Those Lousy Games

Remember when saying “Wayne Brady makes Bryant Gumbel look like Malcolm X” was a joke. These days there’s been a big firestorm about the comments Gumbel made on his Real Sports program on HBO.

“Count me among those who don’t like ’em and won’t watch ’em. 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. 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.”

He also went after some other easy targets like figure skating and judged sports. But the big news was that Gumbel pulled the “race card”. Well he’s absolutely right. And even if you don’t think its a race thing, you have to admit that the Winter Olympics are not for all socio-economic groups. Being a winter athlete requires more than just natural ability, it also requires the resources or support to pay for the training.

The nature of winter sports requiring things like ice or snow makes it more difficult for anyone to pick the sports up and practice regularly. Skiing and snowboarding require a lot of equipment and lift passes. Hockey is also a prohibitively expensive sport for kids to get into with equipment and ice time. Figure skating – damn, you must be rich – because you have to pay for ice time, private coaches, as well as things like costumes and music. I would love to see the upfront required to put Sasha Cohen on the podium. Sure it will payout in the end and the USOC tries to support all athletes regardless of their income levels. Still I am doubtful about how many of our Winter Olympic heroes work at McDonald’s or Home Depot to support their training. And its not surprising that there are fewer developing countries represented in the Winter Games than the Summer ones. Winter Games are elitist sports, period.

And how about the Olympics coverage NBC has treated us to thus far. I have probably watched the prime time coverage at least 1/2 of the days its been on. And all I can remember seeing is figure skating and snowboarding, with 5 minute spurts of speed skating or skiing. Note that figure skating and snowboarding are both judged sports – with little credibility in my mind. Figure skaters are judged for cuteness as much as their talent. And snowboarding is given to the most brainless American teenager who is willing to skip the X Games.

The most satisfying thing about this Olympics games has been Bode Miller’s failure to win at anything this games – despite the media attention. In fact nearly all the athletes featured in any pre-Games previews have blown it. It’s at least reassuring to know NBC can’t script these things – even the French judge couldn’t have made Cohen fall twice during last night’s long program. Anyway, this Winter Olympics has served as a lesson for me. The Winter Olympics is not a moment of global cooperation, but more a self-congratulatory pat on the back for the world’s elite.

Update: Patrick has made some good comments, so be sure to check them out. He’s right that the problem with the Olympics isn’t really racial. I do think that they are more of an elitist event though and not as accessible as other sports. Hopefully we’ll see this change in the years to come.

3 thoughts on “Those Lousy Games

  1. Absolutely right about using the race card? There’s more to it than that.

    As far as which cards to play here, the race card is the queen at best. But you’ve got socio-economic and geographic at king and ace.

    Geography is paramount: Name me one predominantly black country where snow and ice are common in winter. There are certainly non-white countries with a presence at the Winter Games: China, Korea, and Japan. What do they have in common? Perhaps winter weather and mountains? Find me a land-locked country who fields a competitive swimming team in the Summer Games.

    In today’s gold medal hockey game, can you blame Sweden and Finland for having the demographic that they are? And though it’s not proportional to the makeup of the country’s people, you do see black athletes competing for the USA in men’s speed skating and women’s bobsledding.

    And, I’m wondering that Gumbel would have to say about the Summer Games and how he views the world’s greatest athletes in regards to skin color. Who won the gold and silver medals in basketball? Argentina and Italy.

    And something I’ve always found interesting… you see very few black swimmers in the Olympics. You see them in the sprints and in the marathons on the track, but not in the water. You see countries like Jamaica and T&T running well in the Olympics, and those countries are surrounded by water. And swimming isn’t an expensive sport. You’d think that they’d field some outstanding swimmers. I’d be curious to see what Gumbel thinks about swimming, because I’ve always wondered myself.

    Anyway, I’ve rambled long enough. I will say that CBC did a much better job of covering than NBC did. Though, when you add in CNBC, MSNBC, USA, and Bravo, I thought the US coverage was pretty solid. Just not in primetime. Which sucked for me.

  2. Wow quite a prolific comment. I agree with a lot of your points, except for the one about swimming. I used to swim and have been a lifeguard for several years, so I am familiar with the sterotype that black people can’t swim. I have never really seen this in action, because my pool was a racially homogeneous suburban one.

    I think this stereotype really is a result of the socio-economics though. You say that swimmers typically come from places with bodies of water nearby, but I’m not sure that’s a good determenant. Ocean swimming is much different from competitive swimming in a pool – where you are confined to one direction and defined distances.

    Swimming is in many ways an expensive sport to get into as well. In this country, at least, you really need to join a club to get access to a pool. There are also club teams that swim competitively. You need coaching to prefect your form and build up strength. Even to be a basic swimmer, you really need some sort of lessons to get started – most people do not instinctively know how to swim.

    I think that is where the sterotype about black people not being able to swim come from – many black people are socio-economically disadvantaged and cannot afford to learn how to.

  3. I had actually never heard of the “black people can’t swim” stereotype until you just mentioned it. It was just something I noticed during the Athens games and it struck me odd.

    Compared to track and field, I’ll give you that swimming requires more coaching and training and such, but compared to other sports, like ice skating and gymnastics, it requires a lot less. And, I can name a few black gymnasts that the USA has had.

    I’ll also give you the ocean swimming vs. pool swimming point. However, I will say that Australia is a fine example of how the ocean encourages a pool swimming culture. Over 90% of Aussies live within 50 miles of a beach, and it shows. When I studied abroad down there, the Australian swimming champs were on TV for a week, and it front page sporting news and it’s what the college kids watched in the evenings. Ian Thorpe is that country’s most famous athlete. We even had a dorm swimming competition. Aussies go nuts over swimming, and I think it has to do with everyone having easy access to an ocean.

    And yes, blacks have been and are socio-economically disadvantaged, but that is an issue that is bigger than the Olympics. The Olympics can’t be blamed for that paucity of black athletes. And that’s why it’s unfair for Gumbel to pull the race card. Socio-economic, yes. Race, no.

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