The 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro came to a close last night, leaving in its wake several newly minted national heroes. Gymnastics silver medalist Laurie Hernandez, for example, dazzled press and fans alike with her floor work, talent, and personality; Carmelo Anthony became the first male basketball player to win ever win three gold medals; and swimmer Maya DiRado took home four medals –two gold, one silver, and one bronze. These athletic achievements are noteworthy in their own right, but they stand out even more for their rarity – the fact is, there just aren’t many Latinos repping Team USA at the Olympic Games, the world’s most prominent international sporting event.
Fox News Latino reports that the number of US Latino Olympians hasn’t increased since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, even though the overall Latino population has continued to grow. The US Olympic delegation was 4 percent Latino at the Beijing Games, while 15 percent of the US population was Latino at that time. In 2016, Latinos make up more than 17 percent of the nation’s total population, but only represented about 3 percent of the USA squad.
So why aren’t there more Latino athletes making it to the Olympics? For one, finances are a significant barrier to entry, making it difficult for many Latinos to participate in, and excel at, Olympic sports. According to Texas Tech University Professor Jorge Iber, “A lot of these sports require highly specialized training and for a lot of Latino families that is just not affordable…You have a lot of families who can’t even afford for their sons and daughters to play high school sports.”
Familiarity is also an obstacle. Sports popular with Latinos, such as soccer, are commonly viewed as a means of upward mobility in low-income communities – but this is not so with lesser known sports in the community, like gymnastics or swimming, which means families may be less likely to invest in them.
But as the huge outpouring of pride and support for athletes like Laurie Hernandez, the fourth Latina to ever represent Team USA in gymnastics, demonstrates, our community is hungry for representation and positive role models. When a Latino athlete becomes an American Olympic hero, people are recognizing a shared American identity that supersedes cultural differences. And for US Latino athletes that come from immigrant families, being able to achieve that level of success is a powerful realization of the American Dream. Providing opportunities for younger generations is especially important because Latinos are the youngest ethnic group in the United States, with 32.5 million aged 33 and under, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.
To increase the number of U.S. Latino athletes and Olympians, outreach programs could help Latino communities participate in more sports, according to Fox News Latino. At the same time, more information is needed about how outreach programs work.
What is clear is that as the Latino community grows and their influence gets bigger in different areas of US society, it’s important that sports not to get left behind. The Olympics are the stage where athletes become legends and look like superhumans, and the growing US Latino community needs its sports super heroes too.