Uh Oh: Get Ready for #OlympicsSoWhite
Team USA is not diverse enough, say some — but aren't athletics at the highest level supposed to be based on performance and stats?
Every two years, the United States has the opportunity to prove it is the most athletic country in the world in the Olympics. Americans have been successful in recent summer and winter Olympics as of late — but the Olympic committee is not happy.
It seems it is not enough today that the team has a merit-based system in which the best athletes in a number of winter sports earned their way onto Team USA with a chance to compete in the winter games.
Apparently, the squad is not diverse enough for the U.S. Olympic Committee’s liking.
This year’s U.S. Winter Olympic team is actually the most diverse yet. It features 10 African-Americans, 11 Asian-Americans, and the first two openly gay Olympians in the country’s history. Still, a 4 percent black and 4 percent Asian squad does not satisfy Jason Thompson, the Olympic Committee’s director of diversity and inclusion.
“We’re not quite where we want to be. I think full-on inclusion has always been a priority of Team USA. I think everybody’s always felt it should represent every American,” he recently told The Washington Post.
He added, “We are not going to fix everything overnight, but we are planting the seeds and we have been for some time. We are starting to see them grow.”
It is hard to understand Thompson’s gripes with the team this country has put together, as there is little subjectivity involved in it. Most of the events are ski-related and contestants are judged in two aspects: how fast they can ski and how well they avoid obstacles. When athletes qualify for these events, those with the best times move on — a simple concept to grasp. Yet imposing diversity quotas for the sake of inclusion penalizes some of the world’s top athletes and deteriorates the end product.
A concern about the presence of — or a lack of — certain groups of people also ignores the distribution of ethnicities throughout the country. Nearly every winter event is a skiing or other snow sport, which typically requires snow to practice, meaning these sports can only be practiced in colder climates.
That said, there is a higher percentage of white people in some of the colder northern states in the country, where skiing and hockey are popular, such as New Hampshire (92 percent white), Vermont (94 percent), Maine (92 percent), Montana (89 percent), and Minnesota (80 percent), according to the Kaiser Daily Global Health Policy Report. In contrast, states like Louisiana (32 percent), Alabama (27 percent), Georgia (32 percent), South Carolina (26 percent), and North Carolina (21 percent) in the South all have a higher percentage of African-Americans. Those also happen to be some of the warmer states in the country where skiing is not so popular — snow is rare.
The 2016 U.S. Summer Olympic Team — which competed in sports that can be practiced year-round in warmer climates — was 23 percent African-American. Add the 4 percent from the winter games and the 23 from the summer and divide that by two — and you get an average of 13.5 percent African-American. Our country is 13.3 percent African-American, per the 2016 U.S. Census, so the Olympics teams seem to accurately reflect the population of the United States.
But even if the teams were not a perfect representation of the census — so be it. The NBA is overwhelmingly African-American (74.3 percent, according to The Undefeated) and the NHL — a league primarily composed of Canadians — is overwhelmingly Caucasian (93 percent, according to WSBTV). But that does not mean just one race is successful in those leagues.
Two of the three highest paid defensemen in the NHL last season were African-American: PK Subban ($9 million) and Dustin Byfuglien ($7.6 million). That’s because they’re among the best players in the league at their position. In the NBA, Kyle Korver of the Cleveland Cavaliers had the best 3-point shooting percentage in the league last season (.451), and Gordon Hayward was an All-Star for the Utah Jazz. Both Korver and Hayward are white. Those are just a couple of examples of immense success in both leagues in the past year by people who were not in their league’s majority race.
When it comes to competitive sports, athletic ability is what players should be judged by — not on how many diversity checkboxes they can give their team.
From time to time, the U.S. Olympic team is going to have a higher percentage of minorities than the general population. At other times, it will be less. Regardless of what they look like, where they’re from or whom they love, Team USA should be about putting the best athletes on the field, period.
If only critics like Thompson could recognize that they’re creating a problem where one does not need to exist.
Tom Joyce is a freelance writer from the South Shore of Massachusetts. He covers sports, pop culture, and politics and has contributed to The Federalist, Newsday, ESPN, and other outlets.