For most of the 90 years that the Winter Olympics Games have been staged, snow and ice was not only the competitive landscape but also the perfect racial metaphor for the games and their athletes. While the colorful, five-ringed Olympic flag symbolized the games’ global reach, there was little color to be seen in the faces of the Winter Olympic athletes, who hailed almost exclusively from Europe and North America. But when the Olympic flame is lit this week in Sochi, Russia, there will be a lot of reasons to pull out the flag and cheer.
Historically, there is one obvious reason that black Winter Olympians haven’t participated much. Most black nations aren’t suited by landscape or climate to winter-sports competition. Those that are usually lack the financial resources to develop skating and ski facilities, let alone bobsled runs, ski jumps and half-pipes.
Even in the United States, where there is a giant winter-sports apparatus, African Americans have shown little affinity for the Winter Games. One prohibition: The high cost makes it difficult for young, black athletes to compete in sports that require extensive travel as well as expensive equipment and training. Those few African Americans who have forged a path to the Winter Olympics have received relatively scant attention, let alone the adulation that black fans heap on stars in mainstream sports or even those in the every-four-years sports of the Summer Olympics, like track and field and gymnastics.
In spite of all these obstacles and deterrents, black athletes have been making steady inroads on winter terrain. Since 1976, when American pairs skater Tai Babalonia became the first Winter Olympian of African heritage, a growing contingent of black and biracial athletes—with African Americans at the forefront—have been knocking down barriers and achieving milestones at the Winter Games. Four years after Babalonia broke the ice, American bobsledders Willie Davenport and Jeff Gadley became the first black men to compete in a Winter Olympics. And eight years later, in Calgary, U.S. skating queen Debi Thomas, a premed student from Stanford University, became the first black Winter Olympian to win a medal, capturing the bronze.
But it is only in this new millennium that black Winter Olympians have begun to make the big leap to the top step of the medals podium. At Salt Lake City 2002, American sprinter-turned-bobsledder Vonetta Flowers became the first black athlete to win a Winter Olympics gold medal. Only days later, Canadian hockey star Jarome Iginla became the first black man to do the same—and in glorious style, scoring two goals in the gold-medal game against the U.S. Four years later in Turin, Italy, American long-track speed skater Shani Davis won the 1,000 meters, making him the first black Olympian to capture gold in an individual winter event. Then, with a silver at 1,500 meters, Davis became the first black to win multiple medals in Winter Olympics history.
By the 2010 Games, there were some 20 black athletes from a half-dozen nations competing in Vancouver. That contingent boasted some genuine international stars: Davis, the dominant middle-distance speed skater of his generation; NHL stalwart Iginla, who was named assistant captain of the host nation’s most revered sports team; and pairs skater Robin Szolkowy, the son of a German nurse and a Tanzanian doctor, who—with Aliona Savachenko—had won gold for Germany at the previous two world championships.
The growing number of elite black athletes in winter sports reflects a host of trends and changes in both the Olympic movement and society: expansion of the black middle class; increased TV exposure for the Winter Games; new outreach efforts by national Olympic committees and their sports federations; and the addition to the Olympic lineup of some sexy, new sports, such as short-track speed skating, which has urban roots in in-line skating.
The 2014 Sochi Olympics, which begin competition tomorrow, will host the starriest array of black athletes yet. Shani Davis is back, and at 31, the speed-skating veteran is flirting with Olympic history. If Davis successfully defends his Vancouver gold in the 1,000 meters, he will become the first male Olympian to win the same individual event in three successive Winter Games since a Swedish figure skater turned the trick in 1928. In addition, with four Olympic medals behind him, Davis will be chasing the medal tally of two American speed-skating legends: Eric Heiden, with five Olympic medals, and Bonnie Blair, with six. But what is truly surprising is how Olympic bobsled has emerged as the de facto black sport.
In Sochi, there are five African-American women on the six-woman U.S. bobsled team. The U.S. will send out three teams in two-man competition, meaning that for the first time in Olympic history, black athletes will have moved up to the front of the sled. The two African-American drivers are Elana Meyers, who won bronze in Vancouver as a brakeman-push athlete and is currently the No. 2-ranked driver on the World Cup circuit, and Jazmine Fenlator, ranked seventh in the world. In brakeman-push roles, the U.S. women will boast two celebrated Olympic track stars, Lolo Jones and Lauryn Williams, the biggest-name crossover athletes since NFLers Willie Gault and Hershel Walker manned Olympic sleds more than two decades ago.
Jones’ looks made her one of the most visible Olympians of recent vintage, though she failed to win a medal at two Olympics, most famously at Beijing 2008, where, in the lead with a gold medal only meters away, she stumbled over the next-to-last hurdle and finished seventh.
Lauryn Williams never got that cover-girl treatment from the media, but she won a silver medal in the 100 meters at the 2004 Athens Games and, eight years later, a gold on the U.S. 4x100 relay team in London. Williams, who is paired with driver Jamie Greubel, is also regarded as more of a medal threat in Sochi than Jones. Though her bobsled career dates back only a few months and four World Cup races, she has already won a gold and two silvers. If Williams medals, she will become only the fifth Olympic athlete—and the second American—to medal in different sports at Summer and Winter games.
As if there won’t be enough star wattage at the bobsled track, Sochi will witness the return, after more than a decade’s absence, of the Jamaican bobsled team. Jamaican bobsledders first brought the warmth of the islands to the icy venue at the 1988 Calgary Games, transforming the ultimate underdog team into a global sensation. Though they crashed out of the competition, the Jamaicans still proved golden when Hollywood made a popular movie, Cool Runnings, based on the team’s unlikely Olympic sojourn.
The return of the Jamaican bobsledders reminds us that underdogs do have their special charms. For 17 days in Sochi, black Winter Olympians will be taking aim at their quadrennial underdog status. It has been a long, slippery and uphill struggle—and one worthy of our attention as well as our fervent embrace.
Mark Starr is a former national sports correspondent for Newsweek magazine and has covered 11 consecutive Olympics, including six Winter Games.