By Renata Simril
The first time I saw snow, I was 18 years old and in the U.S. Army in the German Alps learning to ski. That’s because I’m a third-generation Angeleno, living in a city where snow has not fallen in more than half a century. So as the 2018 Winter Games in wintery PyeongChang, South Korea begin, nearly 6,000 miles away from the LA84 Foundation campus in Los Angeles, why do they have monumental impact on the countless young athletes in the city I and millions more call home?
The Olympic Games are something so powerful and so exciting; it gathers the collective attention of the entire world. It takes a lot of time, money and preparation, but to thousands of Olympic and Paralympic athletes joining together for two weeks of competition it all becomes worth it as soon as the Opening Ceremonies begin.
Sport, in its purest form, is one of the most extraordinary of human activities. Sport imposes rules that point to a fair contest, equal opportunities for all, entertainment and enjoyment, and an opportunity to stretch physical and mental limits. The concept of athletics and physical recreation serving as a platform for shared multi-cultural experiences and core values is a promise of the Olympic Games. However, this commitment doesn’t always extend equally.
Hiding in plain sight, Play Equity, or the absence of, is a national crisis.
I find that many people, who don’t have young kids and do not live in underserved communities, aren’t aware that the opportunity to play or join a team isn’t a natural extension of everyone’s childhood. Economic disparities, geographic limitations, and gender gaps as well as a lack of access to quality coaching, are but a few key barriers that have contributed to a ‘haves and have-nots’ spectacle in the world of youth sports.
For millions of young people who will watch the 2018 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games with awe and amazement, the dreams of their opportunity to compete on a global stage or even in their own community will remain out of reach unless we all join together to close the Play Equity gap.
Play Equity is about ensuring all youth have a chance to participate in recreational or competitive sports, despite gender, ability, skill level, where they live, or how much their parents earn. As a legacy of the 1984 Olympic Games, I am proud of the LA84 Foundation’s more than 33 years of financial and educational support to thousands of organizations that have provided millions of youth with access to quality sports programming while enhancing personal development.
Even with our continued efforts to close the Play Equity gap and with the winter games on the horizon, we wonder, how do we effectively impact access to “winter sports” where it is nearly impossible to show up and play without expensive equipment, club fees, or transportation to the snow or ice rink?
One major answer lies in programs, both locally and nationwide, dedicated to providing youth exposure to winter sports for free or at a fraction of what they would cost otherwise. A shining example is the YMCA of Greater Long Beach’s Youth Institute Exploring Sports program, which gives over 400 urban-area teens the chance to take up snowboarding and skiing. Another is STOKED, co-founded by inspirational action sports advocates Sal Masekela and Steve Larosiliere, which provides mentorship opportunities that often culminate with free-of-cost introductions to snowboarding and other winter activities.
Growing up as the daughter of a grocery store clerk and a butcher, top-notch ski outfits and trips to Mammoth Mountain were as foreign to me as a trip to Mars. A cost index found the cheapest cost for a four-day ski vacation for a family of 4 was still north of $2,500. That’s over 10 percent of the federal poverty level for that same family of 4. Thank goodness for my ‘Uncle Sam’ who provided me with an opportunity to enjoy the slopes.
We need more organizations like the YMCAGLB, STOKED, and other LA84 grantees like Outdoor Outreach in San Diego and Youth Mentoring Connection.
These groups not only make access to winter sports easier; they make it possible and help to close the Play Equity gap in winter sports, one ski trip, rink fee or snowboarding lesson at a time.
While a challenge for many to attain, the Olympic and Paralympic Games themselves are often aspirational and help to facilitate narrowing of the Play Equity gap by instilling a mindset of empowerment among the millions of youth watching the games in earnest back home. For example, the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi was the first in history to have an equal number of women’s and men’s events, while the 40.3 percent rate of women participants was nearly double the clip (21.2%) just 26 years before.
Considering that 1 in 4 girls do not play a sport, this progress is crucial. People of color are still underrepresented in the Winter Games, but American athletes like Apolo Ohno, Vonetta Flowers, and Southern California’s own Derek Parra are paving a path fueled by the mantra of “if you see it, you can be it.”
The LA84 Foundation supports sports biodiversity as another means to close the Play Equity Gap. Not all youth are attracted to ‘mainstream’ sports. We’ve learned that more sports options equal more opportunities and therefore greater participation. The Winter Games’ action sports focus appeals to athletes less enticed by traditional team sports. These sports include snowboard (with 5 Olympic events) and freestyle skiing (5 events), both of which are major sports in the Winter X Games. These two mountain-based sports can have a widely different subculture than traditional competition sports, helping them appeal to an even broader audience; one that crosses over into skateboarding, surfing and other ‘nontraditional sports’ prominent in the X Games universe.
USC Annenberg Professor of Skateboarding Business, Media and Culture, and LA84 Foundation Action Sports Fellow, Neftalie Williams said it well: “It’s very easy to disenfranchise our youth by putting sport in a box. You play soccer, you play football, you play basketball. It’s up to us as adults to recognize the special things going on with our kids when they’re participating in things.” A simple step, introducing youth to the variety of sports, can increase the potential for them to discover their passion.
For the thousands of Olympians and Paralympians who will be marching into the Opening Ceremonies, every journey is different. But further closing the Play Equity gap will help ensure a young athletes’ potential is not squashed by limited opportunities.
In the end, it doesn’t matter if a city kid is inspired by the 2018 Winter Games and finds that snowboarding is her or his life’s passion, or if the sport becomes merely a fun one-day activity. Play Equity is about ensuring all youth get the chance to decide.
Renata Simril is President and CEO of the LA84 Foundation. Connect with her on Twitter @RenataAngeleno.