Dear Olympics, I love you but…

I LOVE the Olympics. I’ve spent many (er, too many) hours over the past week mesmerized by ice dancing, ski cross, super-giant slolom, half pipe. . . these athletes make it look like somebody literally turned off gravity in Vancouver for the week and the laws of physics no longer apply.

Still, it’s hard not to notice how white the US Olympic Team is. If this is a team sent to represent one of the most diverse countries in the world, well, it doesn’t look all that representative. Take a look at this year’s 218 Team USA members and you’ll see what I mean. I could count the number of African Americans on one hand. Out of 218! What about Latinos, Asian Americans? Some…but not that many.

I think it’s safe to say that this disparity is not because Caucasian people are inherently better athletes. Which begs the question: what does account for the disparity?

As with other arenas in which minorities don’t have a strong presence, when it comes to the Olympics the cause is twofold: it comes from the top, and from the bottom. At the top, there is a real lack of diversity in leadership: According to this 2009 USA Today article, none of the eight winter sports federations have board members who are not Caucasian (and all eight are headed by Caucasian men). And at the top executive levels, only 5 positions are held by women or minorities. The other 33 executives are—surprise!—white men.

From the other side, it’s a problem of accessibility. You can’t have Olympic athletes if you don’t have beginners and, as The Grio points out, the financial strains associated with winter sports are extraordinarily high. That leaves those on the lower end of the economic spectrum, including a disproportionate number of minorities, (dare I say it?) out in the cold.

I’m not arguing that we need to institute some sort of quota when it comes to the US Olympic Team. This problem has no easy fix, because it is not just about the Olympics. It’s a symptom of something bigger. What’s worth thinking about is how the same conditions that make it harder for minorities to end up in the Winter Games might also make things harder in other arenas: the media, politics, even publishing.

Meanwhile, I will keep watching the Olympics. Because I can be in awe of this year’s athletes (Lindsey Vonn! Bode Miller! Apolo Ohno!) while still asking, “Who’s missing, and why?”

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