Shani Davis, No Matter Where He Finishes, Remains an Unfortunate Exception at Winter Games

Mike Wise, Washington Post, February 12, 214

Don’t listen to your friends back home saying the Winter Olympics are just for white people who like the cold and vacation in Aspen. This is the most inclusive Winter Games ever. Why, there are Caucasians here from almost 88 different nations.

Bada-bing! I’ll be here all week.

Actually, I will be here the next 10 days. And in that time, I will encounter no more than a dozen people of African American descent. They are the same ones I see over and over.

Speedskater Shani Davis, Lolo Jones and the U.S. women’s bobsled team, NBC correspondent Lewis Johnson and about three other black journalists, one of whom I sang backup for in a Salt-N-Pepa karaoke gig at the media dorm at 3 a.m. the other night. (I was Salt.)

Maybe it’s because I lived in the District for eight years. Maybe it’s because I spent my formative years in a real melting pot: rural Oahu, Hawaii, where diversity in ethnicity and culture are part of island life. Maybe I’m just used to seeing and feeling comfortable being around a variety of people, many of whom don’t look like me.

Whatever, this place is whiter than an episode of “Downton Abbey.”

Lawrence Murray, an intern for the U.S. Olympic Committee finishing up his masters in journalism at Southern California, ran into a fellow African American colleague the other day.

“He stopped me,” Murray said, referring to an instant level of kinship based on complexion. “He was like, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ He’s the only one I’ve seen or talked to.”

When Murray got off the plane in Sochi, Russian police approached, which has to be every foreigner’s nightmare. Except . . .

“They wanted to take a picture of me,” Murray said. “First, one guy would take a picture. Then his friend wanted one, then another guy. That was my welcome to Sochi. My travel partner said, ‘They probably think you look like Shani Davis.’ “

Judging from the ethnic breakdown here, I’m betting it was an even more basic fascination than wanting a photo with a potential famous athlete.Tatiana, look, I met a real black person today!

Sochi is one of the most multinational cities in Russia. There are ethnic Russians, about 70 percent of the population, Armenians, Ukrainians, Georgians, Greeks, Circassians, Belorussians, Tatars and Jews—which create roughly a, oh, 100 percent Caucasian stew.

Now, you are reading this and thinking one of two things: What’s with the white guilt, son? Or, What does race have to do with the greatest athletes in the world competing in their chosen disciplines, most of which just happen to be contested against other Caucasians?

Look, I don’t care about the color of the competitors. And I don’t think the paucity of black or Hispanic athletes should cheapen any gold medal, as if somehow this were a cold-war Olympics that didn’t include some of the greatest sporting nations.

The fact is, despite Vonetta Flowers becoming the first black person to become a Winter Olympic gold medalist as a bobsledder in 2002, despite Davis becoming the first male African American to win individual gold in 2006, there hasn’t been a whole lot of carryover.

Like golf waiting forever for the Tiger Woods Factor to kick in, the USOC and other nations are still waiting for that next wave of racial diversity in the Winter Games.

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Aside from the large contingent of Asian athletes and a smattering of Jamaican bobsledders and Tongans, the Opening Ceremonies’ Parade of Nations is as white as a von Trapp family reunion.

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After Shani Davis finished a disappointing eighth in the 1,000-meter final Wednesday after winning gold in the event the two prior Olympics, I asked him whether he thought there ever would be a next generation of American speedskater—of any color—that would follow in his churning strides.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think that will ever happen,” he said. “The price of an oval is very [expensive]. It’s not a mainstream sport like football or basketball. It’s not easily accessible like things at the park district. You have to kind of go out of their way to find such things.”

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But speaking from a purely egalitarian view, it would be nice to see a country like the United States have its Winter Olympic team someday more accurately represent the diversity of its population—if only because more people would care, watch, read and give someone such as Shani Davis the attention and love he and his sport deserve.

Otherwise, these Games are going to continue to resemble the inside of a giant snow globe, forever powdery white.

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