On February 19, 2002, Vonetta Flowers became the first African American to win a gold medal at an Olympic Winter Games. In an Olympics that had already established speed skater Derek Parra as the first Mexican American medalist in winter history, Flowers's achievement created a Xurry of panic throughout the ranks of U.S. media (of which I was a freelance member) regarding how she should be described. All agreed that she was not the first black medalist; Debi Thomas assumed that title when she won a bronze medal in figure skating in 1988. The more difficult question was whether a black athlete had won a medal since Thomas. Everyone seemed certain that a black face had not graced a skiing or skating victory podium, but who could be absolutely sure that the fourth member of the Swiss bobsleigh team in 1994 was not black by some definition? Who could claim to know the self-identity of every single Winter Games medalist? Deeming Flowers the first African American, then, seemed the most precise route to follow, and it was the one that I—in my capacity as a broadcast research supervisor—helped NBC settle on for its coverage of the event, thinking that the word black might be too ambiguous for the television audience. I did not foresee, with this decision, that a commentator at the bobsleigh venue would then erroneously describe Flowers as the first African American from any country to win winter gold.
As Matthew Frye Jacobson eloquently points out in his own note