At age five, Gabby M.H. Yearwood had a shocking introduction to winter. In 1973, he and his family relocated from sunny Trinidad and Tobago to Toronto where winter temperatures often fall below 20 degrees Fahrenheit.
One evening when he was five, Yearwood's uncle came to pick up him and his brother after dinner. They wanted ice cream but were instead taken to an outdoor ice-skating rink and handed a pair of skates.
"He tells us ‘You're in Canada now, go figure it out,’” said Yearwood, now a socio-cultural anthropologist and senior lecturer at Pitt. "He doesn't get on the ice with us, doesn't organize lessons with a teacher. My brother and I are the only Black kids in sight, and we're inching our way around the perimeter trying to figure out how to skate." Teenagers playing a pick-up hockey game sped by.
"That was my introduction to Canada and winter sports," Yearwood said.
Nevertheless, the rink became a staple throughout his childhood, serving as both the setting for his gym class and "the spot" for weekend hangouts with friends who all played hockey. It didn't hurt that his high school, St. Michael’s College School, has also produced 184 National Hockey League players.
As he aged, his joy on the ice coincided with long stares from white hockey players eyeing his skills.
"I was the only Black kid in my grade from kindergarten through eighth grade," he said. "A couple of kids came in and out, but for the most part, I was the only one."
In part due to those childhood experiences, Yearwood now researches and teaches about sport through the lenses of race, class, gender and other power structures. His popular Anthropology of Sport course asks Pitt undergraduate students to explore the significance of athletic events, from Little League to the Olympics, to better understand our social lives.
As the 2022 Beijing Olympics come to a close Feb. 20, Yearwood has been reflecting on the meaning and future of the Games.
"It's critical to think about where the Olympics are happening this year within the context of China and its treatment of ethnic minorities,” he said. "We must also see the positivity around the games because it does create life-changing experiences. For every athlete competing this year, millions of athletes attempted to get there.”
But athletes rack up personal sacrifices for the opportunity, too.
"These athletes put themselves through debilitating training and will have physical and mental, short- and long-term health issues they'll deal with long after the games are over. Many have impoverished themselves financially to become good at these sports. The only time for many of them to make some money or be seen is during the Olympics."
And that’s not the only cost.
"There is a direct link to people's oppression, corporations and sport. On the one hand, corporations sponsor the Olympics and athletes. They talk about their support of diversity and people. But where are the products those athletes wear being made? Who are they made by, and under what conditions? Those elements are likely made by marginalized people — not just in China but globally. There is a joy in sport, but there are also deep realities where people are marginalized and disenfranchised because of global events like this."
Nonetheless, Yearwood said that sports are an arena where diversity and opportunity can shine.
"I think about hockey players like Grant Fuhr, the Black NHL player to win the Stanley Cup and be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. I think about Debbie Thomas back in the 1980s as a Black woman figure skater and the difficulty of racism they deal with moving in those spaces."
Yearwood's favorite games, perhaps unsurprisingly, are the 1976 Summer Olympics held in Montreal, which marked Trinidad and Tobago's first gold medal win by Hasely Crawford in the 100-meter dash.
"It was a good year for us," he said.
— Kara Henderson