By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
Black History Month is about to get very interesting,
On the other side of the globe is a fresh crop of Black athletes on a mission to break racial barriers in sports that for decades were not popular among people of color. With the socio-economic gains Blacks have made since the end of segregation, these athletes are chasing Olympic glory, after years of training to take home the gold and break the ice in traditionally white sports that older generations didn’t dare to enter.
This year’s American Winter Olympics team is the most diverse group ever, with nine American Blacks among 242 athletes competing in the 23rd Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. Some have already made history by becoming the first Black athlete in their field to compete in the Winter Games. They will compete against other Blacks from around the world who have already made the same achievement in their field, too.
With 107 women and 135 men, the group is the largest athlete delegation for any nation in the history of the Olympic Winter Games. The United States will be represented in all 15 disciplines across seven sports, and 97 of the 102 medal events that will be contested in Korea. They will be among 2,800 athletes from more than 85 countries seeking Olympic glory.
The 2018 U.S. Olympic Team features 103 returning Olympians – including three five-time Olympians, 12 four-time Olympians, 28 three-time Olympians and 60 two-time Olympians. The slate of veterans features 37 Olympic medalists, including 10 Olympic champions and 15 who have won multiple Olympic medals.
The first competitions for the winter games officially began Wednesday, February 7, but the opening ceremonies are scheduled for Friday, February 9, at the open-air PyeongChang Olympic Stadium. About 35,000 people are expected to attend the opening ceremonies.
The Winter Games end February 25 with the closing ceremonies.
NBC will broadcast a record 2,400 hours of the Winter Games through NBCSN, CNBC, USA Network and NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app.
Historically, America hasn’t fared as well in the Winter Games as it does in the Summer Olympics. For decades Blacks have helped propel America to the top by dominating track and field, basketball and boxing. At the 2016 Summer Games in Rio, American Blacks put the USA over the top, winning 22 of the country’s 46 gold medals. Eight of those medals were from gymnastics, swimming and water polo.
Now America’s Black athletes are aiming to do the same for their country in the Winter Games sports by conquering sports fields that have long been dominated by whites and other ethnic groups.
Their endeavors have been years in the making. Fighting stereotypes, social barriers and brutally cold weather, they seek to claim new territory in the world of Olympic sport. Their athleticism and years of training will be in the world spotlight at the Winter Games. The world will be watching and so will Black Chicago.
With Black History Month in full swing, this year’s games will be special for athletes of color.
Winter sports for decades were limited to affluent and middle class American families whose children trained and developed in top programs and well-equipped park districts. Over time as more American Blacks experienced social mobility and assimilation, they moved into neighborhoods that provided more opportunities for Olympic hopefuls. The number of Black athletes in winter sports remains far fewer than whites, but the number and interest in nontraditional competition is growing.
The trend started in 1988 when Debi Thomas became the first Black figure skater to compete in a Winter Olympics, earning a bronze medal. During that year the Jamaican bob sled team inspired the world after qualifying to compete in the games. They placed 30th but Thomas and the Jamaicans inspired Blacks over the world to break the ice. Since then, Blacks all over the world have earned 18 medals in the winter Olympics. Of this group American Blacks have won the most, with 11 medals in speed skating and bobsledding. Of this group Davis has won the most with two gold and two silver medals.
Born in Chicago on August 13, 1982, Davis started roller skating when he was just two. By age four Shani was darting around the roller rink so fast that skate guards would chase him to get him to slow down. A coach suggested that Shani switch to ice skating. Shortly thereafter, his mother began working for an attorney whose son happened to be involved in speed skating at an elite level; he suggested that Shani give speed skating a try.
Realizing her son’s potential Davis’s mother moved to Evanston where Davis joined the Evanston Speed Skating Club at age six, and within two months started competing locally. By age 8, Davis was winning regional age-group competitions and began to hear about the Olympic ideal from his competitors and friends at the Northbrook Speedskating Club. To build her sons’ potential, Davis’ woke him most mornings to run a mile on a track close to their home.
In 2006, Shani Davis became the first black athlete at the Winter Olympics to win a gold medal in an individual sport.
“My mom never thought of herself first,” Davis said on his website. “I credit most of my success to her. She continues to manage my career and is always there for me.”
Interest in nontraditional winter sports is spreading. Blacks have the highest growth rate among NHL fans at 1.4 times the overall rate according to Scarborough a national media research company.
According to Scarborough, the number of Blacks in Chicago who identify themselves as “very” or “somewhat” interested in the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team increased from 12.6 percent in 2011 to 21.9 percent in 2014. The number of Black fans who watched a Hawks game on TV or listened on the radio grew from 28.1 percent in 2011 to 37.9 percent last year. Blacks made up 9.7 percent of Hawks fans in 2014, up from 7.1 percent in 2011.
Still far more Blacks watch basketball. Some 49.9 percent of African-Americans identify as NBA fans.
Among the Chicagoans are two other Black athletes, Aja Evans and Seun Adigun. The two will compete against other athletes of color on the American and Jamaican bobsled teams respectively. It’s a highly anticipated matchup because this is the first-ever Nigerian bobsled team. Jamaica’s bobsled team will compete in the Winter Games after the Jamaican Bobsleigh Federation invested significantly in the team. And for the first time ever, the Jamaican women’s bobsled team will compete in PyeongChang.
Two other American athletes, Erin Jackson and Maame Biney are competing as the first-ever Black female speed skaters.
“Once again, Team USA is among the largest teams to compete in the Olympic Winter Games, and we continue to see a spike in excellence from Americans competing in winter sports as the sport program expands to include more opportunities for our athletes,” said Alan Ashley, U.S. chef de mission and USOC chief of sport performance.
In PyeongChang, Team USA will be looking for its 100th gold medal (which currently stands at 96) and 300th overall medal (which currently stands at 284).