Many of us have seen “Cool Runnings” , the 1993 adventure comedy film which is loosely based on the true story of the Jamaica national bobsled team’s debut in the bobsleigh competition of the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. The team was a fan favourite, largely because of their position as the ultimate underdog: besides the novelty of having black men from a tropical country compete in a cold-weather sport, the team also had very little practice and had to borrow spare sleds from other countries to compete.
Although the film, produced by Disney, supposed to be wholesome, engaging and inspirational, there are people who think of the film as racist and full of stereotypes. Washington Post Staff Writer Desson Howe noted how the Jamaican natives in a cartoon like manner scratch their heads and try to make sense of the white world. Furthermore he observed that “Cool Runnings” consists of two running gags: how funny it is for Jamaicans to be in a bobsled team and how funny blacks are when they endure the cold. Both of these gags can only be ‘funny’ because black people and other non-whites were and still are a rarity at the almost exclusively white Winter Olympics.
Brooklynbred Bangladeshi Reiham Salam, famously stated in his 2006 Slate piece “Like the Augusta National Golf Club, the Winter Olympics is “exclusive.” This golf club based in Georgia, is highly criticized for its exclusive membership policies; particularly its refusal to admit black members until 1990 and its former policy requiring all caddies to be black. So by making the above comparison, Salam actually implies that the Winter Olympics are racist by nature. But does the fact that most of the athletes competing at the Winter Olympics are predominantly Caucasian mean that the Winter Games are inherently racist?
Racism and the Olympics
The Olympics are often considered a special venue where, for a brief time, athletics transcends tense diplomatic relations and the competitive spirit and sportmanship reign, but this idealistic view is far from the truth. Throughout the history of the Games, racism has been a recurring issue. From the infamous Summer Games in Nazi-Berlin and the controversies surrounding the Black Power Salute in Mexico to Iran’s decision to brand the 2012 London Olympic Games Logo as racist because it resembles the word “Zion”, historically, racism and the Olympics seem intertwined. Sometimes it is the host country that implements racist policies, for example, the Chinese government had ordered Beijing bar owners to ban black people and Mongolians (i.e. undesirables) from entering their establishments during the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. Other times competing countries discriminate their own athletes. During the 1936 Olympics in Berlin the United States pulled their only two Jewish athletes on the day of the competition, leading to accusations of anti-Semitism on the part of the US. Sometimes teams as a whole are guilty of racist behaviour, like the Spanish Olympic basketball who, just before the Games in China published an advert in which they stand pulling at the sides of their eyes in a slit-eyed gesture, mocking that year’s host country and its people.
It is no secret that the Olympic Games have struggled with racism and the IOC recognizes that racial issues will continue to endanger the event’s core values. The Games, supposed to be about ‘respect, excellence and friendship’; values carefully formulated by Pierre de Coubertin. This French historian and educator who revived the Classic Olympic Games late 19th century felt that sport enables people to understand and respect each other, regardless of differences. Considering these values calling the Winter Olympics inherently racist seems quite a bold accusation.
White Snow – Brown Rage
Reiham Salam made his remarks about the ‘lily white Winter Olympics, in 2006, during the Winter Games in Turin. In his piece titled ‘White Snow – Brown Rage’ Salam asked himself the question “What if there had been chocolaty role models taking the slopes by storm when I was but a young pup?” He confessed: “Deep in my heart, I hungered for a mahogany man-killer who would avenge me on the slopes and forever banish my Winter Olympics-induced shame”. During the 2006 Games Salam had hoped that India’s sole Winter Olympics representative, luger Shiva Keshavan, would be this “mahogany man-killer”. Disappointment followed when Keshavan finished 25 out of 36. Consequently Salam gave up on the Winter Olympics and went back to watching the “multi-culti Summer Games”.
Salam’s piece has a somewhat accusational tone, but he doesn’t discuss plausible reasons for the lack of ‘brown’ athletes. He briefly mentions the non-functioning “Indian Luge Association” which provided no financial assistance which forced Keshavan to buy things out of his own pocket. The athlete didn’t spend his money wisely and blew most of it on a flamboyant luge suit.
Other people have pointed out that the lack of non-white competitors simply has to do with climate. During the Vancouver Olympics, Guardian blogger Michael Tomasky, revisits Salam’s piece and observes the following: “Wait a second…the Winter Olympics is like a historically deeply racist country club? Really? I don’t know about that. I mean, it’s not as if black people are excluded by rule. As it happens America’s leading speed skater is black man Shani Davis! It just so happens that the wintry climes are home to the melanin challenged among us. That’s not legal exclusion, it’s just human history.”
It is true that Shani Davis is America’s leading speed skater, but even Tomasky can’t deny that he is one of the only black American athletes competing in the Winter Olympics. Maybe a country’s climate is a (partial) explanation for the lack of African or South-East Asian competitors, but it doesn’t explain the lack of African-American athletes. Why doesn’t the US have as many excellent African-American winter Olympians as they consistently produce for the Summer Games?
Although African-Americans have a long and distinguished history in Summer Games competition dating back to the 1904 St. Louis Games where the first ever African-American competitor George Poage took two bronze medals, it wasn’t until 1980 that the first African Americans qualified for a US winter team. Willie Davenport and Jeff Gadle were members of the four man bobsled team that finished 12th. After their race, Daventport stated in an interview: “There is myth in this country that blacks can’t make the American winter Olympic team. Jeff and I proved this to be wrong and that you don’t have to be rich and white to make it.”
Exposure and role models
Eight years later – 84 years after Poage won his bronze medals – figure skater Debi Thomas became the first African-American medalist. Thomas’ accomplishment did not cause African-American participation in winter sports to increase exponentially and the list of African-American medallists who serve as Thomas’ successors is a short one. When trying to find an explanation for the anomaly, writers and commentators tend to point at the same list of factors. First of all there is exposure. Many winter sports are dominated by Europeans and don’t get much television coverage in the US. So basically these sports are invisible to the casual sports fan. But this lack of exposure should affect the participation of white and black American athletes equally, which isn’t the case so this explanation is far from satisfactory.
The next factor is partly related to the first. Salam already noted, kids need a role model. As Tiger Woods and Venus and Serena Williams have demonstrated, if you see yourself represented on the screen in a non-traditional sport, kids will gravitate to it. There is a wave of African-American kids now participating in golf and tennis as a result of Wood and the Williams sisters’ efforts.
The demographics of tennis haven’t only changed because of new role models. Since 1995 the United States Tennis Association (USTA) has been injecting money into a project called “Tennis in the Parks”, with the goal to increase low income and minority (in particular African-American, Latino and Asian) participation in the game of tennis, through promoting and developing novice to high performance tennis programs. Participants play and learn tennis in (inner-city) parks, recreation tennis complexes and churches. A 2007 survey shows that in the USA, tennis participation grew with eleven per cent. Thirty-three per cent of all new tennis players were minorities.
After Shani Davis’ 2006 gold medal in Turin, speed-skating too has gained popularity amongst African-American kids who want to be like Shani. Davis became the first black athlete (from any nation) to win a gold medal in an individual sport at the Olympic Winter Games. On his personal website, Davis explains that he used to rollerskate, but after many warnings for going too fast, guards at the roller rink advised him to do ice skating instead. His mother, who Davis credits for most of his successes, decided to move to the far north side of Chicago so her son could be closer to the Evanston rink.
Geographical distance to sport facilities is an important factor. For bobsled and skating, some skills are transferable, but for the five other Winter Olympic sports categories, skiing, biathlon, luge, ice hockey and curling, access to snow or ice is a must. These facilities are very far away from urban areas, where most African-Americans live. Also these sports require expensive equipment, training and coaching, so contrary to Willie Davenport’s 1980 statement, money does indeed matter in competing in the Winter Olympics. Summer sports are much cheaper and one doesn’t have to travel far to practice.
Race vs. Class
To a certain extent these factors: exposure, money and location explain why there is an anomaly when it comes to black participation in the Winter Olympics. But it is ignorant to conclude that therefore the Games are inherently racist. Money is a much bigger factor than race. The above factors affect the majority of the white working class too, since they too are often concentrated in inner cities far away from ice rinks and snow pistes. White working class families can’t afford the travel, expensive equipment and club fees either. Certain sports, like most winter sports but also golf, tennis, horse riding and lacrosse can be classed as suburban and are popular amongst the middle and upper classes. But if tennis’ demographics can change, so can winter sports’. And the first positive developments are already visible: in an attempt to address this issue, Shred Love, a New Jersey based non-profit is offering free snowboard lessons to underserved youth. Similar initiatives are taken in Great Britain and Europe. Once these kids become successful, they will get exposure. Exposure comes with endorsements and with endorsements maybe facilities to accommodate a new popularity amongst inner city youth will follow.