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Just before the 2006 Winter Olympic Games got started in Turin, Italy, I was watching Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel when he essentially said that winter sports aren't real sports because ain't enough black folks in the mix. For that matter, there's only a relative handful of nations involved, he said, so how could anyone honestly believe these so-called athletes are the best in the world when more than half the world can't even begin to become eligible?
In case you missed it, here's some of what Gumbel said:
"Count me among those who don't like 'em and won't watch 'em. ... Try not to be incredulous when someone attempts to link these games to those of the ancient Greeks who never heard of skating or skiing. 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."
Humor columnist Dave Barry expressed a similar sentiment in a February column when he said, "It's a truly international gathering of athletes from all over the world, except for those parts of the world located in Africa, South America, Central America, Australia and large sectors of Asia."
OK, the GOP convention line was pretty funny, but what's up with this reverence for the ancient Greeks? And how many blacks do you figure were participating in those ancient Olympic games? As for things these Greeks had never heard of, you could make a list the size of Webster's dictionary detailing all that stuff. How about electricity, for example? Or the Internet? And considering the fact that Greece has never been known as a snowbound location, it's probably safe to at least consider the possibility that the lack of snowy winter conditions just might have had something to do with why the idea of snowy winter games never crossed their minds. Maybe it's just me, but this all seems painfully obvious.
I had clicked over to the station to check out the last segment of the show when I heard Gumbel drop his bomb as casually as if it were a Nerf ball. I've always been a fan of Real Sports. So when Gumbel confidently proclaimed that most of the winter sports in the games weren't really sports at all, I was waiting for the punch line. No, seriously. This had to be a joke. I could understand if the man wasn't a fan of winter sports, and he's got a point when he highlights the fact that the winter games only spotlight the favorite games of a relatively small portion of the globe. Yep, that's true. These are troubling issues, and they need to be dealt with, but none of it means that short-track speed skating just as one example isn't a sport. Are you kidding me?
Don't get me wrong; I'm not denying the glaring lack of black participation in the winter games, nor am I saying it's just fine. I think it would be great to see more blacks involved, which is why I was thrilled when Shani Davis won the gold medal for the 1,000-meter short-track speed skating event, making him the first African-American to ever win an individual medal at the Winter Olympics. For me, that's something to be proud of, as is the story of African-American athletes like Willie O'Ree.
O'Ree was one of the first African-Americans to participate in winter sports at a professional level when he joined the Boston Bruins in 1958 and became the nation's first black professional hockey player. O'Ree now serves as youth development director for the National Hockey League, and this time last year he was in town to witness Detroit's first annual Hockey in the Hood Invitational, held at the Jack Adams Arena on the city's west side. He was back for the second annual tournament held just this past weekend at the same location.
Yes, there's a strong argument to be made that it's not exactly the same level of accomplishment to be a gold medal winner in an event (like the luge, or the skeleton) where there are only a relative handful of participants in a sport that only a handful of countries participate in and most folks in most countries have never even heard of.
Still, even though blacks have undoubtedly produced many of the world's greatest athletes in many sports, I think it may be stretching things a bit to assume that all those gold medals won by whites in the winter games are suspect because there weren't enough blacks to really challenge them. Who knows, maybe blacks could eventually dominate the downhill just like we eventually took over the basketball court, but there's no way in hell to know that and you're treading on thin ice when you make such an assumption.
Something else that needs to be factored in when discussing the lack of black participation in certain sports not just winter sports is environment, both social and economic. I haven't heard of too many inner city high schools that don't have a basketball team or a track team. Try finding an inner city school with a competitive skiing program. Or skating program. You won't. And despite worthy efforts like Hockey in the Hood, these sports aren't available or affordable for most blacks. Kids in inner city schools don't have to pay for basketball lessons. They get those lessons either on neighborhood basketball courts or in the school gym where tax dollars cover the bill. A ski instructor costs plenty and, believe me, I know. Skiing equipment costs plenty. Ski lift tickets, which get you to the top of the hill only for one day, can cost upward of $70 in some of the better ski locations, last I heard. That's why I haven't been skiing in more than 30 years, since back when an all-day lift ticket in Aspen only cost $12.
That's why a young Shani Davis will always be the exception until blacks are more equally integrated into the higher economic strata, because few black parents have the resources to expose their children to the kinds of experiences that Davis' mother somehow managed to expose him to.
And even though I can no longer afford a ticket up the slopes (I never learned how to skate because my ankles were too weak), I still really dig the winter games. I always have. So does this mean I have to turn in my Black Card? No more skin-I'm-in discounts at my favorite soul food restaurant?
Damn. Life is hard on a brother sometimes. I'm sorry, Brother Gumbel. I'm so, so sorry. Please allow me to repent for my sins. I'm just a poor, lost Negro from Colorado who has been struck snow-blind. I realize now that I should have known better, my brother, but the flesh was weak.
On second thought, screw all that. I ain't apologizing for jack. I'm black and I like snow sports. Yeah, I said it. And I hate American Idol too. Same goes for Diary of a Mad Black Woman and all that other Tyler Perry crap. I'd rather watch endless reruns of Birth of a Nation in a 1950s Mississippi movie theater eating nothing but stale popcorn. That's the end of it. Sue me.
Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.