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Soul on Ice

Cynthia E. Griffin- | 1/27/2010, 8 p.m.

On February 12 when the Olympic athletes march into Vancouver's BC Place proudly displaying their country's colors, there probably will not be many of Black folks in the viewing audience.
That absence just might be a mistake, because during the 2010 Olympics in Canada, athletes of African descent will represent at least 10 countries from around the globe.
And like figure skater Debi Thomas in 1998, bobsledder Vonetta Flowers in 2002 and speed skater Shani Davis in 2006, these winter wonders could very well make history by capturing medals in their respective sports, when the competitions begins.
While it might be somewhat startling to see Blacks participating in what many folks consider "White" sports, we are not new to the scene, and nor are Blacks limited to competing as athletes. There are a number of individuals who are working behind the scenes to help make the Vancouver Olympics a success.
Black involvement in Olympic winter sports has a historic component to it, that in one sense can be traced back to New York-raised Mabel Fairbanks.
Born in Florida in 1916 and sent to New York to live with a brother, Fairbanks then ended up homeless and working as a baby sitter. In the process, she was able to watch skaters in a local park and saw a Sonja Henie figure skating movie, which inspired her to try out the sport as a young woman.
Wearing a pair of black skates she bought for $1.50 at a local pawn shop that were stuffed with cotton to make them fit, Fairbanks began a love affair with the sport of figure skating that would last until she died at age 85 in Los Angeles.
Initially self-taught, Fairbanks spent hours skating on a Harlem pond before taking advice to go to an ice rink in Central Park. At the time, prejudice kept her out of the indoor rinks, but the determined young woman kept going back until the owner allowed her to come in and practice, when the facility was closed.
It was during those closed sessions that figure skating champion and coach Maribel Vinson Owen began offering Fairbanks free lessons.
Howard Nicholson, another well-known coach of the era, also contributed to Fairbanks' development. She also benefited from watching and listening while the White children received formal instruction, then copied and practiced their moves.
Again, racism put up a wall that kept Fairbanks from joining a figure skating club and skating competitively but she was able to pass the on-ice tests that the athletes were required to master in order to compete.
Barred from competition and achieving her dream of competing in the Olympics, Fairbanks decided to skate in professional ice shows. She arrived in Los Angeles in the 1940s and performed at nightclubs like Ciros. This Sunset Boulevard nightspot, now the Comedy Store, played host to such talents that would go on to stardom as Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.
At that time, it also sometimes played host to ice shows.
But again, racism intervened and prevented Fairbanks from being part of the show. Instead, she was billed as an "extra added attraction."
Despite obstacles, persistence paid off, and Fairbanks was invited to skate on the road with the Rhapsody On Ice Show, which was owned by the father of television's boy wonder, Burt Ward, AKA Robin of the Batman and Robin crime-fighting duo.
Back in Los Angeles, Fairbanks began coaching and inspiring young people of all races, but particularly African Americans to reach for the goal she was denied--an opportunity to compete for Olympic gold.
Among the skaters she coached during her career were Tiffany Chin, Billy Chapel, Scott Hamilton, Kristi Yamaguchi and Rudy Galindo.
But she is perhaps best known for her vision to pair eight-year-old Tai Babilonia with 10-year-old Randy Gardner.
The two would go on to win world and national championships for a number of years, and were set to attempt the same thing during the 1980 Olympics. But they had to withdraw because Gardner pulled a groin muscle just before competition.
In addition to Babilonia, Fairbanks coached a number of other African American figure skaters who would go on to make their mark in this sport.
They included Leslie Robinson, who became the first African American hired as a principal skater with the Ice Follies in Las Vegas; Atoy Wilson, the first African American principal skater with a major ice show (Holiday on Ice) as well as the first to win a national title in the sport (Novice men's in 1966); and Richard Ewell, the first African American to win a national title in both pair skating and single skating. He also became the first Black person accepted into a figure skating club in 1965.
He won his national pairs title in 1972 with Michelle McCladdie, another African American woman (who was very fair). Fairbanks teamed the two up. The couple had been denied an opportunity to compete in 1970, because according to their coach Doryann Swett: The skating world was not ready for an interracial team to appear at nationals.
Fairbanks' unceasing efforts on behalf of African American skaters to get them into skating clubs, membership in the U.S. Professional Skating Association and into professional shows, earned her a spot the United States Figure Skating Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs in 1997.
Information about her legendary career is also included in the U.S. Figure Skating Museum in Colorado Springs.
Among the other skaters who have benefited from Fairbanks' determination to integrate skating was Bobby Beauchamp, the first African American to win a world figure skating medal. He did it in 1979 by winning a silver medal at the Junior World Figure Skating Championships.
In 1986, Rory Flack Burghart won a bronze medal in the Junior Ladies event at the U.S. National Figure Skating Championships, and then followed in 1995 as the U.S. Open Champion and in 2000 as the American Open Pro Champion.
The same year Burghart was making a mark in the Junior Ladies division, an 18-year-old Poughkeepsie, NY, figure skater was wowing audiences with the power of her skating in the Senior Ladies event. That year, New Yorker Debi Thomas won the United State National Championship, then went onto the Calgary Olympics where she battled rival Katarina Witt for the gold. Thomas ultimately finished with a bronze, but still became the first African American to win a medal in Olympic figure skating.
Tiffani Tucker and Franklyn Singley are considered the first African American ice dance team in the nation, and were the first Blacks to win a medal at the United States National Figure Skating Championships in 1993.
America is not the only country to produce Black figure skaters.
In the 1998 Olympics, the world watched French and European figure skating champion Surya Bonaly power her way a through a performance that included her trademark back flip. At the time, she was known for being one of the only skaters to land that flip on one foot on the ice.
The move, which was illegal in competition, led to Bonaly's disqualification. But prior to that, she had won the French National Figure Skating title nine times and the European title five times. She placed fourth in the 1994 Olympics and fifth in the 1992 games.
Today the French, once again will send Black figure skaters to represent the country in the Olympics. This time it is a pairs team--Vanessa James and Yannick Bonheur, who are the 2010 French National Champions.
James, who originally competed domestically in the United States and internationally for Great Britain (because of her father's Bermuda citizenship) as a single skater, teamed up with Yannick in 2007.
At 28, Bonheur has been skating for more than two decades, and claimed 14th place at a 2006 Olympic showing with Marylin Pla.
Germany's Robin Szolkowy, son of a German nurse and Tanzanian doctor, has been skating since age four. He skates with Ukrainian Aliona Savchenko and the two won European titles in 2007, 2008 and 2009. Their previous Olympic showing in 2006 was marred by the political turmoil surrounding their coach Ingo Steur, and consequently did not place.
While figure skating is perhaps one of the more "glamorous" Olympic winter sports where Black athletes shine, it is not the only where they are competing.
There are several players on hockey teams including NHL stand-out Jarome Iginla who will represent Canada and John Oduya of the New Jersey Devils, who will compete on the Swedish hockey squad.
Nkeiruka Ezekh, born in Moscow to a Nigerian father and Russian mother, is competing in her second Olympics. In 2006, she was on the Russian's curling team.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating Olympic stories is the involvement in the bob sleigh event.
In 1988, one of the most unlikely scenarios ever imagined occurred during this Olympic competition--the Caribbean nation of Jamaica, to which snow is virtually unheard of--fielded a bobsled team.
The novelty of the four-person team, who lost control of the sled, crashed and ended up walking to the finish line, inspired a movie about their efforts called "Cool Runnings."
The team has since appeared in the 1992 games, and again in 1994, where they stunned many by finishing in 14th place ahead of the United States, Russia, France and Italy. In 2000, they won the gold medal at the World Push Bobsled Championships.
However, despite their attempts, the country did not qualify a team for the Vancouver Olympics, but will be sending skier Errol Kerr to compete in skicross.
Formerly a member of the U.S. ski team, Kerr was born to a Jamaican father and American mother and began skiing at age 4. By 11, he was participating in competitions, and so far, his best showing has been 10th place in the 2009 world championships in Japan.
Since the Jamaican bobsled team burst onto the world stage, Blacks have begun to compete in increasing numbers in the sport, and many, like Vonetta Flowers, come from the world of track.
Flowers, an Alabama native, began running track at age nine but missed qualifying for the 1996 and 2000 U.S. Olympic trials. That same year found her accompanying her husband Johnny to a try-out for the U.S. bobsled team. After he pulled a hamstring muscle, she agreed to step in for him, and two years later found herself on the Olympic podium wearing a gold medal.
She had finished first in the inaugural two-woman bobsled event with partner Jill Bakken. That win was the first medal for a U.S. bobsled team in 46 years. It also made Flowers the first African-American to win a gold medal in a winter Olympics.
Many other Blacks, particularly former track athletes, have gravitated toward bobsled, but none of the Americans have made the team for 2010.
However, in the Netherlands, Dutch sprinter Timothy Beck will once again compete in the four-man bob sleigh. He first competed in the event during the same Olympics in which Flowers won her gold medal.
The American speed skating community is pinning part of its Olympic goals on Chicago-born Shani Davis, who made world headlines in 2006 by taking first place in the 2006 Olympics in the 1,000 meter individual and silver in the 1,500 meter. That feat made him the first Black athlete to win a winter games Olympic gold medal in an individual event.
In Vancouver, Davis has qualified to skate in five different races.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing stories to come out of the Vancouver Olympics for people of African descent is the participation of Ghanian athlete Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong in Alpine skiing. Called "The Snow Leopard," Acheampong will be the first Ghanian to ever compete in an Olympics.
A job as a receptionist at the Xscape skiing centre in England spurred his interest in skiing, and in 2006, Acheampong's attempt to qualify for the Olympics in Turin, Italy was dashed by ice that grounded his flight to Italy in the Netherlands.
Athletes are not the only Blacks involved in the Vancouver Olympics.
According to Charmaine Crooks and Suzanne Duncan, there are about 20 people of African descent involved in various aspects of producing the Vancouver Olympic Games.
Crooks, herself a former sprinter, five-time Olympian and Olympic silver medalist, has been part of the team that helped win the winter bid since 1998.
She was also among the first group of athletes elected to the International Olympics Committee (IOC) in 1996.
"I've always volunteered with the athlete's association," said Crooks of her behind-the-scenes Olympic involvement, which actually began in 1996, while she was still competing. ". . . I enjoy advocating and representing the rights of the athletes and helping develop the policies. It's something I've always done since high school. And to be involved at an international level, I'm just honored," said Crooks, who in one of her roles represents the 100,000 known living Olympic athletes.
At the Vancouver games, which are her 11th Olympics, she will work with the IOC press commission and help members of the media navigate the games.
Duncan too is an Olympic veteran, but unlike Crooks, she has always been involved from a logistical standpoint.
Her first involvement in the Olympic movement began 1993 in Atlanta and it was just something she fell into.
"I actually wanted to be a diplomat. I wanted to experience connections to the international (arena,)" explained Duncan who is now working her seventh Olympic games. "I got a phone call from a friend, after I had just come back from Paris who said 'what are you doing?' I said trying to figure out my next move."
Her friend happened to be a hiring manager with the Atlantic Organizing Committee, and suggested Duncan come apply for a job.
"It was so elite in Atlanta. I remember going to eight interviews in one day," said Duncan, who was wooed by the energy she experienced in Atlanta.
Today Duncan has switched roles, and now instead of working directly for an Olympic organization, she works for a hospitality and sports marketing firms, which assists companies like Bell Canada with their Olympic-related activities.