Posted on February 14, 2022

On the Ice, a Question: Where Are the Black Figure Skaters?

Aaron Morrison, Associated Press, February 11, 2022

Before her own Olympic career began, Canadian figure skater Vanessa James had seen Black Girl Magic on the ice. It was on display at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, when French skater Surya Bonaly leapt into the air, kicked into a backflip and landed on one leg.


The Salchow, the Biellmann, the Charlotte spiral — these figure skating standards are named after white people from the 20th century. And in a century-old sport that was largely European until just a few decades ago, some wonder: How can more Black athletes make the same lasting imprint on it?


There are no Black athletes competing in figure skating for the Americans this year, though the U.S. team includes five Asian American skaters, an openly LGBTQ skater and the first gender-nonbinary skater. {snip}


James, who skates in the pairs event with teammate Eric Radford, is the only Black figure skater competing for any nation in Beijing. She carries not just the hopes of Canadian and French skaters, but also Black girls and women, boys and men across the world who strain to see themselves represented on the ice and slopes during the Winter Games.

Part of the reason, says Elladj Baldé, a Black and Russian professional figure skater from Canada, is that “Black skaters weren’t allowed to be in figure skating clubs (or) in figure skating competitions” during the sport’s early years.


For consecutive Winter Olympics, the Canadian and French Olympic teams have included Black skaters, which some say is a reflection of Bonaly’s influence. But the American team has struggled to establish a strong pipeline of Black talent.

Historians trace the problem to the stories of Black American skaters such as Joseph Vanterpool, a World War II veteran from New York City who took up professional skating after seeing an ice show in England but was rarely featured outside of all-Black showcases. Mabel Fairbanks, a pioneer whose Olympic dreams were dashed by racist exclusion from U.S. Figure Skating in the 1930s, was by far the most successful of the sport’s Black trailblazers.

Fairbanks later opened doors that were closed to her for generations, including one of her mentees, Debi Thomas. In the 1988 Calgary Games, Thomas became the first Black American to medal at the Winter Olympics. But few others have come close to appearing in Olympic competition after her.

“How did somebody like Debi Thomas have the success that she had, break down the barriers that she did, but yet didn’t that lead to further influx of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) skaters following in her footsteps?” wonders Ramsey Baker, the executive director of U.S. Figure Skating.

It’s a question the governing body had wrestled with for years, in addition to the socioeconomic barriers associated with elite competition. Then, diversity in figure skating became an even bigger focus following the 2020 murder of George Floyd by American police, amplifying the Black Lives Matter movement’s calls for racial justice and equity.

As protests over police brutality erupted across the world, the figure skating associations in Canada and the U.S. responded with pledges to answer protesters’ cries and make changes from within. However, both also have faced some criticism from Black athletes who felt the pledges were a ploy for media attention.

Last year, U.S. Figure Skating hired Kadari Taylor-Watson, a Black woman, as its first director of diversity, equity and inclusion. Her work has included its first diversity census of skaters, judges and other sport officials. Through a working group, the association plans to put tangible action behind the pledge to be even more inclusive of Black skaters.