olympic sports

Race and the Winter Olympics: Is this a joke?

Slate took the odd step this week of re-running an odd piece from 2006: “White Snow, Brown Rage: The racial case against the Winter Olympics.”

It’s a laundry list of stereotypes. Snowboarders are stoners who aren’t doing a real sport. Winter sports people are named “Muffy, Buffy and Tad.” (Being relatively close to Dracula’s homeland, Sochi could probably use a Buffy.) The only black people are Jamaican bobsledders.

The comments on Slate this time around are divided. Some say this piece is terrible. Some say it’s a joke that would have made more sense if it had run in National Review, the publication for whom author Reihan Salam usually writes. Move over, Jon Stewart!

But in the comments and on Twitter, the piece sparked some arguments among people who clearly don’t think it’s a joke. And we Winter Olympics fans have long had to deal with people who want to dismiss it all as an exercise for Muddy, Buffy, Tad and a lot of skaters in sequins.

So, for the record, let’s smash those stereotypes:

1. Team USA is not a country club. Bode Miller grew up in a cabin without electricity or running water. Even Nancy Kerrigan, so often posited as the princess against working-class underdog Tonya Harding, grew up in a middle-class household.

2. Athletes are sacrificing a lot, financially. Athletes and the federations seek out sponsors, a bit of crowd-funding, and occasionally food stamps.

And this should make the National Review happy — unlike a lot of other countries, the federal government puts barely a nickel toward Olympic sports. This is a country in which a baseball team extorted more than $600 million from the nation’s cash-strapped capital to build a danged ballpark. And in a country in which one of the top issues is whether we’re all “exploiting” college football and basketball players by offering them nothing other than a free education, room and board, and a lot of incidental perks.

3. The Games (and the rest of the world) are more diverse than you think. What do a Dutch speedskater and a Russian biathlete have in common besides their unpronounceable names and skin color? Not much. Now consider Japan and South Korea — both powerhouses on ice. Not a lot of Tads and Muffys on these teams.

Now think about this: Why do we have a terror threat at these Olympics? It’s not a bunch of people in Afghanistan’s caves threatening the USA. It’s people in disputed territories that creep within 100 miles of Sochi. Imagine if Quebec’s separatists had been in active conflict with Canadian and American forces, and other armed ethnic groups had joined the mix in a complex patchwork of unease and distrust. Now imagine holding the Olympics in Lake Placid.

(I don’t see it online, but I recommend Alexander Wolff’s pains-taking look at the sports and politics of Georgia and the surrounding region in Sports Illustrated. Strong research, powerful work.)

4. The Games are fun to watch. You may not like figure skating, but you might like hockey. You might not like hockey, but you love snowboarding. You might not like snowboarding, but curling is pretty cool. And a lot of these things aren’t televised on a regular basis in the USA. This is your chance to watch.

Let’s close with a bit of irony. The story in question mentioned Indian luger Shiva Keshavan. He’s back again, though he’s competing as an “Independent Olympic Participant.” That’s because India’s Olympic federation is in shambles, and it has nothing to do with the Olympics being some activity for white folks. Keshavan actually trains with the Americans and teaches them yoga.

Then in training this week, he provided one of the highlights of the Olympics. Watch this.

And we’re just getting started. Have fun watching and following all the action at SportsMyriad, where a bunch of us are excited to be getting up at all hours to watch the Games unfold.

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