If you haven't heard, sports commentator Bryant Gumbel has raised a few hackles by making the following comments on his HBO sports show:Finally, tonight, the Winter Games. Count me among those who don’t care about them and won’t watch them. In fact, I figure that when Thomas Paine said that “these are the times that try men’s souls,” he must’ve been talking about the start of another Winter Olympics. Because they’re so trying, maybe over the next three weeks we should all try too. Like, try not to be incredulous when someone attempts to link these games to those of the ancient Greeks who never heard of skating or skiing. So try not to laugh when someone says these are the world’s greatest athletes, despite a paucity of blacks that makes the winter games look like a GOP convention. Try not to point out that something’s not really a sport if a pseudo-athlete waits in what’s called a kiss-and-cry area, while some panel of subjective judges decides who won. And try to blot out all logic when announcers and sportswriters pretend to care about the luge, the skeleton, the biathlon and all those other events they don’t understand and totally ignore for all but three weeks every four years. Face it — these Olympics are little more than a marketing plan to fill space and sell time during the dreary days of February. So if only to hasten the arrival of the day they’re done, when we can move on to March Madness — for God’s sake, let the games begin.As a both a conservative and a huge fan of Winter Games, I feel compelled to offer a response to Gumbel's consecending, tasteless, and racist comments.
First off, just because a sport does not have a high number of black competitors does not mean that it requires any less skill, it just means that African or African-American athletes choose to focus on other sports. The low numbers of black athletes at the Winter Games can be attributed to three basic factors that have nothing to do with racial discrimination. 1) There is little or no snow or ice in Africa, the Caribean, or Brazil. 2) Excluding the US, most countries where winter sports enjoy high popularity have relatively small black populations (although that is changing in parts of Europe) and 3) Areas of the U.S. where winter sports are most popular (The Rocky Mountains, Minnesota, New England) have proportionately smaller African-American populations than the rest of the country.
That said, the number of Aficans and African-Americans competing at the Winter Games is steadily rising. In 1998, France's Surya Bonaly ( a black woman) won the bronze medal in women's figure skating. In 2002, U.S. bobsledder Vonetta Flowers became the first black winter olympian to win a gold medal. This year, American speedskater Shani Davis hopes to become the first black gold medalist in an individual winter event (Bobsleigh is obviously a team event). In addition, advances in global communication and transportation are making it possible for more Africans and Afro-Caribeans to take part in winter sports. Jamaica and the U.S. Virgin Islands have fielded bobsled teams, and both Kenya and Etiopia have entered cross country skiers.
Also, the lack of black athletes at the Winter Olympics does not imply a lack of diversity. There are a great many Asians competing and winning medals in Torino. Chinese and Korean skaters DOMINATE the sport of Short Track speedskating and several Asian nations compete for medals in Loing Track. Japan consistently fields medal contenders in ski jumping, including one of the sport's all-time greats - Masahiko "Happy" Harada. Asians and Asian-Americans consistently medal in figure skating. Think of such great skaters ad Michelle Kwan, Kristi Yamaguchi, and Midori Ito.
The assertion that Winter Olympians cannot be ranked among the world's greatest athletes is also totally lacking in any sort of factual basis. Competitiors in winter sports train just as hard as atletes in what Gumbel would call "real sports". For example, people who compete in "pseudo-sport" of figure skating usually hard at work refining thier skills before most of us are even out of bed. In addition to the insane amount of hours spent on the rink, skaters also spend many hours lifting wieghts. Next time Gumbel wants to tell figure skaters that they aren't athletes, he should try landing a tripple axel.
In conclusion, the Winter Olympics are far more than a maketing ploy designed to raise ratings (they actually pre-date the mass distribution of television). This two week event gives athletes who have devoted their lives to their sports a chance to shine on the world stage. If you think about it, it's rather sad that more people don't pay atention to Skeleton, Curling, or Biathalon. Unfortunately, we live in a culture where the media bombards us with the message that certain activities are cool while others are geeky. Gumbel has it backwards, March Madness is the media circus, filled with egocentric athletes who are only in it for the glory (thought there are plenty of great athletes in basketball, too). The real sports heros are the the Speedskaters, Ski Jumpers, Skeleton Sliders, and Curlers who compete solely for the love of sport. These are the type of atletes that kids should be looking up to, and they more than deserve their two weeks in the spotlight.