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Why Are Some Olympic Sports Whiter Than Others?

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Pint-sized gymnastics powerhouse Gabby Douglas stands out for her strength, grace and show stopping routines, particularly on the uneven bars. She also stands out because of her race. The only black gymnast on this year's U.S. women's team, she is one of only a few black gymnasts to ever represent the U.S. in Olympics competition (click here to see a slideshow of others). Douglas joins swimming phenom Lia Neal, who became the second black American woman to win an Olympic medal in swimming this past weekend, in flourishing in sports not traditionally known for their racial diversity.

Before the eye rolling begins, this is not a column about rampant racism in sports. But it is an attempt to understand why some sports end up predominated by one racial group versus others, and the long-term social and cultural implications of such segregation on the field, court, or gymnastics mat.

According to Professor Rob Ruck, a sports historian at the University of Pittsburgh who has written extensively about why certain sports flourish in certain communities and not others, there are three factors that dictate which "sport takes on significance within a community of people." First, "A set of environmental and class, or socioeconomic factors. Second, when the sport provides certain tangible and material rewards, benefits and opportunities. The third is when a particular sport has acquired a deeply rooted historic meaning to people."

As an example, Ruck pointed to the declining number of black professional baseball players. "In the 70's African-Americans comprised over a quarter of all major leaguers, today it's under 10%." Citing his three factor theory, Ruck explained that baseball has traditionally been a sport that a male father figure has passed down to his son and the increase in fatherless black households has meant that a boy growing up playing catch with his father in these communities is less likely. Pointing to polls that show baseball lagging behind professional football and basketball in popularity within the black community, he explained that those sports have "much more cultural cachet. All these kids grow up in the Michael Jordan era and want to be 'like Mike' or Kobe or Lebron."

But Ruck was quick to note that "Culture and class are far more significant than race" in determining who is likely to participate in which sports. Continuing with his baseball example, he noted that once a young player gets past little league, expenses for competing in baseball at the regional or national level can cost thousands of dollars in travel and other expenses, costs that those from less privileged backgrounds are unlikely to be able to afford. This was a sentiment reiterated by a number of black elite athletes interviewed for this piece who excelled in sports where few black athletes have.

When asked to identify the single greatest obstacle to greater racial diversity in the sport of gymnastics, Wendy Hilliard, the first African-American on the U.S. Rhythmic Gymnastics National Team, said one word: "cost." (Hilliard would go on to coach gymnast Aliane Baquerot to Olympic glory.)

Hilliard explained there are some other barriers, such as the time commitment required of families whose children are training at the elite level, including being available for practice five to six days a week. But ultimately, "In the inner cities there are not a lot of [gymnastics] programs that are affordable," particularly today. Hilliard was first introduced to the sport at a public gym in Detroit, but public funding for programs like the one she participated in has waned over the years, leading Hilliard to establish her own foundation to introduce young, promising athletes to a sport they may not otherwise be introduced to. Hilliard hopes her foundation will help tackle one of the other great obstacles to increasing diversity in sports in which minorities are traditionally underrepresented: "exposure."

This word was used repeatedly by some of the other athletes interviewed. "Certain sports are just not exposed to kids in the inner cities," said Peter Westbrook who won a bronze medal in fencing at the 1984 Olympics. Echoing Prof. Ruck, Westbrook added that so many kids see basketball and "want to be like Mike." He stressed that this mindset is not limited to black kids, but there are many kids across the spectrum that are simply unfamiliar with certain sports and therefore it never crosses their minds, or their parents' to pursue them.

MaliVai Washington, the only other African-American man besides Arthur Ashe to make it to a Wimbledon final, cited "exposure to the sport" as the greatest obstacle to increasing racial diversity in tennis. He elaborated by drawing a distinction between "exposure" as in seeing a sport played, and what he terms "practical exposure." As he explained, plenty of kids may see Serena Williams win a Grand Slam, and that is one form of exposure, but "practical exposure" is what actually happens after that girl or boy sees her win. "It's so much easier for every kid to grab one basketball with their friends and stay out a couple of hours," than to purchase a racket and learn the fundamentals of tennis in his or her neighborhood he explained.

He also cited cost as one obstacle making "practical exposure" that much tougher. Like Hilliard, Washington now runs a non-profit, aimed at bringing the traditionally non-diverse sport he excelled at, to racially and economically diverse communities. The MaliVai Washington Kids Foundation uses tennis instruction to help instill discipline and foster academic excellence among children from low-income communities.

Westbrook pointed to non-profit programs like Hilliard's, Washington's, and his own as being crucial to insuring that there is more than one Gabby Douglas in sports that tend to lack racial and class diversity -- sports Prof. Ruck terms "country club sports."

As Westbrook explained, "A lot of sports that are not diverse are just too much money: polo, tennis. Sports in the inner cities that catch on are inexpensive like track and field or basketball. Parents can't afford fencing. It's so expensive it's absurd." But Westbrook's Peter Westbrook Foundation has helped make fencing affordable to hundreds of students anually, charging only $50 for a full year of instruction. Typically one private lesson can cost close to that amount, and at the elite level of the sport there can be multiple lessons per week.

One of the students who enrolled in Westbrook's class as a child was a student from Flatbush, Brooklyn, who has since credited the foundation with introducing him to a sport he would have been unlikely to participate in or afford, without it. That student was Keeth Smart, who would go on to win a silver medal in fencing at the 2008 Olympics and became the first American to hold the world #1 ranking in the sport.

"I'd love to see fencing become as popular as basketball one day," Smart said, but stressed that for this to happen, there need to be more organizations like the Peter Westbrook Foundation to make the sport more affordable. Ideally, private clubs would also help nurture those with the interest and commitment to the sport, but who lack the resources.

As Smart went on to explain, this issue is much greater than simply insuring sports such as fencing are diverse for diversity's sake.

Asked to describe the impact of fencing and the Peter Westbrook Foundation on his life Smart said, "It's completely changed it. It's very easy for me to measure today where I'd be without fencing because I see my friends, who I started with in the same schools and I now find myself on a completely different track personally and professionally because of fencing." He concluded, "I learned that there was so much more I could achieve in life and that is because of fencing."

To support the Wendy Hilliard Foundation click here.


To support the Peter Westbrook Foundation click here.


To support the MaliVai Washington Kids Foundation click here.


To see some of the most successful black gymnasts click here.


Keli Goff is the author of The GQ Candidate a Contributing Editor for Loop21.com where this post originally appeared.

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