Way Off the Mark on Diversity

By Mike Wise
Friday, February 24, 2006

TURIN, Italy

Twenty-odd years ago, Bryant Gumbel was Shani Davis and Vonetta Flowers. He was a minority making inroads in a world whiter than any movie starring Emma Thompson. Remembering a black sportscaster from my youth, I only remember Gumbel, hyping the Larry Bird-Magic Johnson NCAA championship game.

Later there would be his brother, Greg, and Fred Hickman, my old CNN favorite, and James Brown and good friends who would become part of the media landscape. But one of the first was Bryant Gumbel.

It's called pioneering, the great instrument for change and diversity.

So it came as a surprise to see Gumbel eviscerating the Winter Olympics in the closing monologue of HBO's "Real Sports" earlier this month. "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 said, as part of a screed that called figure skaters "pseudo athletes," the Winter Olympics "a marketing plan" and chastised announcers and writers who try to sound knowledgeable every four years over things they have absolutely no clue about.

Gumbel has a right not to like the Winter Olympics. He can trash curlers, lugers and snowboard-crossers all he wants. But who made him arbiter of all things culturally diverse? Superimposing your own idea of diversity upon athletes from 80 different nations, essentially equating diversity with only race, is just inane.

Of those 80 nations, eight are Asian. There is not a paucity of Japanese, Chinese and Koreans at the 20th Winter Games. Or don't Asian nations represent diversity to Gumbel? Let's not be so focused on the disguise that race becomes a mask. Just because Gumbel doesn't see the ethnicity and diversity he wants to see here does not mean it does not exist. Have you ever met someone from Azerbaijan, a country represented in figure skating? In the world community, Azerbaijan is a minority.

Moreover, Gumbel's implication is that the Games are not worth watching because of the abundance of, well, white people.

Never mind that if Bob Costas, who is anchoring NBC's prime-time coverage from Turin, said he no longer watched the NBA because it was "too black," he would be forced to apologize to keep his job. And that might not even work.

And never mind that "Real Sports," one of the finest, high-concept, sports-journalism vehicles out there, used the Winter Olympics for its purposes when needed, profiling former downhill gold medalist Bill Johnson recently -- while also ripping the lid off, "Staph Infections in Sports."

I have no doubt Gumbel's convictions about figure skating not being a sport are genuine, a feeling shared by many. But when Gumbel says, "something's not really a sport if a pseudo-athlete waits in what's called a kiss-and-cry area, while some panel of subjective judges decides who won," he should know. This "pseudo sport" has been a bastion for national diversity. Every creed, color, gender and sexual orientation has been represented the past two decades. Latin American (Rudy Galindo), Asian American (Michelle Kwan, Kristi Yamaguchi), African-American (Debbie Thomas and, this year, Aaron Parcham), openly gay (Galindo).

Gumbel should also know: Eight non-white Americans in 2002 helped the United States to its greatest medal haul ever (34). At least 23 of the 211-member U.S. team in Turin have Hispanic or non-white backgrounds. That is nearly four times the number on the U.S. teams that competed in 1998 in Nagano and 1994 in Lillehammer.

If his point is that different races and ethnicities are not here because of the exclusionary culture of the Games, that's also myopic. The Winter Olympics are exclusionary based on geography more than race. This is going to sound crazy, but most sub-Saharan countries I know don't have snow! It is why the crowd at each Winter Games' Opening Ceremonies goes berserk when the lone cross-country skier from Ethiopia with a delegation of, uh, two, marches into the stadium. It's why the Jamaican bobsledders became a Disney movie. There are no ski slopes in Africa. There are no tunnels of ice in the Caribbean. It is amazing they qualified and came.

There are not a lot of African-Americans at the Winter Olympics, acknowledged. Access to these sports in an economic and a societal context is a real dilemma, especially in urban America. That's the point. For every kid tethered to the idea that merely basketball and football are his athletic ticket to glory, along comes a guy from the South side of Chicago to put on some ice skates and prove otherwise.

"To me, personally, it doesn't matter what color I am," said Shani Davis, after winning the 1,000-meter speedskating gold medal. "Black or white, Asian or Hispanic, it doesn't matter to me as long as the message I'm portraying to people that watch me on TV is positive and it shows that they can do things that are different besides catching a football, hitting a baseball or shooting a basketball. I'm just showing them that stepping outside the bubble is okay and they can be successful at it."

You don't have to like the Winter Games. But Asian, Hispanic or from Azerbaijan, Bryant Gumbel should at least embrace diversity in all its forms.

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