Saturday, February 18, 2006

Gumbel Olympics Furor + Davis Makes History + Bode Busts

On the Net a firestorm has erupted around comments that Bryant Gumbel (at right, HBO) the host of HBO's "Real Sports" program, made about why he wasn't watching the Winter Olympics. Bill Russell of the Sporting News reports that Gumbel said:

Count me among those who don't care about them and won't watch them. So 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.

Gumbel went on to diss his former employer, NBC, and to express his excitement about the NCAA basketball playoffs. Russell turns this into the opportunity to denounce Gumbel for racism (i.e., saying that the lack of Black athletes=lower quality of athletes), calling for him to be "blown out" (huh?), while the commenters on his message board in some cases engage in the typical ahistorical racial diatribes (according to Steve Gilliard's News Blog, the HBO boards are far worse). Gumbel's comments strike me as stupid, ill-informed, and petulant, more than anything else. I'd also say he also be a bit envious, given that he's no longer with under the peacock's (NBC's) wings.

Perhaps Gumbel missed the Washington Post article on the noteworthy diversity of the US team (it's a racial and ethnic rainbow). Perhaps he's missed the fact that in addition to the US and the handful African teams, Britain, France, Brazil, Canada, and even Germany (yes, Germany!), among other competing nations, have Black and other athletes of color in competition. Some of them, like Canadian hockey star Jarome Iginla, are among the best in their sport. Then again, the absence of Black athletes in general, let alone Black élite athletes, doesn't mean that the non-Blacks competing aren't the best; this almost treads on a reverse racial essentialism I'd imagine Gumbel would reject. Certainly he realizes and has articulated before the central role that economics and class, and resources and geography (yes, NYC, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, etc. get very cold, but there aren't a lot of mountains or speedskating rinks nearby) play in the various winter sports under contest. So I think he was just spouting off, as he's sometimes wont to do, without thinking his comments through.

Meanwhile, on Slate, Reihan Salam expresses his disappointment that no "brown sugar...on ice" has come along. (Except that he has--see below.) Since Salam's of South Asian descent, s/he notes, s/he was particularly hoping for India's luger, Shiva Keshavan, to finish higher than the 25th out of 36th position that he did. Oh well. So Salam is skipping these Olympic games. Salam's loss.

Nevertheless, Chicago native Shani Davis (in the race, at left, Brian Bahr/Getty Images) whom I mentioned in my prior post on the Winter games, has become for the first black person to win a Winter Olympic gold medal in an individual competition, finishing first in his 1000 meter speedskating race over teammate Joey Cheek. Davis had previously created some controversy when he stated that he wasn't competing in the team pursuit race to concentrate on his gold; teammate Chad Hedrick, who finished 6th in the 1000, responded to Davis's win icily and only congratulated Cheek. They will all race each other again in the 1,500 next week. I heard Davis say on the radio that he doesn't claim his victory as any sort of racial triumph, but wants to be viewed as an athlete regardless of race. So perhaps Davis isn't the sort of Black athletic pioneer Gumbel is talking about; who knows? Maybe he's no D'Angelo in the looks department, but he's still handsome and given how he and the other skaters fill out their aerodynamic suits, maybe Salam will switch the competition back on.

I've been enjoying some of the Olympic contests quite a bit. I've become particularly taken with the snowboard cross, which is one of those X Game-style competitions that combines skill, speed, danger, determination, and luck. The competitors also look like they're a lot of fun and having a lot of fun. Last night, the top-ranked female snowboard cross competitor, American Lindsay Jacobellis was on the verge of winning the gold medal that everyone expected her to pick up, but instead she hotdogged it almost at the end of the race, fell, and lost to her Swiss competitor. The TV commentators were quick to chastise her, but Jacobellis knows full well she handed her win to someone else, and will have to live with her silver, at least until the next Olympics, if she's still competing then.

As for American alpine skiier Bode Miller (stumbling down the mountain at right, REUTERS Ruben Strich), it's been a bust so far. He's finished out of the medal hunt in one race, been disqualified in another, and left the course in a third. According to news accounts, he does, however, appear to be hitting all the nightspots in and near Turin. If he won one of his races blitzed, maybe he, I'm not really advocating that. Really. Perhaps he'll win the "Most Convivial" medal, if someone's handing that out. He still has the slalom, which is not one of his better races, and the Giant Slalom, to go.

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