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The Olympic Trailblazers Who Brought Black Representation to the Winter Games

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In 1988 Debi Thomas became the first African American athlete to earn a medal in the Winter Olympics when she took the bronze in women’s figure skating. Photo: Courtesy photo

By Whitten Gibson |

Since the beginning of the modern Olympic Games in 1896, Black athletes have fought through historical discrimination for the opportunity to compete on the world stage. Regardless, despite the extensive obstacles that crossed their paths, African American athletes began competing in the Olympics in the early 20th Century, shattering records in the process. However, while the Summer Games has become increasingly more inclusive, the Winter Olympics still struggles to demonstrate a definitive sense of representation for Black athletes. With this in mind, let’s reflect on three African American Olympic pioneers who broke down barriers at the Winter Games.

Debi Thomas

African American athletes finally began preparing for the Winter Games by the late 1970’s, with Jeff Gadley being the first to make an Olympic appearance at the 1980 competition in Lake Placid. However, at the 1988 Calgary games, Debi Thomas became the first Black athlete of any nation to medal at the Winter Olympics, winning the bronze in figure skating for team USA (AASC, 2022).

Nonetheless, at only 20 years old, Thomas was not done pursuing greater opportunities. She was already enrolled at Stanford University as a pre-med student, balancing academics with her athletic career. This was remarkable in itself, as very few skaters at this level could manage to attend college while training. (Encyclopedia, 2022) Many times, her coach complained that she was not devoting enough time to off-ice training, such as running and weightlifting, but Thomas took her education very seriously. In fact, Thomas was the first U.S. figure skating champion to enroll in college in 30 years (Schulte-Bockum, 2022). Even so, after earning her bachelor’s degree in 1991, Thomas retired from skating to further her education and pursue a medical degree at Northwestern University.

Vonetta Flowers

The next Olympic feat was accomplished by Vonetta Flowers from Birmingham, Alabama. At the 2002 Salt Lake City competition, Flowers became the world’s first Black athlete to win an Olympic gold medal after she and her teammate dominated in the 2-woman bobsled event.

Ironically, Flowers had just picked up bobsledding by chance less than two years prior. Admitting that she was a rookie in the sport, Flowers told Minneapolis Star Tribune, “I never watched the bobsled before I got in one.” (Schulte-Bockum, 2022).

Initially, Flowers was an All-American sprinter on the track & field team at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She was so successful, in fact, that she was invited to try out for USA’s Olympic team twice, but she fell short both times. After failing to qualify for the 1996 and 2000 Summer Olympics Games, Flowers found the opportunity to try out for the U.S. women’s bobsled team, which would make its debut at the Salk Lake City Winter Olympics (AASC, 2022). She earned a spot on the team, and fortunately for Flowers, her transition from the field to the ice paid off with a monumental gold medal for her and team USA.

Shani Davis

The 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy, saw the first African American to win a gold medal in an individual event. Shani Davis, a 23-year-old from Chicago, began roller-skating as a young child, but would later turn to the ice, becoming the first world-class speed skater of African American heritage (Olympics, 2022).

During his Olympic debut in 2006, Davis went on to win a gold medal in the 1000-meter race, as well as a silver medal in the 1500-meter race. Although, despite his breakthrough success, there was controversy when Davis pulled out of the newly introduced team relay to concentrate on his individual races. The U.S. team struggled without him and only placed sixth, which led many to blame Davis for their poor performance. His personal website was flooded with insults and racial slurs, but Davis, defiant and proud, told the Associated Press in Italy, “I am one of a kind. I have a different charisma. A lot of people don’t understand me.” (Schulte-Bockum, 2022).

At the very next Winter Games in 2010, he showed his resilience and demonstrated why he rose to the top. That year, Davis finished both of his medal-winning races in the exact same positions he had four years prior, with a 1000-meter gold medal and a 1500-meter silver medal (Olympics, 2022). Later, at the 2006 world speed-skating championships, Davis furthered his success and set a world-record overall score of 145.742 points. Furthermore, he also broke the world record for the 1500 meters, adding that to the 1000-meter record he posted the year before (Britannica, 2022). Today, Davis is considered one of the most legendary speed skaters to ever step foot on the ice, still holding on to many of the records he set years ago.

Though Black athletes have faced many hardships on the Olympic stage throughout history, they have emerged as some of the fiercest competitors the world has seen. This year, at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, two Black athletes have already made history. Elana Meyers Taylor, an Olympic bronze and silver medalist from the United States, won her third silver medal in the first ever women’s monobob event. Furthermore, Erin Jackson, who was the first Black woman to be on the U.S. long-track speed skating team, also became the first Black woman to win an individual medal in speed skating after winning gold in the 500m event this year (Wurzburger, 2022). As representation for Black athletes continues to grow in winter sports, it is only inevitable that they continue to break records and break barriers. With Black History Month coming to an end, let’s continue to recognize and celebrate their outstanding accomplishments.

Whitten Gibson is an Admissions Counselor at the United States Sports Academy. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of South Alabama in December 2020 with a double-major in International Relations and Spanish. His core interests include global affairs, public policy, and human/community development.

AASC, O., 2022. Photo Essay – African American Olympians. [online] Oxford African American Studies Center. Available at: https://oxfordaasc.com/page/photo-essay-african-american-olympians

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Shani Davis”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 9 Aug. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Shani-Davis.

Olympics.com. 2022. Shani DAVIS | Olympics.com. [online] Available at: https://olympics.com/en/athletes/shani-davis

Schulte-Bockum, M., 2022. The First African Americans to Win Olympic Medals. [online] HISTORY. Available at: https://www.history.com/news/african-americans-olympic-games

Encyclopedia.com. 2022. Thomas, Debi 1967– | Encyclopedia.com. [online] Available at: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/thomas-debi-1967

Wurzburger, A., 2022. 12 Outstanding, History-Making Black Winter Olympians. [online] PEOPLE.com. Available at: https://people.com/sports/history-making-black-winter-olympians/

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