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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

 

McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON--Forgetabout using #OlympicsSoWhite when the 2018 Winter Olympics open in Pyeongchang, South Korea on Friday.

The XXIII Winter Olympics will have the largest contingent of black athletes and coaches in Winter Games history, helping to shatter the stereotype that blacks are averse to so-called nontraditional winter sports.Many experts, though, think the numbers should be higher.

The United States this year will have its most diverse team ever. Ten black, 11 Asian-American and two openly gay male athletes will be among the record 242-member U.S. team that will march into Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremony of the Winter Games.

In addition, three Caribbean and Sub-Saharan African nations will join the U.S. in the diversity parade. Jamaica is back at the Winter Games, this time with its first women's bobsled team and its first skeleton athlete.

Nigeria will make its Winter Olympics debut with its own women's bobsled team and a skeleton athlete.Ghana will have a lone Olympian in Pyeongchang, the nation's first skeleton racer.

"It's important because it demonstrates that there is progress being made through the hard work, perseverance and talents of athletes of color who are making the U.S. Winter Olympic team look like the United States, and that's something we should celebrate," said David Leonard, a Washington State University's Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies.

But Leonard and others say the diversity issue is far from settled. Some winter sports, notably biathlon and speedskating, fell short of the United States Olympic Committee leadership's 2016 diversity and inclusion scorecard benchmarks for athletes of color on U.S. national teams, the most recent data available.

The diversity goals are different for each sport and include criteria such as financial resources, staff size and a particular sport's NCAA pipeline.

"The fact that there's still work to be done demonstrates that issues surrounding access, surrounding inequalities, persist," Leonard said.

Jason Thompson, the USOC's director for diversity and inclusion, acknowledged the organization "is not where we want to be" in terms of diversity but is encouraged by the number of athletes of color competing in Pyeongchang.

He said some of the gains can be attributed to athletes such as bobsled pilot Elana Meyers Taylor, who has personally recruited minority athletes from track and field and other sports for the U.S. bobsled program.

Three of the four U.S. women bobsledders -- including Meyers Taylor -- competing in Pyeongchang are African-American, as is the team's backup. Seven of the nine women on the 2017 U.S. women's national bobsled team are black.

"She is creating an incredible legacy,"Thompson said of Meyers Taylor. "Every female that we interview on the team says, 'Yeah, she recruited me.' It's a simple thing that she did, it didn't cost anything. It just shows what can be done."

Several winter sports continue to lag when it comes to racial diversity, despite achievements by black athletes at previous Winter Olympics. Sixteen years ago, Vonetta Flowers became the first African-American to win an Olympic gold medal when her two-person bobsled finished first at the Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

Figure skater Debi Thomas captured a bronze medal at the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary. Shani Davis earned speedskating gold medals at the 2006 and 2010 Winter Games in Turin and Vancouver. The 2014 U.S. women's Olympic bobsled team, which featured five black women, captured silver and bronze medals at the Winter Games in Sochi.

Some experts say economics and geography are barriers that keep communities of color from participating in winter sports in large numbers.

Sports such as ice hockey, speedskating, skiing and figure skating are expensive and often require traveling distances to get to slopes or rinks to practice or play.

"The NHL has done a good job in trying to make hockey popular in urban areas and I think they've had some success in the last 15 years or so," said Richard Lap-chick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.

"However, when you look at all the sports across the board, there just aren't facilities in urban areas where such a significant percentage of African-Americans live. And they're expensive sports to play, for the most part."

But others say that attitudes and stereotypes within some winter sports are bigger obstacles for athletes of color to overcome. Jazmine Fenlator-Victorian, the Jamaican bobsled team's pilot, recalled the looks she and her teammates received when they arrived at a recent meet in Europe.

"When you walk into a place and you're expected to look a certain way to do your job or a sport, that's very demeaning," said Fenlator-Victorian, who was a member of the 2014 U.S. women's Olympic bobsled team. "To me, it's a lack of education and lack of representation. If we can continue to get representation out there that means there are more opportunities to educate more people."

The U.S. delegation is a team of firsts. Jordan Green-way, a forward for Boston University's hockey team and a 2015 second-round draft pick of the NHL's Minnesota Wild, will be the first African-American to play on a U.S. Olympic hockey squad.

Erin Jackson, a 25-yearold competitive inline skating veteran and roller derby skater from Ocala, Fla., is the first black American female long track Olympic speedskater, qualifying for the team after making the transition from wheels to steel blades in four months.

"It's kind of a known thing that there aren't many people of color in the Winter Olympics," Jackson said. "If there's a young black girl out there watching the Winter Olympics and she says, 'There aren't many people like me out there,' she might feel discouraged trying some of these sports that she sees.

"I'm looking forward to being someone who she can see in the Olympics, on TV, and think 'There's someone out there like me, so I can do it, too.'"

(c)2018 McClatchy Washington Bureau Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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