All-American ideals

Olympics: Call for more diversity on U.S. winter teams comes from athletes who have overcome odds.

February 24, 2002

BY A FLUKE of event scheduling and the immediacy of television, it became impossible last week to overlook the issue of diversity in the Winter Games.

What an exhilarating week it was for all the medalists -- and notably for athletes of color, whose victories now launch them into the Olympic-sized job of role models.

Vonetta Flowers, track star-turned-bobsledder, cried a river of joyous tears on the winners' platform: Ms. Flowers is the first African-American athlete to win a gold medal in the Winter Olympics, which began in 1924. She told reporters she hopes to "help open the door for minority kids to get interested in winter sports and become Olympians, as I have."

Speed skater Derek Parra, the first Mexican-American athlete to win winter gold, said, "Just winning the gold is fantastic, but to be the first Mexican-American, that is something beyond myself."

Also last week: Figure skater Michelle Kwan captured a bronze medal. Speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno took the gold in the short track event. Julie Chu's team won the silver medal in women's ice hockey.

Cuban-American speed skater Jennifer Rodriguez earned a bronze; she told reporters of her work for a U.S. Olympics Committee program that introduces students of color to Olympic ideals.

The order of the games and broadcasts made the American participation seem more diverse than it is: Only 11 of the 211 members of the U.S. Olympic team at the Winter Games are considered minorities; most competed in their various sports this week.

Their achievements have been anything but minor. Still, some, including speed skating alternate Shani Davis, who is African-American, have acknowledged in interviews that it's a lonely place to be.

Who's counting? Among others, Olympics management, well aware of the image of America that our teams present to the world. The challenge is great: Winter sports are largely Northern European. Influencing any change means making opportunities, encouraging sponsorships, developing training programs and sites, overcoming geographic boundaries and even raiding other sports for talent. (Note that the increased diversity in speed skating has its roots in the popularity of in-line skating. Bobsledders have been borrowed from track and field.)

With a front-row seat at his first Olympics, Lloyd Ward -- who happens to be the first African-American to serve as chief of the USOC -- cannot ignore his winning athletes' inspiration. He says the Olympics Committee needs to "jump-start efforts to encourage minority youth to try winter sports and expose them to this opportunity in the future."

The ball's in the USOC's court.

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