The Winter Olympics is white, very much so, from the perfectly crisp sheet of snow covering the mountains around Pyeongchang to the racial make-up of the event itself.
The power base of winter sports has always been in Europe, but in the United States, too, many of the sports featured on the Games program have been dominated by children of white families, many of them fairly wealthy.
For the next two weeks of frosty fun in Pyeongchang, however, signs will point to change. Internationally, the Europeans still hold sway, with Norway expected to top the medal table and Germany not far behind.
Within the U.S. team, though, diversity is significantly up, a situation that is neither accident nor aberration. Over the past six years the U.S. Olympic Committee has made distinct efforts to promote diversity and progress is starting to show.
“I think it sends out a strong message when there is a team that has a good cross-section of ethnicities,” Elana Meyers Taylor, a 2014 Olympic silver medalist in bobsled, told USA TODAY Sports. “If there is a child watching and they don’t see anyone that looks like them, it creates a little mental barrier.”
The American team has 11 Asian American athletes and 10 black athletes among its 243 members, still a far lower ratio than the number of U.S. minority athletes in the Summer Games but the highest number it has sent to any Winter Olympics.
In 2012, USOC president Scott Blackmun highlighted diversity as an issue to be improved. He formulated a committee and hired Jason Thompson as director of diversity and inclusion.
“It is not huge, but it is a good start when it comes to diversity,” Thompson said, referring to the statistics on this year’s team. “If people see themselves reflected there, it is not necessarily that they will become an athlete, they might just become a fan."
Thompson oversees an initiative that keeps a diversity scorecard for each sport under the USOC’s remit and sets targets for inclusiveness, involving not just athletes but also administrative and coaching staff members.
Bobsled has become a significant success story for black athletes, and Meyers Taylor has played a role in actively recruiting minorities to the sport. In Pyeongchang, Erin Jackson will become the first black woman to represent the U.S. in long track speedskating, where she will join five-time Olympian Shani Davis and newcomer Kimani Griffin. Maame Biney, 18, is the first black woman on the short-track team.
Asian Americans have enjoyed high levels of achievement in figure skating and short-track speedskating, the two sports that may be the most popular with the Korean crowd due to that country’s prior success.
Short track star JR Celski, the 500-meter world record holder, celebrates the Filipino heritage of his mother’s side of the family with a large Philippines-themed tattoo across his chest.
“I love the way you get to meld together with different people from different backgrounds,” Celski said, during a recent interview in Salt Lake City. “When you saw more diversity in some ways that is the best of America, it’s a real American team, because that is what the country is like.”
Thompson expects things to continue toward a team that is more representative of the nation’s ethnic make up.
“We are not going to fix everything overnight but we are planting the seeds and we have been for some time,” he added. “We are starting to see them grow.”