First black Olympic figure skating pair electrify crowd

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By Jeff Jones

VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Vanessa James and Yannick Bonheur of France on Monday became the first black couple to compete in Olympic pairs skating, electrifying the crowd at the Pacific Coliseum with an acrobatic free skate program.

James and Bonheur, who met on an Internet site for competitive pairs skaters seeking partners, finished 14th on the evening. But with a series of high-flying jumps and high-risk lifts and throws, they were an audience favorite.

Bonheur, 27, took the moment in his stride, saying he did not set out to find a black partner.

"We hope that in the future we can win many medals and have a black coach and officials in pairs skating," Bonheur told reporters after the performance.

"I didn't search for a black girl in the first place, just a girl who wanted to try and work for it."

James, 22, has skated with Bonheur for three years. Born in Canada, she had competed for Britain as a single. She was granted French citizenship last year.

She said their performance at the Winter Games showed the door had finally been opened for black pairs skaters.

They were not the first black skaters in the Olympics, however -- Debi Thomas, for example, won a bronze medal at the Calgary games in 1988. Surya Bonaly of France competed in three Olympics in the 1990s.

"I hope we do see more black skaters and we see more couples," James said.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Jones; Editing by Jon Bramley)