Posted on February 18, 2010

Vancouver Winter Games: Whitest Opening Ceremonies Ever?

Alden E. Habacon, Schema Magazine, February 2010

Overall, I thought the opening ceremonies was pretty impressive visually.

But I’ve got say, other than our beloved Governor General Michaëlle Jean, the incredible display of aboriginal culture, a lightning-quick shot of Patrick Chan, a few Asian-looking dancers, the performance of Measha Brueggergosman and Portuguese-Canadian Nelly Furtado, and a black mountie . . . this was by far the whitest-looking opening ceremonies.

It wasn’t really noticeable because of the visual effects and possibly all the international athletes. But then the Olympic flag came out, carried by an all-white cast of Canadian heroes.

Don’t get me wrong, I love all of them.

The picture of a white Canada was reiterated with the unveiling of the final torch bearers. Seeing Rick Hansen was really powerful. I’m a HUGE Wayne Gretzky fan (having lived in Edmonton during their Stanley Cup domination), but as Jian Ghomeshi tweeted: “Love Anne, Bobby et al . . . but maybe bit of an oversight to have not one Canadian of colour carrying flag?” Oversight? To say the least.

Does it matter?

Absolutely, especially as Vancouver won their bid on the argument that Vancouver is the most diverse place on earth, with the highest rate of mixed-race marriage in N. America, a city that is considered by many (including myself) as part of Asia (forget that “gateway to Asia” analogy, that’s so ten years ago). The ceremony was hardly representative of Canada’s (and especially Vancouver’s) multicultural diversity.

Listen, if you’re going to reflect Canada’s diversity, you can’t go full out on aboriginal representation and then FAIL to represent the visible diversity of the local population. Vancouver is a city where “visible minority” and “ethnic minority” don’t mean anything anymore, because of the sheer size of the Chinese and South Asian populations.

Oh, I can hear the producers now . . . “But where would we find . . . ?” Oh no, you don’t. There’s at least one South Asian RCMP officer. There’s gold-winning Olympic hockey player Jarome Iginla! Yes, half is better than none. In this case, token would have been better (than none).

The point is, if you were watching the opening ceremonies on television, you wouldn’t even know that it took place in the most Asian city in N. America. Have any of the producers been to a high school in Vancouver?

The author is manager of diversity initiatives for CBC television.

{snip} But the Winter Games are about a few other things as well: elitism, exclusion and the triumph of the world’s sporting haves over its have nots.

What the Winter Games are not is a truly international sporting competition that brings the best of the world together to compete, as the promotional blather would have you believe. Unlike the widely attended Summer Olympics, the winter version is almost exclusively the preserve of a narrow, generally wealthy, predominantly Caucasian collection of athletes and nations. In fact, I’d suggest that the name of the Winter Games, which start Friday, be changed. They could be more accurately branded “The European and North American Expensive Sports Festival.”

{snip} Until as recently as 1994, fewer than a third of the planet’s countries took part. This year, in Turin, Italy, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) expects delegations from about 85 countries, an all-time high, but still barely 43 percent of the world’s total. Even that exaggerates the extent of participation. Many of the nations in the Opening Ceremonies will be represented by tokens, some consisting entirely of sports bureaucrats, not athletes. Ethiopia, a nation of 73 million, will send its first “team” to a Winter Olympics this year–a single skier.

As always, the biggest delegations, and the big winners, will come from a familiar pool. In the history of the winter competition, dating from its inception in 1924, competitors from only six countries–the Soviet Union/Russia, Germany (East, West and combined), Norway, the United States, Austria and Finland, in that order–have won almost two-thirds of all the medals awarded. Only 17 countries have ever amassed more than 10 medals during the past 19 winter Olympiads. Only 38 countries have won even one medal.

This had turned the Winter Olympics into a remarkably insular competition. The Czech Republic (and Czechoslovakia before it) has won more medals than China, home to about one-fifth of humanity. Norway, a nation with a population smaller than metropolitan Washington, has won three times as many winter medals as the nations of Asia, Latin and South America, Australia and Polynesia, the Middle East and the Caribbean Basin combined.

By contrast, the all-time list of summer winners is long and deep, extending to athletes from 143 countries, including such places as Tonga, Paraguay and Burundi. {snip}

Obviously, the climate and terrain in, say, Indonesia or Aruba aren’t highly conducive to molding superstar aerial skiers and biathlon champions. But it’s not just the presence or absence of snow and ice that determines Winter Olympics success, or even participation. If it were, some of America’s best ice skaters and speedskaters wouldn’t live and train in Southern California or Florida. If it were, athletes from countries like Peru, Chile, Nepal, Morocco, Afghanistan and Ethiopia–all blessed with soaring, snow-covered mountains–would be marching en masse in the Opening Ceremonies and fighting for the medal stand.

Instead, the more telling factors are economic. Would-be Winter Olympians need years of training, coaching and competition if they’re going to make it to the Games. All of these things require massive sums of money. {snip}


Unlike the Winter Games, the Summer Olympics level many of the advantages of national wealth, as well as favorable geography and climate. It takes all the usual things to become a Summer Olympian–heart, outsized talent and the ability to devote most of your waking hours to your sport–but the barriers to entry are much lower. Athletes from the poorest African and Caribbean nations have developed into some of the world’s greatest athletes with shockingly minimal, or even nonexistent, facilities and equipment.

In winter sports, by contrast, the rich keep getting richer. Nations wealthy enough to host a Winter Olympics tend to be those that win most of the medals (17 of the 20 Winter Olympics have been held in Western Europe, Canada or the United States). {snip}


So why perpetuate an event that could just as easily be contested as a series of disaggregated annual championships? The reason, of course, is money and TV. And here again, it’s a small world. The Winter Olympics might collapse were it not for the financial support of American broadcasters and their (mostly) American advertisers. Like the teams themselves, the audience for the Winter Olympics is predominantly North American and European, accounting for about two-thirds of all worldwide viewing during the Salt Lake City Games of 2002, according to the IOC. {snip}

This is not to suggest that Winter Olympians aren’t dedicated and superb athletes. They are, of course. But the pool of actual and potential competitors in, say, luge or curling (or skeleton or biathlon or bobsledding or freestyle moguls skiing) is ludicrously small and will probably remain so for years to come. The Winter Olympics simply aren’t, and probably can’t be, a truly global sporting contest.