Figure skating is one of the most popular and the oldest sports included in the Winter Olympic Games. Its legacy dates back to the first Winter Olympics held in France in 1924.
Multiple news reports and some people on social media have pointed out the lack of Black figure skaters competing at the Beijing Winter Olympics. In fact, Canadian figure skater Vanessa James is the only Black person in the figure skating competition this year.
On a recent episode of “Celebrity Big Brother,” former Olympic figure skater Mirai Nagasu claimed that Black figure skaters were once barred from competing in the U.S. But is that true?
Were Black figure skaters once formally banned from competing in national figure skating events?
No, Black figure skaters were never formally banned from competing in national figure skating events, but Jim Crow laws and socioeconomic barriers have limited access.
WHAT WE FOUND
U.S. Figure Skating told VERIFY there was never an official rule banning Black athletes from national figure skating events, but Jim Crow laws barred access to the training facilities needed to reach that level of competition. In a statement, the organization explained that “widespread societal segregation in the first half of the 1900s often prevented Black people from entering many businesses, including having access to ice skating rinks.”
The International Olympic Committee also told VERIFY in a statement “that there has never been a stipulation in the Olympic Charter that Black athletes were not allowed to participate in any sport at the Olympic Games.”
In the 1930s, acclaimed U.S. figure skater Mabel Fairbanks taught herself how to skate on small frozen ponds in New York City. When she tried to continue her practice, she was “denied entrance to skate at many of the city’s coveted rinks because of her color,” according to the Ice Theatre of New York. After producing her own figure skating shows in Harlem, she moved to California in the late 1940s, where she went on to coach young skaters. In 1997, Fairbanks became the first Black person inducted into the U.S Figure Skating Hall of Fame despite never competing in a national qualifying event or Olympics.
In the early 1960s, Atoy Wilson began to train with Fairbanks in Los Angeles, according to U.S. Figure Skating. Wilson became the first African American to compete at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in 1965. Then, in 1988, Debi Thomas became the first Black athlete to win a medal in the Winter Olympics for the U.S. She took the bronze in women’s figure skating.
Former figure skater Joe Velasco serves as a board member at the Diversify Ice Fellowship & Foundation, an organization founded in 2017 to provide sponsorship, mentorship, networks, and opportunities to underrepresented figure skaters nationwide.
“For the longest time, skating has been just an ethnically homogenous sport. And it's commonly held that it's just this elitist white sport,” Velasco told VERIFY. “While there have been all these wonderful Black and Brown skaters, they're just too few and far between.”
Velasco explained that the cost of figure skating is a huge barrier to entry for many skaters. From renting time to train at the ice rink to the expensive skates to hiring a full coaching team to testing, he says the price can add up.
“Anybody that's been involved with skating can tell you, it's probably one of the most expensive sports you can become involved in,” Velasco said.
U.S. Figure Skating said in a statement it is working toward creating opportunities for athletes of color, and making the sport more welcoming and equitable to all.
In 2021, Kadari Taylor-Watson became U.S. Figure Skating's first diversity, equity and inclusion director. In her role, Taylor-Watson works alongside the organization’s staff, board of directors and committee leadership to identify and implement programs to promote diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) within the organization and throughout the skating community, according to U.S. Figure Skating.
“U.S. Figure Skating was founded in 1921 during unmatched technological innovation, extreme racial violence and transformational gender legislation. In 2021, 100 years later, the organization has taken the necessary first step of looking in the mirror to reflect on its past to reshape its future,” Taylor-Watson wrote in a letter to U.S. Figure Skating members.