February 22, 2006
It's not unusual to hear the word "race" during the Olympic Games. But the term has taken on a particular sharp edge during the 2006 Winter Games.
Long-time news and sports journalist Bryant Gumbel shocked many viewers when he offered a terse dismissal of the Winter Olympics during a commentary at the end of the February edition of his HBO program, "Real Sports." He said: "Count me among those who don't care about them and won't watch them," expressing annoyance at everything from ice skating's "kiss and cry" area to the lack of connection the winter games have to original Greek competitions.
But Gumbel really raised some eyebrows when he added, "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."
Conservative commentators and bloggers responded at record-breaking speed, calling Gumbel a racist and arguing that the games are open to anyone who works to make their Olympic dream a reality. Unfortunately, few managed to look at the truth behind Gumbel's claim.
Unlike the Summer Games, which brings together athletes from 200 nations around the globe, the Winter Olympics spotlights a much smaller slice of the planet. With only 87 nations currently participating -- the most of any Winter Games -- 57 percent of the countries of the world are left out in the cold.
You might think that the American melting pot would thaw some of that ice, and indeed the United States sent its most multiracial team ever to this year's competitions in Turin, Italy.
Unfortunately, that increased diversity still only equals about 10 percent of the 211-member Team USA.
There are likely many young athletes of color who could be successful at winter sports if the equipment and training were available to them. Imagine being a parent with limited resources trying to compare the cost of a pair of running shoes or a tennis racket with that of ski equipment or a bobsled.
There's also the issue of limited training opportunities for winter athletes. Not everyone can afford to live in, or move to, a ski resort.
And there's the subtle but weighty issue of representation. If young people of color don't see themselves reflected in the culture of a particular area of sports or business, they're more likely to question whether or not they even belong in that area.
The International and United States Olympic Committees and the related governing bodies of Olympic winter sports say that they are committed to diversifying the Games.
Recruiters have had some success with outreach efforts in communities that have traditionally not been connected to winter sports.
Ironically, the powers-that-be didn't make the connection between the popular summer sport of inline skating and speedskating on ice until skating enthusiasts began to make the transition themselves. Team USA members Derek Parra, Jennifer Rodriguez and Shani Davis (the first African-American male to win an individual medal at the winter games) are all former inline skaters.
Unfortunately, Davis' historic speedskating victory at the Torino Olympics in the 1,000 meters was marred by the criticism he received from the media and from fellow team member Chad Hedrick for declining to take part in the team pursuit.
"I worked to be here. None of my teammates worked to get me here," Davis told the press. "I've been skating since I was 6. This is the fruit for all the labor I put in for years. It's my choice, and I choose not to."
Davis' Web site soon received several hate e-mails, including a number that used racial epithets.
Davis, Parra, Vonetta Flowers and other successful Winter Olympic athletes of color have overcome the odds against them.
If the Olympics want to build attendance at winter events and attract audience for its televised coverage of the Games, they'll need to expand their support for athletes in the communities that have traditionally been left out of the competition.
Otherwise, Bryant Gumbel won't be the only sports fan who continues to tune out.
Andrea Lewis is a San Francisco-based journalist and co-host of "The Morning Show" on KPFA Radio in Berkeley, Calif. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.