Thanks to a deficit of racial diversity on the U.S. team, some jokingly write off the Winter Games as the “white Olympics.” But those observers must be forgetting these competitors of color, who, despite their relatively small numbers, made big impressions. As we count down to the Sochi Olympics’ opening ceremony on Friday, we remember the black athletes from Team USA and other countries, who gave us some of our favorite Olympic moments, for their trailblazing accomplishments and unforgettable stories as much as for their world-class talent.
Tai Reina Babilonia, along with figure-skating partner Randy Gardner, was the 1979 world champion and a five-time (1976-1980) U.S. national champion figure skater. The pair, who began skating together when he was 10 and she was 8, were medal favorites at the 1980 Winter Olympics but were forced to withdraw because of an injury to Gardner. “Some skaters would have gotten mad. But Tai hung in. She never said, ‘You blew it,’” says Gardner. “I was lucky to have her.” The two never did bring home an Olympic medal, but after the fall, “people embraced us more than if we had won,” says Babilonia.
This Chicago-born long-track speed skater holds more than his share of records: Eight years ago, in Turin, Italy, he became the first African American to win an individual Winter Olympics gold medal. Four years later, in Vancouver, Canada, he was the first to win back-to-back gold medals in the 1,000 meters (not to mention, he’s also the world record holder for the 1,000-meter and 1,500-meter events). The 31-year-old, who first took to the ice when he was 2 years old, will compete in Sochi in at least the 1,000 and 1,500 events.
Jones has more bobsled medals than any other American of any color. The mechanical engineer, who also has a degree in biological science from Duke, joined up with Todd Hays, Garrett Hines and Bill Schuffenhauer to form the team that won a silver medal in the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. Retired from the sled but not from the love of sports, he’s now part of the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Flowers was the first African American to win a gold medal in the Winter Olympics—a pretty amazing feat considering that as a seven-time All-American track-and-field champion, she had dedicated her life to a different sport before she was convinced to begin training for the Salt Lake City Games’ two-woman bobsled event. Their gold was made even more meaningful by the fact that it was the first medal for a U.S. bobsled team in 46 years.
Thomas was the 1986 world champion and won the bronze medal in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, becoming the first African American to win a medal at the Winter Olympics. She didn’t waste any time in excelling off the ice afterward, graduating from Stanford and becoming an orthopedic surgeon. The Olympian was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 2000.
The French figure skater competed in three Olympic Winter Games, placing fifth in 1992 in Albertville, France, fourth in 1994 at Lillehammer and 10th in 1998 at Nagano, Japan. But she’s better known for her unparalleled athleticism—and audacity—than for her medals. In 1998 she finished well out of reach of the gold after the short program and believed that she was unjustly scored. So Bonaly—originally trained as a gymnast—decided to perform her backflip during the free skate to make a statement, landing on one foot. The move, illegal in competition, caused a deduction but won fans for the only black single women’s figure skater other than Debi Thomas.
The Ghanaian skier was born in Glasgow, Scotland, but was raised just outside Accra without ever seeing snow. He took up the slalom, the event that would take him to the Olympics, while working at an indoor real-snow slope in London. Thanks to his initiative, perseverance and talent, he earned the nickname the “Snow Leopard” and proudly represented Ghana as a one-man ski team at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
We can’t forget the athletes who inspired the 1993 film Cool Runnings. The story of Devon Harris, Dudley Stokes, Michael White and Samuel Clayton and their journey to the 1988 Games at Calgary was brought to life by Disney. In real life, after a 12-year absence from the Winter Olympics, Jamaica will once again have a bobsled team in competition this year, in a development that seems to promise more black Olympic favorites.