SOCHI, Russia — COLUMN | 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.
Evolving sports of the Winter Olympics
I do wonder what an athlete like Davis thinks when he shows up at the Games. It’s one thing to understand your chosen sport has international competitions in Norway and the Netherlands and that almost all of your competitors will be white. It’s another thing to show up on the world stage and see that hardly anyone in any sport looks like you.
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.
Davis said he is unfazed. It’s his life now. In many ways he is more comfortable in the Netherlands, where the Dutch appreciate speedskating in a way his home country does not. In fact, he said the only place he gets race questions anymore is in the United States.
He is an important pioneer here. After all, there had to be a Doug Williams answering awkward questions before we could get to Russell Wilson not being asked a single one, no?
“I don’t get that when I go to other countries,” Davis said. “They just see me as Shani Davis, skater from Chicago.
“Maybe in the beginning they saw me as a black speedskater. But my skill and ability surpassed the color of my skin. They respect me for my trials and tribulations of what I’ve done for the sport of skating. I don’t think color is a big part of it anymore.”
After he 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.”
Are the Winter Olympics for the rich?
Is it more troubling for the Winter Games to be the province of the white or of the rich?
Winter sports are on average much more expensive than outdoor American stick-and-ball sports. But one of the greatest misconceptions about any of these competitions is that the athletes by and large came from affluent, privileged backgrounds.
I’ve seen and heard too many stories of financial struggle and hardship to buy that. Without benefactors and major sponsorship, most U.S. athletes aren’t here.
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.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.