Native Athletes Underrepresented In Olympic Games

Published: Thursday, July 14, 2016 - 5:27pm
Updated: Thursday, July 14, 2016 - 5:40pm
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(Photo by Annika Cline - KJZZ)
Jayda Chee (center) goes for the ball during a game.

Whether it’s the Hopi tradition of running, or the Algonquian invention of lacrosse, sports and athletics have a long history in Native American culture. So why are there so few Native athletes in the Olympics?

We’ll start with Billy Mills, one of the best-known Native American Olympic athletes. In an incredible upset in 1964, Mills, of the Sioux tribe, grabbed the gold in the 10,000 meter run. Another name you might know is Jim Thorpe, a Sac and Fox Indian who took home the gold in the pentathlon and the decathlon in 1912.

“1912, even though that was one hundred years ago, seemed to be the high point of representation of Native athletes,” said Jim Adams, senior historian at the National Museum of the American Indian. 

That was the high point— when six Native American athletes competed.

Adams said many of these early athletes, including Thorpe and Mills, went to Indian boarding schools. White coaches at schools such as the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania had connections to the Olympic games.

“Carlisle sent about five people to the Olympics in 1908 and 1912,” Adams said. “And had the support of the training, providing transportation, all the expenses which are considerable for Olympic participation.”

After the era of boarding schools, Native communities didn’t have the same inroads to the Olympics. Adams said from the start of the Games through 2010, there have been 43 Olympic athletes who identify as Native American or Aboriginal Canadian.

Today's 'Olympics of Indian Country'

The thundering of volleyballs hitting hands was heard at the Lori Piestewa National Native-American Games last weekend. On the far court, the Tuba City Starlings were neck and neck with another team.

The tournament is an annual multi-sport event that’s been called the Olympics of Indian Country. Almost all the athletes there are Native, many from reservation towns.

“It’s just a lot of traveling for us,” said Starlings Coach April Clairmont. 

“So from Tuba City, we’re about three, four hours away from the Valley. So when we start in January, we travel twice a month down here to the Valley.”

Travel and funding for teams have been challenges since she started playing in third grade. Traveling is important because it gives the team visibility off the reservation.

“It’s really really deeply embedded into all of us the kind of awareness that we’re not represented at a level that other ethnicities are represented at mainstream sports,” said Vincent Schilling, the sports editor for Indian Country Today, a national outlet for Native American news.

His team reports on Native athletes, and he said athletes are now representing themselves through social media.

“It is critical that our young people do take advantage of things like social media to get their voices out there, because their voices are being heard,” Schilling said.

“Whenever I play on the court everything just goes away and I can feel a sense of stress relief,” said 14-year-old Jayda Chee, who plays for the Starlings.

Coach Clairmont is actually her mom.

“She was my first coach,” Jayda said of Clairmont. “She’d yell at me and then I’d cry.”

Jayda laughed as her mom interjected.

“She’s fine and mom’s very intense when it comes to volleyball, but she’s adapted and she’s doing really well,” Clairmont said.

And that’s not just a mom talking up her kid. Jayda is doing really well. This week she’s in Colorado Springs for a Team USA invitational program for volleyball. Hopefully one day, she’ll be on the Olympic team herself. 

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