tens of thousands of dollars a year. Programs often fail to address this socio-economic barrier, athletes and advocates acknowledged.
It’s not just skiing and snowboarding. Racial diversity is still a novelty in most winter sports.
In Beijing, there is only one black figure skater competing for any nation. On Sunday, American Erin Jackson became the first black woman to win a gold medal in speed skating. In other events, a small number of black and Hispanic athletes compete for long medal chances.
There are, in fact, people of color competing in skiing events at the Beijing Olympics. They come from African and Caribbean countries — Ghana, Nigeria, Eritrea, Jamaica. Haiti sent skier Richardson Viano to China as its first Winter Olympian.
Jean-Pierre Roy, president of the Haitian Ski Federation, who was on hand Sunday to watch Viano ski in the giant slalom at the Yanqing National Alpine Ski Center. Roy skied in six world championships, but said Haitians’ interest in the sport took off with Viano’s pioneering participation.
“There have to be dreams,” he said. “Without dreams, there is no progress.”
Like Viano, who learned to ski in France after being adopted by a French family, most of the African and Caribbean participants in the Games trained or lived in countries with ski slopes and training facilities.
Sophie Goldschmidt, head of US Skiing, said inclusion is a core value for her organization, but recognizes barriers to advancing skier diversity.
“Whether it’s prohibitively expensive or just exclusive for other reasons, that’s something I want to change,” she said.
A 2021 audit of American Skiing’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion found that the organization is almost entirely white. Only 1% of the organization’s staff identified as people of color, while all of its coaches and board members were white.
Seba Johnson first saw skiing on a tiny black-and-white television in the city where she lived in Fredericksted, on the island of St. Croix. She was impressed. Seeing him in person at the age of 5 convinced her that she wanted to become a skier.
Nine years later, Johnson broke barriers at the 1988 Calgary Games, becoming the first black woman to ski at the Winter Games and, at 14, the youngest. She relied on the support of ski equipment companies, celebrities and other donors, and even then she was able to spend far less time training than her competitors, due to socio-economic barriers. .
“No one should have to beg for an opportunity to do what their heart desires,” Johnson, 48, said in an interview.
Although she competed in the following Olympics, representing the US Virgin Islands, there was not another black woman in an Olympic alpine skiing event until 30 years later, when Kenya’s Sabrina Simader skied the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. She called it “heartbreaking” that the representation of black people in skiing has not improved.
Born in Alaska, Andre Horton became the first black man on the US ski team in 2001, despite never having competed in the Olympics. He remembers having often been the only black on the slopes.
“I went to a race and saw another black kid skiing,” he said.
This fellow skier introduced him to the National Brotherhood of Skiers, a black-led organization that advocates for greater representation in winter sports. At the group’s convention in Aspen, Colorado, he saw thousands of other skiers who looked just like him, and fellow attendees were impressed by the sight of Horton in his national ski team uniform.
He remembers sharing a chairlift that day with a 70-year-old black woman, who recalled how important black representation is to the sport.
“She said, ‘When I was your age, I wasn’t allowed to ski.'”
This is precisely why the National Brotherhood of Skiers exists, says its president, Henri Rivers. Founded in 1973 by recreational skiers Ben Finley and Art Clay, it aims to break down racial and social barriers for black athletes so they can focus on excellence in winter sports.
“They’re thinking about a sport that they love to play and do well,” Rivers said of the mostly teenage skiers who learned to ski through the fellowship. “They don’t even realize how many different obstacles are put in their way to slow their progress.”
Even then, Rivers said, black and Hispanic skiers crossing the pipeline aren’t ready to compete for spots on the Olympic team. They would do better if the greater ski community embraced them and saw them as the future of the sport, he said.
“To make sure more budding black Olympic skiers see themselves in the sport, adults will have to care enough to pave the way for them and thrive,” she said. “It can’t be as far as seeing it on TV.”
Associated Press writers Howard Fendrich, Pat Graham and John Leicester contributed. New York journalist Aaron Morrison is a member of the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team on assignment at the Beijing Olympics. Follow him on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/aaronlmorrison.
More AP Winter Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/winter-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
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