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Olympic Jingoism?

Monday, February 20, 2006, 22:20 EST Leave a comment Go to comments

Torino 2006A reader e-mailed me on Friday with his boxers in a twist about the “ugly American jingoism” of my daily updates. He didn’t say which post or posts stirred his ire, and as of this afternoon he hasn’t responded to my request for clarification. In the absence of any explanation from him, I decided to look back on my posts and tally the number of references I have made to various countries and their athletes.

I have made two types of references: to athletes and teams who have won medals, and to athletes and teams who were otherwise notable, whether they failed to medal or were mentioned in non-medal competition (such as a preliminary round event). My cursory analysis shows the following in the previous five days of posts:

  • American medalists mentioned by name: 10
  • American medalists mentioned, but not by name: 1
  • American non-medalists mentioned by name: 36
  • American non-medalists mentioned, but not by name: 9
  • Non-American medalists mentioned by name: 29
  • Non-American medalists mentioned, but not by name: 36
  • Non-American non-medalists mentioned by name: 9
  • Non-American non-medalists mentioned, but not by name: 35

The numbers show that, even though I mentioned competitors from other countries a lot, I was more likely to mention Americans than athletes from other countries. That shouldn’t be surprising, since I’m an American and am following American athletes and teams.

But are we Americans really all that different from people from other nations in that respect? Are we more likely than others to pay closer attention or be more interested in our countrymen and countrywomen? Apparently not, if we are to believe what we see when we watch Olympic coverage: the sea of Norwegian flags at a cross-country race, the sea of Canadian flags in the stands at a hockey game, the sea of Italian flags at a bobsled race, the sea of Korean flags at a speed skating race, the sea of Austrian flags at a downhill event, the sea of [insert country here] flags held by its athletes during the parade of nations in the opening ceremony.

Are American media outlets really all that different from media outlets from other nations in the way they focus their coverage on U.S. athletes? You might thing so after watchihng NBC’s telecasts, but then you’d read the BBC’s online recap of day 10 competition, which mentioned Austrians Benjamin Raich and Michaela Dorfmeister in paragraph one but immediately followed it with this:

But [Great Britain]’s faint hopes in the women’s curling have taken another knock.

Norway’s win over Denmark means Britain must beat USA and hope the Danes beat Canada to squeeze into a play-off.

In the men’s curling, Canada play the USA in their final match which will determine Britain’s position in the top four and their semi-final opponents.

Likewise, over at the CBC‘s web site, the lead story at 10:39 this morning was about the Canadian women meeting Sweden today in hockey gold medal game, which is understandable given that it’s the gold medal game. But the next two stories were about Canadians who didn’t win anything, Francois Bourque (fourth-place in the men’s giant slalom) and Kelly VanderBeek (fourth place in the women’s super-G). I’m sure there are other examples from other countries, but I can’t read their web sites.

The question I would ask is, what’s wrong with Americans rooting for their compatriots? What’s wrong with a U.S. athlete being proud to represent his or her country? What’s wrong with a NBC providing more coverage of American athletes because that’s what its audience wants to see? More to the point, if it’s wrong for Americans, is it also wrong for Britons or Australians or Japanese or Finns or Iranians or Peruvians or Lithuanians or French? There’s a question I’d like to ask my e-mail detractor and those like him, including those who ranted and raved about American exuberance in Salt Lake City but thought that when the Australians did the same thing in 2000, it was charming.

Olympic Racism?

No one e-mailed me to complain about the dearth of black and hispanic athletes, but that’s only because the complaints have been made elsewhere. Down in Philadelphia, the Inquirer‘s Frank Fitzpatrick today declared the winter Games “exclusive” rather than “global”.

In truth, because of various cultural, economic and geographical reasons, the Winter Olympics are an extremely exclusive competition. The bulk of competitors are white. The sports they play are geographically confined. And the same few nations tend to win the overwhelming majority of the medals year after year.

While those 85 nations here represent significant international growth, 57 percent of the world’s countries are absent.

Forty-three nations—more than half the 2006 delegations—sent a total of just 123 athletes, barely a half the total American entries. India, with the world’s second-highest population, has four athletes in Turin.

The Olympic teams of 17 nations consist of a single athlete. And in seven instances—Thailand, Senegal, Algeria, Madagascar, Albania, Tajikistan and Venezuela—those lone representatives reside elsewhere.

Of the nine Africans here, for example, four live in Europe.

Pardon my confusion, but this is a problem? We’re supposed to be offended that countries with cold and snowy climates, where people of all ages participate in cold-weather recreational activities from earliest childhood, dominate sports that require cold and snowy climates? It’s a surprise that there is a lack of Sudanese or Kenyans (or Spaniards or Nicaraguans) atop the Torino medal podium day after day? It should be shocking to those with a functioning brain that African athletes who want to train in winter sports would move to places where there is snow and ice? (For those who don’t get that last one, I offer three words: Jamaican bobsled team.)

Fitzpatrick goes on to acknowledge the many reasons why relatively few countries compete in winter sports. The reasons are not the least bit controversial, which begs the question of why he would even bring it up. Evidently he couldn’t come up with any ideas for his column this week. We should forgive him; the man has to make a living, you know?

What is less forgivable, and is mentioned by Fitzpatrick, is the recent commentary by Bryant Gumbel, the once-respected former Today anchor who now spends his time solidifying his reputation as a whining malcontent.

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. Try not to point out that 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.

That first remark is designed to prove to those who don’t already know that Gumbel is a cranky Democrat who apparently hates Asians (who are well represented in Torino but apparently don’t provide Gumbel’s preferred type of racial diversity) as much as he hates Republicans. That second remark is a reference to figure skating, where the media—of which Gumbel himself is a part—refer to the bench where the skaters sit to await their scores as “kiss and cry”. Gumbel has remained mum on his opinion of subjective judging of platform divers in the summer Olympics.

As for why black athletes in North America or Europe are underrepresented in the winter Games, Gumbel might consider asking said black athletes why they are less likely than white athletes to choose winter sports. Otherwise, unless he can give examples of black men and women who are among “the world’s greatest (winter) athletes” but aren’t in Torino, his complaint is ridiculous.

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