Opinion | Analyzing the reasons behind lack of Black participation in winter Olympics

The way the Olympics are set up with summer and winter being separate, it was evident there would be a debate about which one is better. The clear consensus is that the summer Olympics is much better. It’s much harder to appreciate someone’s greatness when that high level of performance occurs in a sport that a person themselves has never played. For example, track and field. Everyone has once run at a point in their life, so that is much easier to identify with the sprinters charging to the finish. Another example is long jump, trying to see how far you could jump at one time. Even the more obscure sports such as cycling in the Olympics are much more relatable as riding a bike is much more common and accessible than skiing or snowboarding. 

So while the winter Olympics are just as impressive as the summer ones in all the things the athletes are able to accomplish, people just like the summer Olympics better. Even TV ratings support this with the Tokyo 2020 Olympics averaging 15 million viewers compared to Beijing’s Olympics which averaged 13 million viewers. This is also seen especially in Black people. As the winter Olympics were happening in Beijing, I would often ask my friends if they were watching. Out of the responses I got, a lot were “no’s”, or “Why would I watch that?” in a joking manner.

A reason for this is that you don’t see a lot of Black people at the Winter Olympics, no matter the event. Ice skating, skeleton, skiing, snowboarding, there are hardly any people of color at all on the podium, and that’s if there are any competing at all. 

The main thing that I heard from Black people when talking about the winter Olympics was talking about the doping scandal with Russian figure skater Kamila Vaileva and comparing it to what happened six months ago with Sha’Carri Richardson the American sprinter. While Richardson was banned from going to the Olympics completely for smoking a non performance enhancing drug, Kamila was caught taking a performance enhancing drug and was able to compete. The biggest punishment for her would’ve been not having a medal ceremony, which didn’t matter as she didn’t medal.

The Olympics also aren’t typically an inclusive event, as no African country has ever hosted an Olympics and South America has only hosted one. So why has this happened? How did only five African countries wind up competing at the last winter Olympics?

As many people know, Africa is home to a much warmer climate than what is required for the winter Olympics. So while this is likely a reason for not having as much representation as European countries with colder climates, with the globalization of society, there isn’t as much of an excuse for why there isn’t as much Black and African representation at the Olympics as there should be. An African nation has never medaled in any event, and it was just this year that the first Black woman won a gold medal in an individual Olympic event when Erin Jackson claimed it in speed skating. 

Africa’s history starts much earlier than this at the Olympics. South Africa was the first African nation to go to the Olympics in 1960. Though that would be the last winter Olympics they would go to as they were banned in 1964 because of apartheid, up until the ban ended in 1994 with the Winter Olympics in Norway. Fourteen other African nations have competed in the Olympics, including Ethiopia, Senegal, Algeria and Egypt with Nigeria and Eritrea both most recently making their debut in 2018. The most common events that African nations would be competing in were skiing events, either alpine or cross country.

A preconceived notion might be that Africa doesn’t want to put effort into the Olympics. If you watch any track and field in the summer Olympics you can see this is wrong.

Five African nations competed this year at the winter Olympics, Eritrea, Madagascar, Nigeria, Ghana and Morocco compared to at least 10 African countries medaling in the summer Olympics with Kenya leading the way which shows how it’s not as if African Olympic committees don’t want to send athletes to the winter Olympics but aren’t able to because of the lack of accessibility to the sports. Something that is trying to change that is the Bobsled and Skeleton Federation in Ghana, which was founded by a Ghanian skeleton athlete who had success at the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang. 

A major obstacle is being able to afford much of the expensive equipment. One of the most expensive summer sports, archery, costs around $25,000 annually compared to one of the most common winter sports, snowboarding, which costs about an extra 10,000 dollars annually. Also scholarships for the Olympics were dominantly awarded to European countries according to a 2022 CNN article. 

The country that won the winter Olympics this year, Norway, has a population of five million people. Africa has 35 nations with a higher population than Norway. 35! So clearly it isn’t Africans not wanting to go to the Olympics but the lack of access because of the IOC not attempting to expand the game, in addition to scrapping continental quotas for the Beijing games after their inclusion in 2018.

Many of us have experienced our parents signing us up for a sport without us knowing how to play it. In these European nations, often, there is an opportunity to learn and experience this because of their natural climate. So while I’m not advocating for artificial mountains to be made in Africa, something that could help is by creating indoor courses or fields for many events such as skeleton, ice skating or curling. Similar to how basketball has become an international sport because of exhibitions, like ones that occurred with the Bulls in the 90’s, the Olympics could benefit from doing something similar within these very underserved nations. Having the Olympians who competed for Africa come with medalists in the same event to come and teach kids how to do these events on new courses would likely see a giant spike in participation. So, while we will have to wait another two years for any Olympics and another four for a winter one, many steps can be taken during this period to ensure success and prosperous games for all nations in the years to come.