If you’re paying attention to the Winter Olympics beyond attending themed parties in American flag gear, then you may have noticed some unlikely participants in this year’s games. In Pyeongchang, Jamaicans Carrie Russell, Jazmine Fenlator-Victorian and Audra Segree will take to the slopes to compete in the women’s bobsled event. Hailing from the tropical island of Jamaica, these athletes’ male counterparts once inspired the film “Cool Runnings” by competing in Calgary at the 1988 Winter Olympics. They didn’t win any medals, but—in true Disney fashion—they certainly won a lot of hearts. 

My eight-year-old self was one of those people who was completely captivated by these romanticized underdogs with their elegant accents and colorful wardrobes. On snow days in elementary school, you’d find my friends and I shouting, “Feel the rhythm! Feel the rhyme! Get on up, it’s bobsled time!” before propelling ourselves down our favorite sledding hill. Today, however, I can’t help but think that I may have missed the real storyline of Jamaica’s bobsled team, which was one of overcoming economic adversity and daring to challenge an institution of Western elitism.

“Cool Runnings” is comedic gold not only because of genius catchphrases like “Sanka, you dead?” but also because the mere idea of Jamaicans participating in a winter sport is, in and of itself, laughable. It’s laughable that they come from a warm island nation, yes, but we shouldn’t forget that some of our incredulity stems from the fact that winter athletes don’t usually look like Jamaicans. This year, we see Olympic skiers from the likes of Kenya, Brazil and Tonga, as well as Nigerian women becoming Africa’s first-ever Olympic bobsled team; however, the Winter Olympics have been historically and unquestionably dominated by the affluent white nations of Europe and North America. 

The medal leaderboard reads like a list of Trump’s ideal immigrants, with Norway at the top and delicately-dubbed “shithole countries” from the Central and South America, Africa and most of Asia notably absent. The competitors at the Winter Olympics are typically as white as the snow they sled on, and anyone who looks different naturally sticks out like Yul Brenner at Buckingham Palace. As Kenya’s nineteen-year-old alpine skier Sabrina Simader put it, “A black skier always gets looked at.” It is easy to dismiss this trend as a consequence of the elements, for European and North American nations tend to be colder, receive more snow and therefore excel at winter sports. While these are no doubt significant factors, a closer look at the circumstances of Olympic success makes it clear that these are by no means the only ones.

A crucial detail often forgotten about the Disney film is that the Jamaican team’s hopes were ultimately dashed when its sled, rickety “Cool Runnings,” came apart and crashed. The men scraped together just enough money to get to Calgary in the first place, a narrative that remains true for today’s Olympic competitors. Because of scant funding, the women of Jamaica’s 2018 bobsled team and their sled, “Cool Bolt,” almost couldn’t afford to compete at the Olympics. According to the CIA World Factbook, Jamaica’s per capita GDP is $9200, which is below the world average and more than seven times smaller than Norway’s per capita GDP of $70,600. So perhaps Olympic success is not merely a story of climate but also one of national wealth and economic development. After all, the preparation needed to become an Olympic athlete is expensive, especially for winter sports. Events like ice hockey and luge require expensive equipment and specific locations that create high barriers to entry and prevent many from competing. Considering that the average per capita GDP of Europe is a whopping 14 times greater than that of the African continent, perhaps it is unsurprising that this is the first year an African team has qualified for the bobsled event, even barring climate. Meanwhile, Australia—a land that boasts a beach lifestyle and a per capita GDP of $49,900—has appeared in nearly every Winter Olympics since 1988. Are we sensing a pattern here? 

On the other hand, sports with lower barriers to entry provide a more equal playing field for competition. Running, for example, requires little except shoes and determination. Many of the best runners in the world come from countries that are written off in winter events, like Ethiopia (with a $2100 GDP per capita) and Kenya (with a $3500 GDP per capita). Jamaica has earned all but one of its 77 medals in track and field events, with 74 of those won in sprinting events. 

This story about money and access to sports is not limited to the international stage, for we can see it playing out within the borders of our own country. American youth participation in sports is similarly stratified by income, with more exclusive and expensive sports like lacrosse and hockey reserved for the elites. In the U.S., participation in lacrosse costs families seven times more per year than it does to play basketball and three times more than to play football. As a result, families earning $100k or more annually make up over half of youth lacrosse participants whereas households earning $25k or less represent just four percent, according to the Aspen Institute. In contrast, households earning $25k or less comprise as much as 16 percent of youth participation in both football and basketball, and the top-earning households comprise under 30 percent of youth participation in both sports.

Considering the economic impact of racism in the United States, it is unsurprising that elite recreational activities such as lacrosse and ice hockey have consequently come to be known as “white” sports, while less costly sports like football and basketball are stereotypically favored by non-whites. These standards were present in my own upbringing; I grew up in suburban Massachusetts with immigrant parents who quickly dismissed investing in winter recreation. Instead, they enrolled me in practical sports such as track and soccer. Consequently, when I moved to Switzerland in high school, I still had no idea how to ski. I marveled at my classmates’ world of chalets and après-ski on the slopes of Klosters and St. Moritz—a feeling probably not unlike what Jamaican athletes experienced in Calgary. 

The high barriers to entry, especially among winter sports, have turned them into recreational activities for the Western elite and hindered access for disadvantaged populations. In the U.S., activities requiring expensive equipment and exclusive playing grounds demonstrate much lesser participation of low-income families than sports with low barriers to entry. Across the board, high-income families still play more of all sports, and an activity gap is forming between the haves and the have-nots as the costs of youth sports continue to rise. It is worth noting that young women’s athletic opportunities also remain remarkably limited compared to men’s opportunities, even after the passing of Title IX. These growing obstacles are even more concerning in light of research linking youth sports and upward mobility, suggesting that disparities in sport participation may be perpetuating harmful economic inequality. The Winter Olympics are simply a large-scale manifestation of this issue. Contrary to the idea of sports as a great equalizer, the winter games play out mostly as a glorified pony show for wealthy countries and the wealthiest citizens within them. In 2018, Team USA is still 92 percent white and 56 percent male.

It is important for us to become cognizant of the dynamics of power and privilege that can dictate achievement in this country and the world around us. After all, many of us here at Duke have had the opportunities to take tennis lessons, play baseball or serve as soccer team captains; these acts have not only appeared on our resumes, but also taught us valuable lessons along the way. I understand that I have been conferred certain advantages, and that these advantages have helped me as I have worked to get to where I am today. 

We must remember that this year’s Olympics are not simply a fun, live-action re-enactment of my favorite childhood movie. Athletes like those on Jamaica’s bobsled team are making a statement about diversity and opportunity, as well as challenging the status quo, simply by competing on this stage from which they are usually excluded. As “Jamerican” bobsledder Jazmine Fenlator-Victorian said, “It’s important for me that little girls and little boys see someone who looks like them…included in different things in this world. When you grow up and you don’t see that, you feel that you can’t do it. And that is not right.” 

Thirty years after “Cool Runnings” competed in Calgary, I will tune in on February 20th to watch the Jamaican women’s bobsled team carve its own path through the cold, white snow.

Tara Pal is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays.