Where are the black figure skaters?

BEIJING (AP) — Before the start of her own Olympic career, Canadian figure skater Vanessa James had seen Black Girl Magic on the ice. It was on display at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, when French skater Surya Bonaly leapt into the air, threw a backflip and landed on one leg.

This thrilling move has never been widely attempted since or accepted by judges at international competitions, such as the Olympics, and so “Bonaly’s turnaround” never became a big thing. Yet, although the move was controversial at the time, Bonaly’s tenacity in attempting it inspired many who followed her.

“I wanted to do a backflip, but I was still too scared to try it,” said James, who is skating in Beijing for his fourth Winter Games after representing France in Vancouver and Pyeongchang.

The Salchow, the Biellmann, the Charlotte spiral – these figure skating standards are named after the whites of the 20th century. And in a century-old sport that was largely European until just a few decades ago, some are wondering: how can more black athletes leave the same lasting mark there?

“If you don’t see yourself in sport, how can you believe you belong, how can you believe you can be the best, how do you know you can be creative or that you will be accepted for your uniqueness? ” says James, who in 2010 was part of France’s first black pair skating duo with Yannick Bonheur.

There are no black athletes competing in figure skating for the Americans this year, although the US team includes five Asian American skaters, one openly LGBTQ skater and the first non-binary skater. The Mexican figure skating team is made up of Donovan Carrillo, the only representative from Latin America.

Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan came to define Asian American representation at the Olympics in the 1990s, while China, Japan and South Korea became more prominent in the early 2000s. And with Nathan With Chen picking up a gold medal, and Alysa Liu and Karen Chen on Team USA, the pipeline of figure skaters has yet to show signs of slowing down.

James, who skates in the pairs event with teammate Eric Radford, is the only black figure skater competing for any nation in Beijing. It not only carries the hopes of Canadian and French skaters, but also of black girls and women, boys and men around the world who are striving to see themselves represented on the ice and on the tracks during the Winter Games.

Part of the reason, says Elladj Baldé, a black and Russian professional figure skater from Canada, is that “black skaters weren’t allowed to be in figure skating clubs (or) in figure skating competitions” during the early years of the sport.

Whether it’s the European norm of blonde-haired, blue-eyed, short figure skaters or a period of racial segregation in skating rinks in the United States, black skaters who have broken down barriers in the sport did it with metaphorical weights chained to their skates.

“That doesn’t leave a lot of room and time for black skaters to innovate,” Baldé says, “especially if a sport confines everyone to a certain style.”

Baldé’s unconventional, hip-hop-inspired dance style has gone viral on social media in recent years, allowing him to leverage attention to push for both change and diversity. The Stake Global Foundation, which he co-founded last year, works to build or rehabilitate ice rinks and expose Black, Indigenous and Other People of Color (BIPOC) in Canada to figure skating.

For consecutive Winter Olympics, the Canadian and French Olympic teams have included black skaters, which some believe reflects Bonaly’s influence. But Team USA has struggled to establish a strong pool of black talent.

Historians trace the problem to stories of black American skaters such as Joseph Vanterpool, a World War II veteran from New York who began professional skating after seeing an ice show in England but rarely performed outside of the completely black windows. Mabel Fairbanks, a trailblazer whose Olympic dreams were shattered by racist exclusion from American figure skating in the 1930s, was by far the sport’s brightest black pioneer.

Fairbanks then opened doors that had been closed to her for generations, including one of her mentees, Debi Thomas. At the 1988 Calgary Games, Thomas became the first black American to win a medal at the Winter Olympics. But few others have come close to competing in an Olympic competition after her.

“How could someone like Debi Thomas have the success she had, break down the barriers she did, but didn’t that lead to a new influx of BIPOC skaters following in his footsteps? asks Ramsey Baker, the executive director of US Figure Skating.

It’s a question the governing body has wrestled with for years, in addition to the socio-economic barriers associated with elite competition. Then, diversity in figure skating became an even bigger priority after the 2020 US police killing of George Floyd, amplifying the Black Lives Matter movement’s calls for racial justice and fairness.

As protests against police brutality erupted across the world, figure skating associations in Canada and the United States responded by pledging to answer the protesters’ cries and bring about change from within. However, both have also faced criticism from black athletes who felt the pledges were a ploy to gain media attention.

Last year, USA Figure Skating hired Kadari Taylor-Watson, a black woman, as its first director of diversity, equity and inclusion. His work included his first census of the diversity of skaters, judges and other sports officials. Through a task force, the association plans to put concrete actions behind the commitment to be even more inclusive of black skaters.

“We have to think about 100 years of not only figure skating history in the United States, but 100 years of United States history,” says Taylor-Watson, “and all the racial unrest that has happened. products in our society and who have created these barriers.

“We don’t want to invite BIPOC skaters into a community that isn’t welcoming to them or ready for them.”

James’ participation in the Winter Games coincides with Black History Month, an annual observance originating in the United States but recognized in Canada, Britain and increasingly in other parts of Europe. Europe.

Former French Olympic figure skater Maé-Bérénice Méité, who is black, gave a shout out to James on Instagram ahead of the first day of the figure skating team competition in Beijing last week.

“So to all of you who want to support an example of what black excellence looks like, I encourage you to support my best friend,” Méité wrote to more than 52,000 followers.

James says the two came into the sport together. “It’s important to have her support because we see ourselves when we look in the mirror,” James says. “When she’s on the ice, I see myself.”

She and Méité know that they are beacons of inspiration for budding young black skaters. James says she imagines that somewhere, young black girls are watching the Winter Games and thinking, “I look like her. I want to be like her. I can do it. I can be better than that.

“That’s the key to excellence,” adds James. “It’s not just about seeing it once. It is recreating it and repeating it. We need it. We have to grow.

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