We’re grateful to former Olympian Seba Johnson for her recent essay for Vine Sanctuary’s blog, “Dangerous Intersections at Sochi – an Olympian Speaks Out,” so we’ll pause to let everyone read that before continuing.
Ready? Okay. You should know that Seba, a vegan since birth, was only 14 when she competed in the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, making her an Olympic legend as both the youngest Alpine skier in history as well as the first black female skier in history. Nearly 25 years later, she remains the only black woman to ski competitively in the Olympic Games. As a barrier-breaking teenaged athlete, she was rewarded for her achievements not with laurels but with prejudice, violent opposition, and death threats for participating in a white man’s sport.
She appeared on the world stage again in 1992 in Albertville, France, but in 1994, declined to compete in the Lillehammer, Norway games due to the country’s commercial minke whale hunt. Always an advocate for animals, she was once disqualified from a World Cup event for her ethical objection to the required outfit, a ski suit with a leather patch.
As an activist and vegan, Seba recently served as an ambassador for the documentary film The Ghosts in Our Machine, helping mentor people wanting to live “ghost-free” and avoid animal exploitation.
We asked Seba a few questions about the Olympics, her activism, and her current work.
Were you invited to Sochi? If so you obviously declined. Why?
My Olympic participation ended with the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, France, though I qualified for the Downhill in the 1994 Lillehammer Games. I wish I was afforded the opportunity to be present amongst representatives of the current 88 participating nations. I’d be able to speak to a wider audience, for certain, if I was there in Sochi. I can tell you that I’ve periodically reached out to my native US Virgin Islands expressing my sincere desire to work with their – with our – Winter Olympic Committee. I was the only athlete born in the United States Virgin Islands representing our federation during our inaugural winter participation in the 1988 Calgary Games. After all these years of trying, I would have loved to accompany the USVI Winter Olympic Federation to Sochi this year. It would have provided me face time with members of the IOC where I could discuss the concerns I wrote about in my recent essay.
It’s a bit off topic, but I want to be part of the USVI Winter Olympic Committee primarily because I want more of our youth to be inspired to do sports. Our beautiful islands are plagued with activities that don’t generate positive results. With the access to sports, our youth will be inspired to develop athleticism, confidence, and team building. I can honestly foresee an ice rink being built one day on the island of St. Croix, for instance. How wonderful it would be for my fellow Crucians to have access to a venue where they’d learn how to figure skate, play hockey, speed skate, or even Curling!
This past May I went back to Fredericksted, St Croix, the island where I took my first breath of life, to celebrate my milestone 40th birthday. While there, I spoke via live radio interviews and also spoke to students in schools and athletic facilities. Life on my home island has been affected by drugs, crime, and now even dog and cock fighting.
Many of us are boycotting at home for the same reasons you mentioned in your essay by not watching the games, but is there any other action we can be taking? What would have meaning to the host country or the Olympic committee?
Well, the Closing Ceremonies will take place this Sunday, February 23rd, and quite honestly the Sochi Games went on whether we watched or not. As a matter of fact, the women’s Slalom is playing on television right in front of me as my sister chooses to watch it. I am personally saddened that an overwhelming amount of athletes did not take this opportunity to speak out against the horrid anti-gay law that now exists in that host country.
With the $50 billion price tag, this is the most expensive Olympics in history. What would have meaning to the host country or Olympic committee? Letters to the IOC expressing grave concern regarding issues that plague the countries of upcoming Olympiads could be written and mailed now, before it’s too late. With the Closing Ceremonies upon us, the Sochi Games would have been the perfect venue to speak out against homophobia. Many lives could have been affected if we had had athletes, the people youngsters and adults alike look up to, use their Olympic spotlight to speak out to change people’s hearts and minds. I don’t have the answers, for I too try to find the best way to effect change. Perhaps even contact your own country’s Olympic Federation and insist that their participation in future Games encourages a better outcome at the end than the situation its country is in before the Games break ground.
You’ve already said you will not support the Summer Olympics in 2020 in Japan because of the annual dolphin slaughter. What can people do at this stage that would have a potential impact?
It is incredible that the host country of the 2020 Summer Games is currently allowing an annual dolphin hunt to continue. As I am sure many of your readers know, this hunt happens to be taking place right now, during these 2014 Games. Pods of dolphins are repeatedly forced into the cove of Taiji, Japan, trapped in nets, and experience great trauma and bloody deaths. The dolphins suffer excruciating last moments of life as a metal rod is hammered into their spinal cord, right in front of each other and their family members. It is my hope that by the time Japan hosts the Summer Olympics we will be commenting on how during the Sochi Games it was the last time Taiji was used to capture, slaughter and sell wild dolphins into a miserable life of captivity.
There is a petition I signed recently requesting that the IOC challenge Japan to end whale and dolphin hunts for Tokyo 2020 Olympics. There’s no one right answer, but the IOC in Lausanne, Switzerland has the power to force force Japan to abide by their own National Olympic Committee’s Environmental Policy. People can start by demanding their individual National Olympic Committees ensures Japan follows all Olympic Charter mandates. Unnecessarily taking from our oceans results in bloodshed of sentient marine mammals.
Seems to me that commercial fishermen are competing for fish, therefore killing dolphins, so the fish they would have eaten can instead be sold to humans, making for a secured income. I say stop eating fish, stop killing our marine life, and go vegan. Respect the will to survive for all life – let the dolphins live as they normally would in their natural habitat, while eating what we have stolen from them for far too long.
Your biographical journey has afforded you opportunities to speak out for many social justice issues. Have you always seen homophobia, racism, sexism, and animal exploitation in interconnected ways? Or is this an understanding you came to later in life?
I appreciate this question. As you know, I have spoken against, and my actions have taken a stance against, animal exploitation. What I place into my mouth and on to my body speaks to the commitment I have continued to live by, as it pertains to the respect and love I have for animals. I am against the exploitation and oppression of ALL species and genders.
As a Black woman, I have and continue to experience racism and sexism. It was always baffling to me that during many conversations with friends in the LGBT community they did not automatically identify with the injustices animals are forced to endure. I was particularly stunned when certain friends refused to make the connection to female factory farmed animals. During conversations and debates within the Black community, I continue to be disappointed that we don’t work to abolish the cruel treatment and enslavement of animals since based on Black American history we know oppression and exploitation is wrong, no matter who it is being oppressed.
So yes, I have always seen homophobia, racism, sexism, and animal exploitation in interconnected ways because within my biographical journey they have all been connected to who I am as a person. I have been just trying to find the verbiage to speak to each form of oppression so that humans as a whole would start adjusting their thinking to include all species and releasing narrow-mindedness. Right now in Uganda, Africa, there is an Anti-Homosexuality Bill which retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu has compared to the racist laws enforced under South Africa’s former apartheid government. Lives are in serious danger from Nigeria to Uganda through Burundi, because these governments are diverting attention from the terrible things they are doing in their respective countries by going after innocent people whose sin is just loving one another. This weekend I will be attending a discussion organized by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights with hopes of devising a way I may be able to use my voice to prevent the rise in violence against the LGBT communities. My father is from the neighboring country of Burundi and therefore I am half Tutsi. With the upcoming Presidential elections in 2015, there is also a rise in violence with Hutus against Tutsis in Burundi. Call it a lofty idea, but if every human in the world would become Vegan today, and stop tasting the blood of animals, perhaps we wouldn’t be so eager to bring out the blood of one another. It is all interconnected, we just need to realize it.
As a rare unicorn, meaning a vegan since birth, what effect do you think your diet has had on your athletic performance?
A rare unicorn, I like that. I can only imagine how a unicorn would feel in a world like this. My life as a vegan since birth would have been a lot more pleasant and much happier if it weren’t for the fact that my veganism is purely ethical. When you live each day completely aware of the atrocities inflicted upon defenseless animals, it becomes difficult to see the beauty in the world. When you try your best at a sport you love only to have blatant hatred and negativity spewed upon you, it starts to chip away at the joy produced from said love of sport. I say all of this to say, I wholeheartedly never reached my prime as an Olympic athlete.
I cannot say what effect my vegan upbringing had on my athleticism as a diet, except for the fact that I never broke a bone as an Olympic athlete. There was an instance when I had a crash in a Women’s World Cup Downhill in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. It was near the finish of the race shortly after I was clocked at 90 miles an hour. Perhaps it was due to a lapse in concentration, but I landed wrong after the last knoll (jump) and cracked my helmet when my head crashed against the iced ski course and the jaw piece completely breaking off. I was able to get up and ski down, but I had always credited my strong bones to my Vegan upbringing.
It wasn’t until 16 years after I retired (quit) ski racing that I suffered a great bodily injury – and it happened on my fifth day of fasting without food. On March 14, 2008 I took a day off from traveling from Maine to New York City and Boston for acting auditions, and decided to spend the day with an old love, my love of skiing. It was a beautiful sunny day and I was simply feeling blessed to be on the mountain again. Skiing on the slopes, making wide fast carves in the freshly groomed snow, was pure elation for me. Feeling the muscles in my legs flex and burn was a thrilling rush. While sitting on the chairlift I gave thanks to the Universe for such a beautiful day, as I admired the blue sky and the tiny puffs of clouds in the distance. Within an hour my skis got caught in an icy rut and I was unable to avoid an orange rope that lay in front of my path. Instinct forced me to duck down under the rope, since I had no choice but to go straight. Unbeknownst to me, past that roped off boundary was a drop-off/cliff. When I landed the impact of my fall broke my pelvis in three places. The only reason why I tell this story is because I was told I’d be bed-ridden for three to six months. With excruciating pain and the loss of mobility, I was unsure I’d ever walk again. After nine days in the hospital, hooked up to an IV drip, I tended to the lacerations on my face, went from a dicatheter to a bedpan to eventually using crutches while being assisted, and after home nurse visits, aquatic therapy, and physical therapy, I was finally out of my rented hospital bed in a shorter time than predicted – all the while never having any animal products, which doctors presume to be beneficial to healthy bone development. So that is where my veganism has affected my vessel’s performance. Quick bone mending/healing from an accident I endured just shy of three months prior, while on my fifth day of fasting without nutrients from food.
Of course, growing up vegan, you’ve never worn animal skins or been to an animal abusement park. Was it difficult when you realized that practically everyone else did? What was that like, and how did you find your sanity once you had that realization?
My sanity? Who said I found it? I’m 40 years old now – why do we still have abusement parks!? I have always seen these places as centers of modern-day slavery. After all of the undercover investigations, why hasn’t there been a shift in the consciousness of these owners who benefit financially off the backs of animals? Zoos, aquariums, marine parks, circuses, any outlet for animal exploitation is barbaric, inhumane, and pure cruelty when living beings are held captive.
Being half African, it pains me to see wild African animals languishing in Western cages. Being born on an island surrounded with water, it saddens me that our ocean’s Orcas have been condemned to tanks the size of bathtubs compared to the distance they are used to swimming. As far as the wildlife is concerned, I have read that African governments are colluding with poaching criminal fans in slaughtering elephants and rhinos for their tusks that are being sold to Asian markets, particularly China and Japan, who have an insatiable appetite for them for ornamental and medical purposes. Entire populations of those lovely animals are being decimated without anyone raising a finger.
I’m a desert native. To me, skiing looks cold, wet, dangerous, and not fun at all. Skidding down a mountainous frozen wasteland with sticks on my feet through bitter wind with my nose running just sounds awful, not to mention possibly falling on my ass and risking my life. What am I missing?
Oh my gawd, I have never thought of skiing how you’ve just described it. T’hehe. It is so much more beautiful than that. However, you are correct about it being bitterly cold at times and certainly dangerous. I have lost four friends to ski racing – and they were at the top of their game, professional athletes. What you’re missing is probably a few broken bones! Just joking, let’s you and the Mr. go skiing this winter before the season is over! I’ve never skied with a Vegan before!
While we at The Thinking Vegan rarely go ga-ga over celebrities, even we have to admit that some stars are the real deal – and Seba is one of them. To learn more about her, follow her on Twitter @SebaJohnson or visit www.SebaJohnson.com