Do the white thing

Black skiers are joining forces - in the USA and now over here. Emma Cook reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
WHILE snowboarding is eternally yoofish, hip and trendy, skiing will always seems like the older, stuffier relative. Tara Palmer-Tomkinson is about as streetwise as you get on the piste these days. This somewhat elitists image is being challenged, however, by the National Brotherhood of Skiers (NBS), an African-American club with over 14,000 members who plan to start up a chapter over here.

Last year, more than 2,500 black skiers descended on Innsbruck, Austria, for an annual skiing convention. This week they're repeating the event in Vail, Colorado where some 5,000 members are expected to attend. A million miles from the fogeyish world of Klosters, activities here will include ski clinics, youth and adult races, picnics, celebrity entertainment, theme parties and even a "gospel fest".

Glitz aside, the main aim of the NBS is to get an African-American skier into the US Olympic team. Stephen Thompson, public relations spokesman, says, "It is an area of culture that we haven't had the same chances in for economic reasons. But now there's more awareness about African-American skiing. We have a programme in place to educate and develop young skiers and eventually get one in the team. So far the club has funded 18 scholarships to train young skiers.

Linda Henry, 35, a sales executive from Manchester, joined them last year and is now in Colorado. "I've been skiing since 1989, always with a group of black people. The idea of doing something like this seemed so different - to see so many black people skiing together is unbelievable. There was a real sense of belonging and a feeling that people were bringing their own culture to the slopes." Many of the members are also high-earning professionals who see the club as an opportunity to "network". Sherene Lee, 37 and a journalist from London, recalls, "It was like being in a different world - many of them were very well to do, there were a lot of business cards being exchanged. And they also party till they drop."

Brenda Emmanus, 37 and a television presenter from London, also met the NBS last year. "They are wealthy - skiing isn't a cheap sport. The reason black people haven't skiied is economic - they haven't had the money before," she says. "It's also still a mindset that you're not used to seeing them. I think a lot don't go because they can feel isolated and alienated. The club is trying to break down barriers and make it obvious that skiing is accessible to us." This is partly due to the popularity of snowboarding, which has increased a general interest in snow sports and opened up the area to a whole new market. Gill Williams, editor of Ski Survey magazine, explains, "There are more black skiers on the slopes in Europe compared to 10 years ago. It's become cheaper and is certainly no longer an upper- middle class, Anglo-Saxon sport." It's also a generational trend, Williams explains. "It's got to do with second and third generation black Britons growing up with skiing and getting lessons at school."

But Wayne Cupid, a skiing instructor in his 30s, argues that the few black people he knows who ski discovered the sport by accident. "Everyone I know started out in funny circumstances. I was painting the surface of a dry ski slope and I thought, 'I'll try this out'. That was it - I loved it and carried on." He has never encountered any racism on the piste and, like the NBS, doesn't believe skin colour should be the major issue; enjoying skiing is. "It's never really affected me and I've been working in the industry since 1980. If anything, there's been benefits. I got my job and moved up through the industry very quickly; there are only about six black ski instructors around and so we're all high profile." Yet Lucy Thomas, a solicitor from London tells a different story. "Certain resorts are certainly more racist than others. My husband is West Indian and he's felt extremely uncomfortable when we went to Austria. They really stare - literally, their mouths drop open. Anywhere near the German border can be quite dodgy but if you go to Italy it's a different ball game."

With the NBS investing time and money into a younger generation of black skiers, no doubt these sort of reactions will die out. At the moment, the club are pinning their hopes on 14-year-old Tommy Jackson from Chicago, now at the Skihauptschule Neustift, an elite ski academy in Austria that has trained several world ski champions. "I just think of myself as a skier", he says. "They don't have races for just black people, Japanese or Asian people. When it comes to skiing, everybody's the same and you just have to do the best you can."