This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
It has certainly occurred to me before that the Winter Olympic Games don't include as diverse an athlete population as do the Summer Games. Two hundred countries are represented in summer, only 87 in winter and, obviously, many of those 113 countries that don't participate in winter are from Africa and equatorial nations. It's also occurred to me that winter sports in general are expensive and thus the Winter Games appear to be a playground for people with money. In other words, to grossly generalize, for white people. Lack of diversity is a long-standing, evident issue of Winter Olympic history, but in Torino this time around, the issue of race has come into sharp focus.
Remember the endearing Jamaican bobsled team who made their Olympic debut at the Calgary Games in '88? They were black and, of course, being men of color was part of what drew us to them. Black in a white man's white wonderland. The juxtaposition made us laugh...and made us root for them. Jamaicans from a non-snow, non-ice country where the average daily temperature is 82--. They couldn't figure out how to walk on the Calgary ice without slipping. They joked with reporters about how crazy cold it was and they couldn't for the life of them comprehend how people who have a choice as to where they live would ever stay in a place so far from palm trees and brilliant sun. They were great track sprinters, in Jamaican tradition, but aside from that mad dash to hop into the sled, they knew next to nothing about the ways of winter, nor the ways of sliding down a bobsled track. They were black and their enormous popularity was a comment on just how white the Winter Olympics are. The Jamaicans were pure novelty.
Flash forward a couple of decades and we find that things haven't changed a great deal. Athletes of color still don't gravitate much toward winter sports. A woman named Lori Morse wrote me last week, in response to The Score. Mrs. Morse said, ---I can't help but feel as the whiteness of the snow blends with the whiteness of the participants' faces, ---Where is the rest of the world?' This is not a world I live in or even remotely relate to.---
I hear you, Mrs. Morse, and that's why we should quickly understand and empathize with speedskater Shani Davis' decision to rest his legs and go for the gold in the one event he had a good chance to win, instead of joining in the team event as well and jeopardizing his potential big moment. Davis has been under constant attack by teammate Chad Hedrick since he passed on the team pursuit event. Hedrick has called him a traitor, selfish, and unsportsmanlike. Hate mail, some of it hurtful with racial epithets, has posted to Davis' web site. But how does the expression go? Wait until you skate 1,000 meters in my boots? Shani Davis had never skated a team-pursuit event, ever. He had dreamed of Olympic gold since he first circled around an oval, at age 6. And those were reasons enough for him to focus on his specialty, the 1,000 meters. But pile on top of that the potential to become the first African American in history to win an individual gold medal in a Winter Olympic Games and suddenly Chad Hedrick sounds like the selfish, unsportsmanlike one. Shani Davis made more than his own personal Olympic mark. He made history.
Bryant Gumbel threw out some controversial remarks at the outset of these Games, one of which was to say that it is laughable to call these the greatest athletes in the world, considering the paucity of blacks participating. Well, the greatest bowler in the world is still the greatest among his peers, regardless of the diversity of his peer group. And these are obviously the greatest skaters, skiers, and boarders in the world.
I'll put Lori Morse up against Bryant Gumbel to debate this one... and my money's on Mrs. Morse. The issue is not whether these athletes are the best in their sports. The issue is whether these athletes have much common ground with people tuning in from a wide variety of living rooms. Perhaps the ever-insightful basketball great Charles Barkley sums it up most succinctly when he says ---America has never really been crazy about the Winter Olympics.---
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.