On the slopes of the struggle for the Olympic dreams of black skiers

BEIJING – Take an informal survey of elite American skiers and snowboarders, and most of them can name an organization that engages black and Hispanic children from urban areas to winter sports.

Whether it’s on halfpipes indoors in New Jersey or on the slopes of the Colorado Rockies and Wyoming, there seem to be plenty of programs designed to develop a diverse new generation of skiers and snowboarders.

So where are the black and Latin American athletes at the Winter Olympics?

The US downhill ski team in Beijing is completely white. American snowboarders and freestylers are Asian-American riders, but none of them are black or Hispanic.

“It’s incredibly unfortunate,” said Ryan Cochrane-Siegle, an American silver medalist at the Beijing Super Giant. “We all want to figure out how to close these gaps between different minorities and their access to skiing.”

The past and present of alpine sports work against this goal. White and elitist, they were born in the mountains of Europe and thrive for the most part in mountain communities without much racial and ethnic diversity.

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Next is the cost: one 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 significantly affect the ability to move from participation at the leisure level to the Olympic path.

This is one of the reasons why few who get to the Olympics are first-generation skiers, said Bode Miller, whose six Olympic medals in the Mountain Games are the greatest for any American skier.

“If your family hasn’t skied, or you haven’t been exposed to it through your upbringing, it’s just very unusual,” Miller said. “Your friends should kind of push you to do that.”

The solution to the lack of diversity in skiing and snowboarding, according to Miller and others, is to create access to the slopes for the underserved population.

“Accessibility (divided into) subcategories of affordability, geographic accessibility, and cultural accessibility,” said Miller, who is part of a group working to build indoor ski facilities in the United States.

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Lawyers say the kind of two-day programs that create space in the snow for black and Hispanic children matter. But that is not enough to see at the Olympics.

The chances of a young athlete to become an Olympic team increase significantly with intensive training in elite boarding schools or academies, which cost tens of thousands of dollars a year. Programs often do not address this socio-economic barrier, athletes and advocates have acknowledged.

It’s not just skiing and snowboarding. Racial diversity is still a novelty in most winter sports.

There is only one black skater in Beijing who fights for any nation. On Sunday, American Erin Jackson became the first black woman to win a gold medal in speed skating. In other competitions, a small number of black and Hispanic athletes compete with great chances for medals.

In fact, some colored people are competing in skiing at the Beijing Olympics. They are from Africa and the Caribbean – Ghana, Nigeria, Eritrea, Jamaica. Haiti sent skier Richardson Viana to China as its first Winter Olympian.

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Jean-Pierre Roy, president of the Haitian Ski Federation, who was on Sunday to watch Viana ski in a giant slalom at the National Ski Center in Yanqin. Roy has competed in six World Ski Championships, but said Haitian interest in the sport has grown with Viana’s groundbreaking involvement.

“There must be dreams,” he said. “Without dreams there is no progress.”

Like Viana, who learned to ski in France after being adopted by a French family, most African and Caribbean participants in the Games trained or lived in countries with ski slopes and training facilities.

Sophie Goldschmidt, head of the U.S. Department of Skiing, said inclusion is a core value for her organization, but recognizes obstacles to making progress in the diversity of skiers.

“Whether it’s too high a price or just exclusive for other reasons, I want to change that,” she said.

A review of the diversity, equity, and inclusion of American skiing in 2021 found that the organization is almost entirely white. Only 1% of the organization’s employees were called colored people, while all of its coaches and board members were white.

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Seba Johnson first saw skiing on a tiny black-and-white TV in a residential project where she lived in Fredericksted, on the island of St. Croix. She was delighted. Seeing this in person at the age of 5, she convinced herself that she wanted to become a skier.

Nine years later, Johnson overcame 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 companies, celebrities and other donors, and even then was able to spend far less time training than her competitors, due to socio-economic barriers.

“No one should ask for the opportunity to do what their heart desires,” 48-year-old Johnson said in an interview.

Although she competed in the next Olympics representing the US Virgin Islands, there was no other black woman in the Olympic skiing competitions until 30 years later when Sabrina Simader from Kenya competed in skiing at the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. She called it “heartfelt” that blacks in skiing had not improved.

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Alaska native Andre Horton became the first black man in the U.S. ski team in 2001, although he never competed in the Olympics. He recalls being often the only black man on the slopes.

“I went to the race and saw another black child skiing,” he said.

That other skier introduced him to the National Brotherhood of Skiers, an organization led by blacks that advocates for greater representation in winter sports. At the group’s convention in Aspen, Colorado, he saw thousands of other skiers like him, and other attendees were thrilled with Horton’s appearance in the form of a national ski team.

He recalls riding a chairlift that day with a 70-year-old black woman driving home, how important a black representation is to sports.

“She said, ‘When I was your age, I wasn’t allowed to ski.’

That is why the National Brotherhood of Skiers exists, says its president Henri Rivers. Founded in 1973 by skiers Ben Finley and Art Clay, it aims to eliminate racial and social barriers for black athletes so they can focus on success in winter sports.

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“They think of a sport they love to do and do well in,” Rivers said of skiers, mostly teenagers who have learned to ski through the fraternity. “They don’t even realize how many different obstacles stand in their way to slow their progress.”

Even then, Rivers said, black and Hispanic skiers going through the pipeline are not ready to fight for seats on the Olympic team. He said they would have done better if the larger ski community had embraced them and seen in them the future of the sport.

Johnson agrees.

“For more black, ambitious Olympic skiers to see themselves in the sport, adults will have to take care to pave the way for them to tread and thrive,” she said. “It can’t be as far as seeing it on TV.”

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Associated Press writers Howard Fendrich, Pat Graham and John Lester contributed. New York journalist Aaron Morrison is a member of the AP team on race and ethnicity on assignment to the Beijing Olympics. Follow him on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/aaronlmorrison.

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