At 38, Benjamin Alexander became Jamaica’s first ever alpine skier to compete in the Winter Olympics – just six years after he first strapped on skis.
In his first few years in the sport, skiing with friends, he attracted a lot of attention.
“Being the only Black representative in the group, even though I am only half-Black and being of Jamaican heritage, people kept throwing jokes, sideways jokes at me about ‘Cool Runnings,’ the Jamaican bobsled team and, ‘You should go to the Olympics,’” Alexander told CNN Sport.
Benjamin Alexander represented Jamaica in alpine skiing — a first for the island nation.
Michael Kappeler/picture alliance/Getty Images
Although the Summer Games are often heralded as a melting pot – 11,417 athletes from 206 countries and regions across 33 sports participated in Tokyo 2020 – the Winter Games are nowhere near as diverse, with 91 delegations taking part at Beijing 2022.
That’s five times more than the number of teams represented in the first Winter Games in Chamonix, France in 1924.
But athletes from Africa, South Asia, as well as those from smaller island nations still find themselves struggling to qualify for competition in the Winter Olympics due to warmer climates, the prohibitively high cost of equipment, lack of infrastructure and limited opportunities to practice and compete.
And one athlete and his coaches that CNN interviewed for this story warn that continental quota systems that allowed countries and regions with smaller Winter Olympic delegations the opportunity to establish and expand in sliding sports in PyeongChang 2018 were scrapped ahead of Beijing, with a knock-on effect on African countries.
A push for diversity, with limited success
More countries are making their debut in the Winter Olympics.
Saudi Arabia and Haiti each sent an alpine skier to Beijing while Nigeria and Eritrea competed in the Winter Games for the second time after making their debut in PyeongChang 2018. In fact, eight African countries sent athletes to South Korea four years ago, a record number.
But just five African countries participated in this year’s Games, where the medal tables were dominated by athletes from Europe, North America and Asia.
European and North American dominance in the Winter Games can in part be explained by the fact that their climates, where ice and snow are more plentiful, lend themselves to winter sports.
But climate isn’t the only factor affecting Olympic participation – when it comes to representation at the Winter Games, there is also a huge gap between wealthier and poorer nations.
At PyeongChang 2018, no athlete from Africa, Central or South America won a medal, while Norway – one of the world’s wealthiest countries but with a population of just about five million – topped the medal table as it did at Beijing 2022.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) says it “aims to make success at the Games achievable by everyone.”
It allocates a “substantial portion” of profit from the Games to athletes and coaches through individual National Olympic Committees (NOCs) as part of the Olympic Solidarity Plan to help “athletes and coaches from countries with the greatest financial need.”
Some 429 athletes from 80 NOCs were awarded scholarships ahead of Beijing to “support qualification efforts,” according to the IOC. But European athletes nabbed nearly 69% of 429 scholarships awarded by the IOC before the Beijing Games. African athletes took home around 4% of those 429 scholarships.
Only NOCs “whose athletes had a proven winter sports track record” had access to the program, the IOC said.
Meanwhile, 236 athletes (139 men and 97 women) who received these individual athlete scholarships eventually qualified to take part in the Games.
Athletes in Europe benefited the most from these scholarships, receiving more than $5 million. Athletes in Asia received $955,003, the Americas $944,917, Oceania got $441,000 and Africa $177,000.
Scholarships make up just a part of Olympic Solidarity assistance programs designed jointly by the IOC and NOCs, which also direct funds – derived from Olympic revenue – towards training of coaches, sports administrators and promoting the Olympic values, according to the IOC.
CNN has reached out to the IOC for a further breakdown of funding.
Racial diversity not reflected
On a national level, the composition of delegations often isn’t very racially diverse.
“There have been Black medalists from the US and Canada and from Germany. I don’t know of any other Black medalists except for those three countries,” Olympic historian Bill Mallon told CNN Sport.
Black athletes have proven crucial to Team USA’s Olympic and Paralympic success in the Summer Games.
But even as Black athletes won medals at Beijing – speedskater Erin Jackson brought home gold, while bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor became the most decorated Black athlete in Winter Olympics history – White athletes still made up the majority of Team USA at the Games this year.
Prior to Beijing, the US has only had around 25 Black representatives on all of their various Winter Olympic teams, with over half of them in bobsledding, according to Mallon.
In 1988, Debi Thomas became Team USA’s first Black Olympic Winter medalist, winning bronze in the ladies’ figure skating competition, and Vonetta Flowers became the first Black athlete to ever win gold in the Winter Games, when she drove to victory in the two-woman bobsled with Jill Bakken in 2002.
Hockey player Jarome Iginla became the first Black man to win gold at the same Games when Canada triumphed over the US.
Four years later, speedskater Shani Davis became the first African American athlete to win an individual gold medal in Turin, Italy.
Overall, there have been a relatively small number of Black figure skaters, and they have rarely excelled at the Olympic level. Though she demonstrated technical excellence in her routines, Black French skater Surya Bonaly never won an Olympic medal.
Surya Bonaly of France performs a backflip in her free skate routine in the women’s Olympic figure skating in Nagano on February 20, 1998.
Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images
Bonaly performed a one-bladed backflip at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics – an illegal move that was perceived as an act of defiance to the judges – which she landed on one foot.
That move is still illegal and has never been tried since in an Olympic competition.
“They want to keep the girls pretty, in a special way,” Bonaly told CNN Sport as she reflected on her career. Though now, according to Bonaly, “people are changing and trying to challenge themselves, and try to have more personality in their own style. And that’s good. And it’s more accepted.”
Bonaly added: “Now, back then … you only came from one mold, one way.”
Black athletes are now prevalent in sliding sports: African American women comprise a majority of America’s Olympic bobsled team.
Nathan Chen skates during the Men’s Free Skating program at Beijing 2022 on February 10, 2022.
Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
Asian American athletes, including figure skater Nathan Chen and snowboarder Chloe Kim, have also had a commanding presence at this year’s Games.
Four of the six Team USA singles figure skaters were Asian American: Karen Chen, Nathan Chen, Alysa Liu and Vincent Zhou. Madison Chock competed in the ice dancing event, while Abby Roque was the first Indigenous women’s hockey player in US team history.
Pay to play economics
Experts say that economics – not just talent – plays a huge part in whether athletes are able to participate in the Olympics.
“That notion of economics is very key because we’re looking at sports such as skiing, bobsledding, figure skating – and that equipment alone costs so much,” Akilah Carter-Francique, executive director of the Institute for the Study of Sport, Society and Social Change at San Jose State University told CNN Sport.
“Pay to play is not accessible to anyone but people with money,” Shireen Ahmed, senior contributor with CBC Sports, told CNN.
“It becomes not just a racialized issue, it’s a class issue, and those two things go hand-in-hand. Not everybody’s going to be a working-class hero,” she said.
With stories of parents remortgaging their homes, working long hours and reducing expenses to facilitate their children’s Olympic dreams, it comes as no surprise that financial barriers in winter sports can be prohibitive.
Ghana’s first skeleton Olympian Akwasi Frimpong told CNN Sport that competing at an elite level costs around $250,000 a year, which would pay for a dedicated full-time sliding coach, a push coach, a strength and conditioning coach, physical therapist, a mechanic, sliding equipment, hotel, air travel, ground transportation and food.
“This does not include also having a family and a mortgage to pay,” he said, adding that sliding sports athletes would expect to pay $80,000 to compete in smaller, non-Olympic events, outside of the Olympic season.
Jamaica’s first Olympic alpine skier Alexander told CNN: “I’m competing with people that have been skiing since the age of two, ski racing since the age of four, and their parents have put $50,000 a year into their improvements while they were young.”
“And now, their national ski federation or local club is putting in $150,000-250,000 a year for their advancement,” he said.
In 2020, 58% of nearly 500 athletes surveyed by the athletes’ rights group Global Athlete said they did not consider themselves financially stable.
The athletes who participated in the survey hailed from 48 countries. 44% were actively competing with sport as their primary profession and 31% of the athletes were Olympians.
Shiva Keshavan, a six-time Olympian and India’s only Olympic competitor in luge in the 2018 Winter Games told CNN that European delegations, which have a better system of recruitment and employment for athletes, dominate Olympic winter sports.
“Athletes that come from developing sport nations generally have more of a challenge because you don’t have the systems in place that enable a successful career.
“Often, athletes are having to deal with training with less, with worse equipment or having to do their own logistics and, sometimes, without a coach,” he added.
Many elite skiers, snowboarders and ice skaters take expensive private lessons, hire coaches or attend private schools to facilitate their training as they’re growing up.
Bode Miller – the most decorated US Olympic skier, with one gold, three silver and two bronze medals – attended Carrabassett Valley Academy in Maine on a scholarship and said in 2021 that he “wouldn’t have been able to go if not for generous people in my small town of Franconia.”
Parents with means can expect to pay as much as $64,050 to send their children to the academy, which boasts that it has “earned more Olympic medals for skiing and snowboarding than some small countries.”
Privately educated athletes constituted 30.3% of athletes who participated in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Public Health.
The study analyzed sociodemographic data for all athletes representing Canada, the US, Great Britain and Australia in Sochi. 94.9% of winter athletes were White.
“If your parents ski, almost certainly, you will ski,” Alexander told CNN.
“If we look at minorities in America or in England, most of them are first- or second-generation immigrants, so they don’t have as much disposable income as their White counterparts,” Alexander said.
Adding that he doesn’t think” winter sports are racist at all,” Alexander says diversity will continue to grow in winter sports.
“I just think that as more and more minorities get equal treatment, get equal pay, and as more and more minorities spread out from urban centers by virtue of technology … then I believe the tide will turn.”
In a statement sent to CNN, the IOC said it “fully supports diversity and inclusion in the Olympic Games, as well as clear and fair qualification systems that apply equally to all athletes wishing to qualify for the Olympic Games.”
“We have to strike a balance between attracting the best athletes in the world and universality,” it added.
“Some sports in all reality are more accessible,” James Macleod, IOC Director of Olympic Solidarity and National Olympic Committees Relations told CNN Sport, referencing running the 100 meters.
“But you can’t sail a sailing boat tomorrow, unless you’ve got access to one, or ride a horse or ski down a mountain. And there’s factors in that that are socio-economic, that are political, that are climate driven,” he said.
“And that’s not something that us at the IOC are going to change.
“All sports have different levels of access,” Macleod said, adding that this is something the international federations of each sport “tries to look at.”
The IOC said that qualification systems are developed and put in place by international federations “to ensure a fair and credible process for athletes to qualify for the Olympic Games according to their sports’ structures and priorities.”
“Collectively, the qualification systems allow diversity at the Olympic Winter Games, however, this is not necessarily reflected at each discipline level in every sport,” it added.
Winter sports infrastructure is well established in some parts of Asia – notably in Japan, South Korea and China. But it remains an “unexplored market” in India, Keshavan said.
“For India, a country that has a lot more natural resources for winter sports, compared to China, or Japan or Korea because of the Himalayan Mountain range, it is a big opportunity.
“We don’t really have the kind of infrastructure: ski resorts, big sports facilities,” he said.
This year, a single athlete, Mohammad Arif Khan, represented India’s nearly 1.4 billion people, having qualified in the slalom and giant slalom events.
Khan finished 45th in the giant slalom. India has never won a medal at the Winter Games and does not have a prominent winter sports federation, Keshavan told CNN Sport.
Shiva Keshavan of India reacts following run 3 during the Luge Men’s Singles on day two of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games.
Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
“Of course, it is more difficult for athletes from these countries to train at an elite level because you need access to a certain standard of ice quality which is maintained. You need to have modified slopes, you need to have certain equipment,” he said.
“Skiers from India and Pakistan, even all over Southeast Asia, Oceania, have to travel and go to Europe for training,” he added.
Athletes and politicians alike are hopeful that South Asia will become a winter sports destination: Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan recently expressed optimism that the northern city of Skardu would turn into a world winter sports destination in years to come.
Frimpong, the Olympian from Ghana, told CNN that people don’t necessarily see the lack of diversity in winter sports as illogical because many countries get little to no snow.
“But that doesn’t matter,” he explained. For six months of the year, skeleton athletes can train in pushing the sled, he said.
“You can do most of that in your own country in Africa. We do track and field training, we do weightlifting, I’ll be able to test for three, four months at a time in areas where there are tracks. It’s not like it’s impossible,” he said.
“Infrastructure is not something that the IOC invests in,” Macleod told CNN adding: “That’s within the remit of the national government.”
“Often, when we have this discussion about African participation and in winter sports, the reality is that within African countries, there is not the infrastructure,” Macleod said.
“We as the IOC are not going to start building ice rinks across Africa – that is not something that is in our mission. That has to come through the national governments, but the programs that we offer are grassroots and talent identification programs,” he added.
“Each of the 206 National Olympic Committees in the world has different priorities. When a NOC looks at our programs or looks at their own development opportunities, they will say, ‘Actually, we’re not going to invest in winter sports because that’s not a priority for us.’
“‘We’re going to invest in athletics, rowing or whatever.’ And they will always have to make that choice of where they’re going to put their funding and what programs from our side they’re going to apply for,” he said.
“We put at the disposal of our stakeholders – whether it’s NOCs or the IFs (international federations) – a range of opportunities, but we are not going to go into a country and say this has got to be your priority. They are going to decide on their own priorities,” he said.
Carter-Francique told CNN that while the Olympics is billed as an opportunity for all to participate, this is not reflected in delegations’ final offerings.
“For many, the key to involvement in a particular sport is seeing yourself,” she added.
In winter sports especially, there are a lack of development programs to encourage underserved communities to participate, said Carter-Francique.
“If you don’t see yourself as a representative in that space, the likelihood that you would push to try to enter a space and be the first or be the only is one that not many people would do,” she added.
Some sports, like soccer, basketball, and even tennis, are more accessible because training facilities and equipment can be cheaper, Carter-Francique said.
“But the opportunity to access a ski resort, a figure skating rink, a bobsled facility – and have the bobsled – is very limited in general,” she added.
Ahmed also points to an absence of Muslim representation in the Winter Olympics, which is contrary to the Summer Games.
“We see a general trend in … Summer Games – you’ve got Central Asian athletes doing a lot of weightlifting. You’ve got Middle Eastern women doing judo, judokas, or karate, artists and athletes,” Ahmed added.
Ditching continental quotas a step backwards for inclusion
Frimpong and Nigeria’s Simidele Adeagbo became the first African skeleton racers to compete at PyeongChang 2018 following the introduction of the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation’s (IBSF) continental quota system.
But the IBSF and the IOC opted to revoke the continental quota for the Beijing Games – something coaches had warned would deliver a “crushing blow” to African athletes hoping to participate in winter sports.
Coaches Brian McDonald and Zach Lund warned the IOC in a December 30, 2021 email seen by CNN that “inequitable quotas that didn’t take into account the massive hurdles African athletes must clear in order to train and aspire to be Winter Olympians.
“The dream of so many Africans to watch and be inspired by fellow Africans competing in the Winter Olympic Games will bear long-lasting fruit for Olympic sport,” they wrote.
Akwasi Frimpong of Ghana starts his men’s skeleton training session at the Olympic Sliding Centre, during the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games on February 12, 2018.
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
Simidele Adeagbo of Nigeria reacts as she finishes a run during the Women’s Skeleton on day eight of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games on February 17, 2018.
Clive Mason/Getty Images
“An exclusion will be a crushing blow to African athletes who worked so hard and who dared to dream what once seemed impossible,” they added in the email.
The quota for sliding sports was removed ahead of Beijing – a decision which directly affected Frimpong.
“Giving an athlete a quota place, which is not according to the qualification criteria, would consequently imply the exclusion of another athlete qualified in the current qualification system,” an IOC representative told Frimpong’s coaches in a January 12 email seen by CNN.
“I qualified as Ghana’s first skeleton Olympian, and the first Black male skeleton athlete ever in history at the Olympic Games, both in the world as well as for Africa,” Frimpong told CNN.
Frimpong was 99th in world rankings ahead of PyeongChang and qualified through the quota system.
“Now, I am 36 points higher than I was, which means I am 63 on the world ranking. I needed to be in the top 60 which is the prerequisite to qualify for this Olympic Games – to be able to qualify outright,” he told CNN.
On December 29, hoping to compete in three final races and obtain enough points to make the top 60, Frimpong tested positive for Covid-19 and was unable to compete. He did not qualify for the Winter Olympics.
Frimpong said his pre-Covid rating meant “I could possibly almost qualify outright, meaning that I am as good – maybe not as good as the gold medalist or the top 10 Europeans or whatsoever – but I’m good enough to be in the world class sport that is dominated by Europeans, westerners.”
Frimpong said his coaches emailed the IOC asking them to reinstate a continental quota for all winter sports “for qualified African athletes who can safely compete.”
“We’re not asking them to take away a spot from any other nations, we’re not asking them to give us a free way, or a free card.
“But if there are African athletes in winter sports that are close to qualifying, which means they are competitive and qualified and can safely compete, that quota should be in place until there’s enough African athletes,” he added.
In a statement sent to CNN, the IBSF confirmed that the continental quota spot was not included in the Olympic Qualification System for Beijing 2022.
“To address Emerging Nations and their needs, the IBSF established a wider Development Program which focused as mentioned on Emerging Nations but equally on gender equity in supporting athletes on their qualification pathway to the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022,” the organization said in a statement.
No athlete representing an African NOC has ever won a medal.
“We were looking forward to seeing more and more Africans compete in 2022. And now it’s less than half, or at least half of what it was in 2018, so it’s disappointing. The message is clear that inclusiveness is not a priority,” Frimpong added.
But there is hope – even if only for a select few athletes.
American bobsledder Meyers Taylor’s bronze in the two-woman bobsled on Saturday gave the 37-year-old her fifth Olympic medal as she surpassed Davis’ four. Meyers Taylor is now the most decorated woman Olympic bobsledder ever.
When asked about passing Davis’ record saying, she said: “That is overwhelming. It’s so crazy to hear that stat and to know that I’m part of a legacy that’s bigger than me. Hopefully, it just encourages more and more Black athletes to come out to winter sports and not just Black athletes, winter sports for everybody.
“We want everybody to come out regardless of the color of your skin. We want winter sports to be for everybody, regardless of race, regardless of socio-economic class. I think the more diversity we have, the stronger our sport can be.
“So, hopefully, this is just the start of more and more people coming out and trying winter sports.”
UPDATE: This story has been updated to reflect the IOC’s most recent individual Olympic Solidarity scholarship data.
CNN’s Homero De La Fuente contributed reporting.