Those Lousy Games

Remember when saying “Wayne Brady makes Bryant Gumbel look like Malcolm X” was a joke. These days there’s been a big firestorm about the comments Gumbel made on his Real Sports program on HBO.

“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.”

He also went after some other easy targets like figure skating and judged sports. But the big news was that Gumbel pulled the “race card”. Well he’s absolutely right. And even if you don’t think its a race thing, you have to admit that the Winter Olympics are not for all socio-economic groups. Being a winter athlete requires more than just natural ability, it also requires the resources or support to pay for the training.

The nature of winter sports requiring things like ice or snow makes it more difficult for anyone to pick the sports up and practice regularly. Skiing and snowboarding require a lot of equipment and lift passes. Hockey is also a prohibitively expensive sport for kids to get into with equipment and ice time. Figure skating – damn, you must be rich – because you have to pay for ice time, private coaches, as well as things like costumes and music. I would love to see the upfront required to put Sasha Cohen on the podium. Sure it will payout in the end and the USOC tries to support all athletes regardless of their income levels. Still I am doubtful about how many of our Winter Olympic heroes work at McDonald’s or Home Depot to support their training. And its not surprising that there are fewer developing countries represented in the Winter Games than the Summer ones. Winter Games are elitist sports, period.

And how about the Olympics coverage NBC has treated us to thus far. I have probably watched the prime time coverage at least 1/2 of the days its been on. And all I can remember seeing is figure skating and snowboarding, with 5 minute spurts of speed skating or skiing. Note that figure skating and snowboarding are both judged sports – with little credibility in my mind. Figure skaters are judged for cuteness as much as their talent. And snowboarding is given to the most brainless American teenager who is willing to skip the X Games.

The most satisfying thing about this Olympics games has been Bode Miller’s failure to win at anything this games – despite the media attention. In fact nearly all the athletes featured in any pre-Games previews have blown it. It’s at least reassuring to know NBC can’t script these things – even the French judge couldn’t have made Cohen fall twice during last night’s long program. Anyway, this Winter Olympics has served as a lesson for me. The Winter Olympics is not a moment of global cooperation, but more a self-congratulatory pat on the back for the world’s elite.

Update: Patrick has made some good comments, so be sure to check them out. He’s right that the problem with the Olympics isn’t really racial. I do think that they are more of an elitist event though and not as accessible as other sports. Hopefully we’ll see this change in the years to come.

A Real Olympic Hero

Tonight I was really struck by a story on ESPN.com about America speed skater Joey Cheek. He won a gold medal this week for winning the 500m race, but he his honored in this article for his pledge to donate his $25,000 prize to refugees in Darfur. He even put his sponsors on the spot, calling on them to double or beat his pledge. This isn’t just a guy trying to draw attention to himself through a goodwill gesture. Cheek comes from a family of volunteers; he himself works with the Special Olympics.

The writer points out the fact that Cheek is largely overshadowed in these Games by name brands like Apollo Ono, Bode Miller, and Michelle Kwan. They all get big paychecks from sponsors, but all have yet to win in Torino. NBC has spent hours following Shawn White, an awkward snowboarder who hoped his gold medal would help him get “babes”. And yet I doubt Cheek’s race will get only a couple minutes worth of TV coverage tonight. I am not calling into question the talent or character of these other athletes, but I agree with ESPN’s Eric Adelson that Joey Cheek is the type of athlete I would like to see more of. It’s refreshing to see selflessness in the Olympics, a competition that celebrates individual accomplishment.

Update: I found out that Cheek actually donated his money to a charity that helps promote sports in third world countries, still a good cause. Cheek also got to carry the flag into the closing ceremonies and emerged as one of the few good stories of the Games.

The Not So Comic Cartoon

A controversy is growing in Europe over cartoons of the prophet Muhammad and I imagine it could spill over into America soon. It begins with the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which ran a series of cartoons caricaturing the prophet Muhammad this fall, protesting self-censorship and celebrating free speech. Illustrating or imagining Muhammad’s physical appearance is a major taboo in Muslim culture. The images erupted in a wave of controversy throughout the country. The issue became larger this week when a French paper republished them, followed by other European news outlets, as a sign of solidarity with the right to free speech. Tonight there are protests and riots erupting throughout Europe and the Middle East in response to the cartoons.

The Jyllands-Posten and the other publications are correct in asserting that the freedom of speech entitles them the right to publish these images. With great power comes great responsibility though, and it is on the second half of this equation where the papers fail. Imagine if the NY Times organized a public flag-burning ceremony as an expression of their freedom of speech. They would be within their rights to do so, but it would be beyond poor taste. Even more disappointing is the fact that many of these pictures were filled with hateful stereotypes like suicide bombers or covered women.

I will note that at this point, news organizations choosing to republish these images is somewhat more justified. The initial republications were done intentionally as an opinion piece celebrating free speech. The French paper printed it with a caption “Yes, we have the right to caricature God.â€? However, if an organization prints the pictures now simply because the images themselves have become news, that is more acceptable. It is for that reason I will link to a Wikipedia entry with the pictures, for those who are curious. It is regrettable that in the act of doing this, the editor of a Jordanian newspaper was fired.

Almost a year ago today I wrote about the nature of free speech and this is clearly disappointing to see it at its worst on display today. I am actually ashamed of my Western culture and values. That’s not to say I don’t agree with free speech – it is something I believe strongly in. It is just disturbing that people are using it as an excuse to publicly ridicule a religion. I encourage those who are feeling angry and frustrated about these cartoons to use free speech, not violence, right back at those who support these cartoons. Here’s a start – a cartoon from Jordanian cartoonist Emad Hajjaj, by way of Naseem.

Response Cartoon