Qualifications should be more than skin deep

January 19, 1992|By Michelle Kaufman | Michelle Kaufman,Knight-Ridder News Service

DETROIT -- There are some things in sport that have always been, continue to be, and might never change.

Basketball players are tall.

Gymnasts are short.

Sumo wrestlers are fat.

Winter Olympians are as white as the snow that blankets the French Alps.

In the 68-year history of the Winter Olympic Games, only one black athlete -- U.S. figure skater Debi Thomas -- has won a medal. Thomas, the 1988 bronze medalist, is one of just four black Americans ever to compete at a Winter Olympics.

It won't be much different this time around.

As it stands now, there is one black athlete among the U.S. contingent of 163 headed to the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, next month. Robert Pipkins, 18, of Staten Island, N.Y., set a track record last weekend to earn a spot on the Olympic luge squad. He is the sole black luger on the world circuit.

"It just shows that people of any race can do any sport," Pipkins said.

Minnesota Vikings running back Herschel Walker, Los Angeles Raider Willie Gault and four other athletes could boost the number of black Winter Olympians if they qualify at bobsled push-off races in Altenberg, Germany, this weekend.

The shortage of black athletes in winter sports isn't an American phenomenon. French figure-skater Surya Bonaly is the only recognizable black athlete on the rosters of the 61 nations competing in Albertville.

Why?

Why in this age of united Germany, crumbling communism and a changing South Africa are our Winter champions still lily white?

There are three main reasons, said former tennis star Arthur Ashe, author of "The Hard Road to Glory," a chronicle of blacks in sports.

Geography. Dollars and cents. Society.

"How many blacks do you know in Boise, Idaho, or Park City, Utah?" Ashe asked. "It's a fact that our top skiers are from areas like that, where kids are born in and around winter sports, and most black kids just don't get exposed to many sports."

According the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 3,000 blacks in Idaho, or .003 percent of the state population. In Utah, it's .007 percent; Colorado .03 percent and Vermont .003 percent. The largest concentrations of blacks are in California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois and Texas, where ski slopes are rare.

Geography also accounts for the lack of black Winter Olympians on a world scale. The winter sports powers are Switzerland, Austria, Commonwealth of Independent States (formerly the Soviet Union), Germany, and France. None of those places has a large black population.

"Kids are more influenced by what they see on TV and their peer groups than anything else," Ashe said. "Nobody in the normal realm of contact is exposing black youth to sports like hockey, skiing or skating. They grow up thinking football, basketball and track are their only viable options."

Thomas was an exception. She grew up in a predominantly white section of San Jose, Calif., and her childhood idol was Mr. Frick, a short, Swiss clown in the Ice Follies. Thomas' goal when she started skating lessons in kindergarten, was to master Mr. Frick's tricks.

"People would ask me if I want to be the next Peggy Fleming, and I didn't even know who she was," Thomas said. "I wanted to be Mr. Frick. I never felt out of place at the rink because I was always the only black kid in my class, the only black kid at the birthday parties, so I was used to it."

Chris Nelson, a senior defenseman on the University of Wisconsin hockey team, was also a rarity in his ice rink. He was born in predominantly white Hanover, N.H., and like most kids there, wanted skates by age 3. Nelson joined a youth hockey team at 4, and fell in love with the sport. He asked for jersey No. 9, in honor of his hero, Gordie Howe.

It wasn't until his early teens that Nelson heard the word "n-" during a game. Now, it pierces his ear every game, but he insists it doesn't bother him.

"Other players use racial slurs to try to throw me off my game just about every time I'm on the ice," said Nelson, who played on the U.S. Select Team last summer. "It's just a tactic and part of the game. I don't let it bother me."

Taj Melson, an all-Minnesota high school defenseman, can empathize with Nelson. He recently signed with St. Cloud State and will be the first black to play hockey at that school.

"During games, I hear 'n- this and n- that,' but it goes in one ear and out the other," Melson said. "Until there are more blacks in the sport, we have to put up with stuff like that."

Ashe doesn't expect black participation in winter sports to grow significantly until the black community as a whole becomes more affluent. He said he was taken aback by a photo of a black couple with skis in the Dec. 2, 1991, issue of Newsweek.

"It looked like an incongruous setting," Ashe said. "But with the growing black middle and upper-middle class, we'll see more of that."

Skating, skiing, bobsled and luge are expensive sports that aren't offered at most public high schools. An Olympic level figure skater spends roughly $30,000 per year in training, costumes, coaches and travel.

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