Pint-sized gymnastics powerhouse Gabby Douglas stands out for her strength, grace and show stopping routines, particularly on the uneven bars. She also stands out because of her race. The only black gymnast on this year’s U.S. women’s team, she is one of only a few black gymnasts to ever represent the U.S. in Olympics competition (click here to see a slideshow of others). Douglas joins swimming phenom Lia Neal, who became the second black American woman to win an Olympic medal in swimming this past weekend, in flourishing in sports not traditionally known for their racial diversity.

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Before the eye rolling begins, this is not a column about rampant racism in sports. But it is an attempt to understand why some sports end up predominated by one racial group versus others, and the long-term social and cultural implications of such segregation on the field, court, or gymnastics mat.

According to Professor Rob Ruck, a sports historian at the University of Pittsburgh who has written extensively about why certain sports flourish in certain communities and not others, there are three factors that dictate which “sport takes on significance within a community of people.” First, “A set of environmental and class, or socioeconomic factors. Second, when the sport provides certain tangible and material rewards, benefits and opportunities. The third is when a particular sport has acquired a deeply rooted historic meaning to people.”

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As an example, Ruck pointed to the declining number of black professional baseball players. “In the 70’s African-Americans comprised over a quarter of all major leaguers, today it’s under 10%.” Citing his three factor theory, Ruck explained that baseball has traditionally been a sport that a male father figure has passed down to his son and the increase in fatherless black households has meant that a boy growing up playing catch with his father in these communities is less likely. Pointing to polls that show baseball lagging behind professional football and basketball in popularity within the black community, he explained that those sports have “much more cultural cache. All these kids grow up in the Michael Jordan era and want to be ‘like Mike’ or Kobe or Lebron.”

But Ruck was quick to note that “Culture and class are far more significant than race” in determining who is likely to participate in which sports. Continuing with his baseball example, he noted that once a young player gets past little league, expenses for competing in baseball at the regional or national level can cost thousands of dollars in travel and other expenses, costs that those from less privileged backgrounds are unlikely to be able to afford. This was a sentiment reiterated by a number of black elite athletes interviewed for this piece who excelled in sports where few black athletes have.

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