Latino population in U.S. keeps growing, but not number of Latino athletes in the Olympics

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 05:  Michael Phelps of the United States carries the flag during the Opening Ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Maracana Stadium on August 5, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 05: Michael Phelps of the United States carries the flag during the Opening Ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Maracana Stadium on August 5, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)  (2016 Getty Images)

When athletes walked into the Beijing National Stadium during the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games, only 4 percent of the nearly 600-member U.S. delegation was Hispanic, despite the minority group at the time comprising 15 percent of the country’s entire population.

Eight years later and with the Latino population in the U.S. now totaling over 17 percent, there are only 18 Hispanics among the U.S.’s 554 athletes – or about 3 percent – competing in this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

While there are a number of reasons why Latinos are so underrepresented among U.S. athletes at the Olympics, experts say it mainly comes down to economic and cultural factors.

“If you think about the sports in the Olympics, many of these sports are mainly represented by upper, middle class people,” Rob Ruck, a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh told Fox News Latino.

Despite Hispanic athletes like gymnast Laurie Hernandez and swimmers Maya Dirado and Ryan Lochte making headlines in Rio with their medal-winning performances, a large majority of the athletes on the U.S.’s gymnastics and swimming squads are non-Hispanic white.

Other disciplines, such as track and field, have several African-Americans, but there is only one Hispanic – middle-distance runner Brenda Martinez – on this year’s team.

Some experts say that given that Latinos are disproportionately in lower income brackets than whites – the average household income for Latinos is around $42,000, compared to $60,000 for whites, according to the Economic Policy Institute – they are less likely to have access to and be able to pay to participate in a number of Olympic sports.

“A lot of these sports require highly specialized training and for a lot of Latino families that is just not affordable,” Jorge Iber, a professor at Texas Tech University and the author of “Latinos in U.S. Sport: A History of Isolation, Cultural Identity, and Acceptance,” told FNL. “You have a lot of families who can’t even afford for their sons and daughters to play high school sports.

Iber also argued that culture plays a role in keeping Latinos from participating in disciplines like gymnastics and swimming, both because Hispanic families – especially those whose breadwinners are immigrants – aren’t familiar with these sports and don't view them as a path to upward mobility.

“Many of these parents don’t see participating in these sports as a visible path forward or they need their kids to work and help out with the family’s financial situation,” he said. “In that sense these families are not different from those of the Germans or Italian immigrants who came to the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century.”

Experts say that outreach programs could help national sports organizations connect with underserved communities throughout the country. While Team USA has run ads during the Rio games urging aspiring athletes to get involved in various Olympic sports, there is very little known about specific types of outreach done by individual sporting organizations in the U.S.

USA Swimming, USA Track and Field and USA gymnastics did not immediately respond to Fox News Latino’s request for comment.

“We have had a loss of participation in some ethnic groups because people don’t have access to the games or to community parks where kids can go to play,” John Carlos, the bronze medalist in the 200 meters in the 1968 Olympics Games in Mexico who famously held up the Black Power salute while on the podium, told FNL.

Despite the lack of representation of Latinos in 2016 Olympic Games, there is some hope that future games will reverse the trend as the Hispanic community in the country grows and their financial situation improves.

Overall, Hispanic poverty rates may be higher than those of whites and their incomes may be lower. 

But recently, the group has seen those numbers improve, with unemployment rates among Latinos falling from a high of 12.8 percent in 2010 to 6.4 percent in 2010. The numbers are also showing that more Latinos are going to college now than in any other time in history and that more of them are joining the middle class.

Experts say that if there is a bigger push to increase Latino participation in Olympic sports, there will be a much broader pool of talent from which to choose.

“There is the old saying that you never know where the next Einstein is going to come from,” Iber said. “Well, you don’t know where the next Michael Phelps will come from, either. Could be that person’s name be Sanchez or Rodriguez?”