Photo by Shinnosuke Ando on Unsplash

Diversity on the rise at Winter Olympics

  • February 6, 2022

Rudy Sylvan knows first-hand what it feels like to compete on the international stage.

The Toronto-based track coach rose from humble beginnings in the tiny Caribbean nation of Grenada to represent his homeland as a 400-metre specialist at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.

As a child, Sylvan remembers training on the beach, running hills and lifting rocks and blocks as weights when he was too young to go to the gym. He emigrated to Canada at age 16 in 1995 where he developed further as an athlete and just five years later at age 21, the dual Canadian citizen had achieved his goal — he had made the Olympic team.

“I pinched myself, like ‘Is this really happening?’ ” said Sylvan, remembering the moment he got the official call he was an Olympian. “I called my best friend in Grenada and told him, and he started crying. There’s nothing bigger than the Olympics. That’s why it’s not about money, it’s about country and the honour in representing that country… Opportunities always happen because the hands of the Lord are always with me. I am truly blessed.”

Competing under the Australian sun more than 20 years ago, Sylvan’s Olympic experience will differ in many ways from those hitting the ice and snow at the Winter Games in Beijing Feb. 4-20. As a track and field coach for more than 20 years, the graduate of Toronto’s Neil McNeil High School is thrilled to see more and more Black athletes competing at the Winter Olympics. With the cold weather event traditionally drawing athletes of European descent, the wave of athletes of colour in recent years is breaking stereotypes and challenging perceptions of what it looks like to be a winter athlete.

The need for intense speed at the push off of the bobsleigh has made it a natural fit for many sprinters looking for a new challenge. Fellow Scarborough sprinter Shelley-Ann Brown, Sylvan’s Team Ontario teammate at the Canada Summer Games in the late 1990s, converted to bobsleigh. The Black woman of Jamaican descent won a silver medal for Canada in the two-woman event at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

“Shelley-Ann Brown and I were co-captains of the Canada Summer Games (track) team and she’s phenomenal,” said Sylvan. “She’s the first Black athlete coming from track and field that I know to go and get a silver medal in bobsled. Then you have Phylicia George, whose parents are Grenadian, so there is a transition now where you see that happening more. People are seeing the opportunity is there and are saying, why not give it a try?”

George is the first Black woman to compete in both the Summer and Winter Olympics. She finished eighth at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in the 100-metre hurdles and two years later won bobsleigh bronze at the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

This year, bobsledder Cynthia Appiah, the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, is hoping to take the podium at the Beijing Olympics.

Jamaica, Nigeria, Cameroon, Trinidad and Tobago, Eritrea, Ghana and Haiti are among some of the tropical, predominately Black nations that will have athletes competing in events ranging from downhill skiing, to luge, to bobsleigh. Like Sylvan, many are drawing on their birth countries or parental ancestry to find opportunities to compete on the international stage.

Sylvan has coached many of these athletes, including Mikeisha Welcome, a student at the University of Oklahoma who won bronze for the island of St. Vincent at the 2019 Pan American U20 Championships. 

After earning a full scholarship to the University of Memphis, Sylvan returned to Toronto. He was an educational assistant with the Toronto Catholic District School Board, where he coached and worked with special needs students (he continues to do so privately).

Today when he thinks back on his career as an athlete and now as a coach at Phoenix Athletics, he’s grateful for those who helped him along the way, not the least of whom was his track coach at Neil McNeil, Alan Baigent. The former head of the athletics department  was not only Sylvan’s coach but in the months leading into the 2000 Olympics oversaw his training program. 

“He was a joy to coach,” said Baigent, who retired a decade ago but continues to help out at track meets in Ontario. “Rudy trained hard but when the gun went off it was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He was an unbelievable racer. There are not many guys that can step up on all accounts and he was one of them. He still officiates at our meets and is super knowledgeable. He’s just a nice guy.”

Grateful for what the sport has given to him, he’s determined to continue to give back to it in any way he can to create opportunities for athletes in Grenada and beyond.

“I’m blessed and that’s why I give back,” said Sylvan. “The key thing for me now is to uplift where I’m coming from. I want to see scholarships happen for the young people in Grenada. I just want kids to have opportunities because when Black kids, Spanish kids, Chinese kids — it doesn’t matter who they are — see someone of a different race on top of the podium, they want to be there too.”

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