The following article in The Black World Today (and another in Africana.com)
addresses an aspect of T&F athletes in the winter Olympics...
Flowers Is No Fluke: Black Success In Bobsledding Part Of A Growing Winter
By Jon Entine
The first ever gold medal victory by a black in the Winter Olympics, by
bobsleigh pusher and brakewoman Vonetta Flowers, comes as a shock only to
those unfamiliar with the history of success of blacks in this daring sport.
Bobsledding is the only Olympic winter event in which black athletes have
not only competed, but thrived.
That black athletes or athletes of color in general have not taken most
winter sports by storm should come as little surprise and of no automatic
indication of racism. After all, skin color is a geographical marker with
darker shades correlated with warmer climes. By the numbers, there are far
fewer blacks in countries that dominate winter sports or in the northern
regions of the United States from where most winter athletes hail.
But bobsledding is different. This year there are three blacks on the men's
and women's teams, about par for recent US squads. Flowers is joined by
two-time Olympians Garrett Hines and Randy Jones. Just a few days ago, Hines
missed a medal in the two-man by a heartbreaking .03 seconds.
All three are "runners," the athletes who launch the sled, then jump in for
the ride. The most critical factor in bobsledding is the start. If it's
explosive, it can give a two- or four-man team an edge that can sometimes
overcome a lesser-quality sled or a bumpy ride. Flowers and her teammate,
driver Jill Bakken, attribute much of their win to incredible starts in
their two runs.
Hines, Jones and Flowers also share athletic backgrounds: they are former
sprinting stars. That's not surprising to those familiar with the science of
body types and athletic performance. According to scientists, African
Americans, who are of West African ancestry, are the population group most
likely to have explosive fast twitch muscle fibers.
"It's a strong genetic component what type of muscle fiber you have, either
slow or face" says Bengt Saltin, director of the Copenhagen Muscle Research
Center. According to Saltin, who just received an award of his own at these
Games, selected as the 2002 recipient of the IOC Olympic Prize on Sport
Sciences, African Americans and other populations of West African ancestry,
should continue to flourish in sports that require quick speed bursts. "West
Africans have already 70 or 75 percent of the fast type when they are born.
And that's needed for a 100 meter race around 9.9 seconds." Because
quickness is so important, it makes sense that the most explosive
contemporary athletes-blacks who trace their ancestry to West Africa-would
be among the best bobsled pushers.
Flowers was a seven time All-American at the University of Alabama who
turned to bobsledding in a fluke a few years ago after she failed in her
dream to make the US Summer team going to Sydney. Jones ran track and played
football at Duke University while Hines starred at both sports at Southern
Needless to say, none of these elite bobsledders grew up fantasizing about
risking life and limb running reckless down ice chutes. Consider Hines's
story. As a young boy growing up in Memphis, he certainly never gave winter
sports much of a thought. He dreamed about being a professional basketball
player, dunking hoops with Dr. J., or sliding past Magic Johnson for an easy
lay-up. He was fast-like lightning, he remembers. Instead, of pursuing
basketball, however, he ended up running track and playing football before
becoming a two-sport star in college.
Hines earned an undergraduate degree in biological science and a Masters in
education from SIU. In 1992, after graduation, one of his college buddies
decided to try out for the US bobsled team. What the heck, Hines thought. So
they piled into the car for the twenty-two-hour drive to Lake Placid to
pursue their crazy whim.
When he and his friend pulled into town after a day-long drive, there was
more snow than Hines had ever seen in his life. He went on to shock even
himself by making the team as a pusher-the second person in the two-man and
one of the two runners in the four-man bobsled whose job it is to launch the
sled careening down the mountain. "I was so scared I almost quit right
there," he recalled thinking after his first training run.
Hines remembers the Nagano Games because as the first time an African
American had a realistic shot at an Olympic bobsled medal. He recalls his
final run, standing atop the mountain, prepared to hurtle down an ice-slick
run at speeds topping 80 miles an hour. Hines glanced across at teammate and
fellow pushman Jones, who now owns his own computer upgrading and repair
company. Jones was the side-push and brakeman on the 1994 team and winner of
three gold medals during 1996 and '97 World Cup competitions. "I never
imagined this," said Hines. "Not in a million years."
The first black Olympic bobsledder was former sprinter Willie Gault, in
1988. Prior to the Calgary Games, and eager to end turnaround America's
flagging fortunes in the sport, the US team recruited two well known track
Olympians: Gault and Edwin Moses, who was in the midst of a 16-year,
122-race streak as world-record holder in the 400-meter hurdles. Gault was
selected but didn't compete. That same Olympic year, the British team
included several athletes of Caribbean heritage.
Calgary also marked the quixotic debut of the "Cool Runners" from Jamaica.
Egged on by the country's tourist board, which saw the adventure as a way to
boost Jamaica's sagging image, the islanders competed in two- and four-man
events using hand-me-down sleds. With the world prepared for a chuckle, the
four-man team rocketed out of the gate with one of the fastest starting
times in the event, before crashing spectacularly. Still, they finished a
respectable twenty-second among thirty-one teams.
The Jamaicans became an instant legend, with the crash forming the climactic
scene in a Walt Disney movie, Cool Runnings, which was loosely based on the
experiences of the bobsledders. They celebrated with an international
victory-less tour, including a guest appearance with the Los Angeles Lakers
complete with tributes from Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Almost
overnight, bobsled federations in several countries were clamoring to find
the fastest runners to draft into the sport.
Within a few years, the United States, Britain, France, and Canada had drawn
upon a deep well of black sprinters to stock their teams. In 1992 Brian
Shimer recruited professional football player and former University of
Georgia track star Herschel Walker to be his pusher in a two-man US team.
Although they barely had time to practice together-Walker chose to finish
the 1991 season with the Minnesota Vikings rather than hit the World Cup
circuit-the media touted the duo as a pre-Olympic favorite. But their
rustiness showed in Lillehammer, where they blew the start and finished a
disappointing seventh. But the upstart Jamaicans finished fourteenth, ahead
of both US teams, which had state-of-the-art high-tech sleds.
By Nagano in 1998 black bobsledders were commonplace. The Jamaicans were
even given an outside shot at a medal. They were joined by long-shot
wanna-bes from Trinidad and Tobago, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. The
top pushers on Team Canada traced their ancestry to Africa via the
Caribbean. Sheridon Baptiste, a football, basketball, and track star at
Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, was one of the top brakemen in the
world and the fastest man on the Canadian squad. His African-Canadian
teammates included Ricardo Greenridge, a former 200-meter champion, and Ian
Danney. The United States had high hopes that it could capture its first
bobsled medal in decades. The previous November, at the World Cup in
Winterberg, Germany, Shimer's four-man had crushed the course start record
in both heats, a testament to the blazing speed of its two runners, Jones
In the four-man finals, the two Canadian teams faltered while Jamaica slid
to twenty-first. The US sled got off to a blazing start but faltered into
the stretch, missing a medal by .02 seconds, just behind the French and
British teams which tied for the bronze. Two black pushers, Courtney Orville
Rumbolt and Paul Jason Attwood, both star sprinters, powered Britain.
Jones and Hines, who have one more shot at a medal this weekend, are hoping
to match Flowers's victory. "We've certainly paid our dues," says Hines. "We
can almost taste it."
"To win a gold medal for your country is awesome," agrees Flowers. "I hope
it encourages African Americans to give winter sports a try."
Jon Entine (http://www.jonentine.com) is author of "Taboo: Why Black
Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It."