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It can be tough to be a liberal sports fan. The latest example of conservative posturing in the sports world centers on certain "controversial" remarks about the Winter Olympics by Bryant Gumbel on his talk show Real Sports. Actually, just one sentence was controversial--see if you can spot it:

Finally, tonight, the Winter Games. Count me among those who don't care about them and won't watch them. In fact, I figure that when Thomas Paine said that "these are the times that try men's souls," he must've been talking about the start of another Winter Olympics. Because they're so trying, maybe over the next three weeks we should all try too. Like, 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. 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. And try to blot out all logic when announcers and sportswriters pretend to care about the luge, the skeleton, the biathlon and all those other events they don't understand and totally ignore for all but three weeks every four years. Face it--these Olympics are little more than a marketing plan to fill space and sell time during the dreary days of February. So if only to hasten the arrival of the day they're done, when we can move on to March Madness--for God's sake, let the games begin.

As you probably guessed, the brouhaha focuses on the sentence that combines the words "blacks" and "GOP," which is the kind of combination that gets some people's dander up.

A fair summary of the right-wing reaction is this column by Chris Russell in The Sporting News. Demanding "an all out boycott of at the very minimum, all HBO Sports programming," Russell calls Gumbel's comments "blatantly racist." The heart of Russell's "argument," such as it is, appears here:

The comment about the Olympics not having the world's greatest athletes because of the lack of black athletes is a flat-out joke. Sure, a good deal of the worlds greatest athletes are not in Torino, but a lot of them are.

Oh, that's right. NHL players, world class figure skaters, Shaun White and Ted Ligety must not be any good because they're not black. I guess that's what Gumbel means.

You can twist Gumbel's words however you want too, and I'm sure a lot of you will. You will hammer me and call me all sorts of names because I took major offense to Gumbel's commentary.

What you can't do is ignore the absolute damning criticism by Gumbel that would never be accepted if Gumbel were white and said he would not watch the NBA because of the lack of non-black players. Imagine if I went on Sporting News Radio and said the NBA is impossible to watch because there are too many blacks, or if I said the reason why I have an incredible passion for hockey is because the player pool is overwhelmingly white. You would want my head on a platter, with knife in hand.

Where do I begin to respond? How about here:

Like many conservatives, Russell is eager to portray himself as a courageous dissident standing up against the repressive forces of political correctness. Unfortunately, the facts tell a different story. Despite Russell's claim that there is some kind of taboo against mentioning (for example) race and basketball, a quick Google search keyed to "NBA marketing racial" reveals many articles about the problems of selling a Black-dominated NBA, including this one, this one, this one, this one, this one . . . You can find more if you go past the first twenty-four Google hits (out of the 194,000 my search unearthed).

Funny, I don't recall any journalists being fired or reprimanded for raising the issue. So relax, Chris--no one will be asking for your "head on a platter."

The truth is that conservative sports-talk hosts and columnists frequently talk about race and ethnicity. For example, they are the ones who recently raised the issue of the Mets' Omar Minaya supposedly signing "too many" Latino players (to which I responded here). But they express outrage whenever race is mentioned by a minority-group member, apparently on the grounds that we've all outgrown racial issues (unless the conservatives themselves want to bring them up).

So let's start by ignoring that red herring. What about this "greatest athletes in the world" business?

Gumbel's point is that the Olympic claim to present "the greatest athletes in the world" is undermined by the lack of diversity among participants in the winter games. It's a fair observation. African, Latin American, and Caribbean nations have scanty representations in Turin; the athletes tend to be drawn strictly from the upper-middle-class levels of European, Asian, and North American society.

This is understandable--skiing and figure skating and tobogganing and the other winter sports are expensive to play. (Growing up in two working-class Brooklyn neighborhoods--mostly-black Brownsville and totally-white Bay Ridge--I never knew a single person who played any of these sports.) But isn't it obvious that a sporting spectacle that draws from a minuscule fraction of the population is unlikely to feature all or even a significant number of "the greatest athletes in the world"? This is Gumbel's point--not the absurd idea Russell attributes to him, that only Black athletes are any good.

And what about Gumbel's underlying theme--that the lack of Black athletes makes it hard for him to get interested in the Winter Olympics? Is that so "blatantly racist"?

Not according to me. Most people are especially interested in athletes and other celebrities who share some characteristic with them. Italian-Americans were proud of Joe DiMaggio and turned out in big numbers to root for him. Roberto Clemente was a hero to Puerto Ricans. Jews loved Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax. This is a natural and benign phenomenon.

And the flip side is that most people find it relatively harder to get interested in sports where they can't identify with the participants. I for one find hockey--populated almost entirely by white guys, and Canadians at that!--very difficult to get into, and statistics suggest I'm not alone. Is that such a racist thing for me to say?

No . . . and it isn't racist when Bryant Gumbel says it, either.

Suggestion: Be wary when conservatives start yelling "racism." Like Russell, they wrap themselves in the "color-blind" mantle only to say, "Shut up about race--unless you want to say something that we happen to agree with."

cross-posted on

Originally posted to KWeberLit on Mon Feb 20, 2006 at 08:57 AM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  It was still a stupid statement (none)
    Gumbel's satement was stupid. So he takes some lumps for it. That's life.

    Lying can never save us from another lie - Vaclav Havel

    by Muwarr90 on Mon Feb 20, 2006 at 09:02:36 AM PST

  •  I've never gotten into winter sports too much (none)
    being a native floridian of caribbean ancestry, but hockey is the greatest spectator sport in the world.

    The key is you have to watch it from up close, no more than 20 rows from the action, preferably 5 to 10.

    The other winter sports I agree with Gumbel on, these are top notch athletes but in terms of pure athletic ability they can't touch the summer olympics.

  •  Can't say that I'm agreeing (none)
    with much of what you've written.  Your defense of Gumble's ill chosen words seems strained at best.  These are the greatest athletes of the world in certain winter disciplines irrespective of their race.  It is only natural that they are still predominately fair skinned as mountain areas tend to be populated by fair skinned individuals.  This will change only if African Americans choose to immerse themselves in the winter sports, like Davis did with speed skating in Chicago.  Had to laugh though when he said his buddies used to give him grief for wearing a picture of some white chick on his sweatshirt (he was a Bonnie Blair fan).
    •  It is actually more of a class issue. Winter (none)
      sports are incredibly expensive; the gear itslef is expensive, lift tickets now run over $70, ice time is expensive, etc. I cannot explain why northern rural areas in the U.S. are predominantly white - perhaps people of color are smarter than those of us white folks in Maine.

      I will add that on Doug Russell's (no relation to Chris) show on Sporting News Radio yesterday morning, he argued at some length that blacks and other people of color do suffer from discrimination in this country, albeit not institutional. For the short time that I listened afterward, he took some calls from those that would deny this, but he continued with his position. He also thought that Gumbel's remarks were over the top.

      •  One of the top European skiers... (none)
        can't remember which one it was (might of been the Hermanator) is a brick layer in Davos for crying out loud.  This individual is more advantaged by the fact that he grew up in the mountains than any class thing.  Plus, he's from a country that worships their skiers.  I skied Ischgl this winter (also in Austria) and there is nothing I like more than to watch the toddlers dressed up in their spider gear take on the BIG mountain.  However, this was the first time that I saw a baby on skiis.  When I asked her age, the mother said "13 months".  Now that is why these small countries can kick our butts in the winter games!
        •  And also enjoying all the benefits that (none)
          his progressive government provides. As I said, I can't explain why northern rural areas in the U.S. are predominantly white. But there is no doubt that winter sports are expensive.

          In contrast, what is the most popular sport in the world? Soccer. It requires only a ball and players, and in areas of extreme poverty that is made out of whatever can be found to fashion into one.

          •  seems simple (none)
            look at history as to why the northern areas are white. slavery and immigration patterns.

            also most hockey players are working class. rinks are common in Canada and in Russia you can just use a pond. Yes , in the southern U.S. it's expensive, but then again, our players are getting their asses kicked.

          •  Where there is a will there is a way (none)
            Take the Croatian champion's story... extreme poverty, war torn country, and she's a four time Olympian gold medalist.  When she and her brother started winning a few local races as a teenager they got some gear given to them from sponsors who wanted to push their equipment.  However, they were in such dire straights for money they bartered them in order to buy gas.

            Yes, your point that skiing takes money is valid, but so do most other sports.

            I guess long distance running is the most egalitarian of them all since it doesn't even require funds for the ball.  Don't even need shoes (believe that was the Rome '60 marathon).

  •  Well (none)
    Could it be that there are few black or African atheletes in the Winter Olympics because the climate in thier countries doesn't allow for much snow and winter sports? Could it actually be that simple?
    •  Sure, that has a lot to do with it (none)
      But the fact that the winter olympics leaves out large swaths of the world does reduce its interest . . . which makes the right-wing anger at Gumbel seem awfully silly to me.

      by KWeberLit on Mon Feb 20, 2006 at 09:11:02 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Boycott all HBO Sports programming? (none)
    I dunno... who can manage to boycott the, what, five to ten hours a month that HBO sports is on the air?

    The urge to save humanity is almost always a false face for the urge to rule it. ~ H.L. Mencken

    by Jay Elias on Mon Feb 20, 2006 at 09:08:40 AM PST

  •  I thought the writer would be pissed at the GOP (none)

    Personally, I think Gumbel was just trying to figure in a way to give Republicans a smackdown in the context of his show. Worked well!

  •  Gumbel's c omments are stupid ... (none)
    but not because of the race issue. It is because he denigrates the athletes of the olympics.
    Winter athletic events involve true athleticism. I am not much of a fan of figure skating, but in my mind what they do is every bit as athletic as playing golf or blocking an opposing lineman.
    Gumbel played the chauvanistic nationalism card and it backfired. Too bad. Just because an athletic event isn't popular in the good old USA, doesn't mean it isn't legitimate.

    Don't Panic - Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

    by slatsg on Mon Feb 20, 2006 at 09:15:37 AM PST

    •  Exactly (none)
      His comments were just plain stupid.  Hell, if we limited the criteria to what the Greeks had there would only be a handful of disciplines.  The olympics is an evolving event and it is very instumental in inspiring youngsters to get off the couch and take up a sport.  As a skier, I kinda groused when they acknowledged snowboarders by bringing the halfpipe into the competition, but confess now that I'm hooked.  Maybe Gumble should try one of these winter sports before he makes any other stupid comments.  Then again, I don't watch the summer games... too boring.  How can you compare any track and field event to the downhill!  

      It's all just a matter of taste and the world is big enough to accomodate both.  After all, NBC said that their highest ratings so far came when the South Koreans tuned in at 6 am their time to see their favored son win gold in short track skating.  

    •  True dat (none)
      two words: soc cer
    •  well lets be fair (none)
      SOME Winter Olympics require athleticism, and some patently do not.

      Curling anyone? And while Luge, Skeleton, and Ski Jumping require some degree of athleticism, they dont require tons of it.

      Outside of hockey, ice skating, and the distance speed skating and skiing events, a lot of the sports left over are representative of a small number of countries (not just unpopular in the good old USA but pretty much in a large portion of the world), and are rather esoteric and well rather boring to watch.

  •  Hypocritical? (none)
    Wasn't Gumbel the in studio host for the Nagano Winter Olympics? I guess he cared about the Winter Olympics then, or was it the fat paycheck from the network he cared about?

    "For war, billions more, but no more for the poor" Reverend Joseph Lowery 02/07/06

    by Prison4Bushco on Mon Feb 20, 2006 at 09:25:17 AM PST

  •  Bill Maher also spoke about this (none)
    in his show.  And to be honest, I rather cringed.  You see, while I am American, I am also of a mixed background: Asian, German and Irish.  My boyfriend is Asian, Euro and some Native American.  We find it rather, er, funny that by the absense of black athletes, the Winter Olympics ain't truly a showcase of the WORLD'S greatest athletes.

    Funny in that I saw athletes from Norway, Netherlands, Germany, Canada, Japan, China, Korea, Italy and more, including of course, the USA.  From what I understand, many Dutch are of mixed ancestry, too.  Correct?  Both my boyfriend and I are athletes, too.  And well, would rather be recognized for our athletic abilities than our ethnic background, when we're competing.  Same as being female (for me):  look at me for my athletic ability, not my gender.

    On another note, as for the affordability issue.  Well, they mentioned last night that the Canadian ice dancing couple, both had to maintain jobs as they trained.  She at one point, held four jobs; he worked at his fathers auto detailing business.  I'm sure their story ain't the exception, even for Olympic caliber athletes.  These athletes take part in unknown sports, not the ones you see that get them multi-million dollar NIKE contracts.  So, if you want something bad enough, you're gonna do what you have to to get there.  I know, I've had to work fulltime and maintain art commissions part-time as I trained to compete.

    "People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people."- "V" in "V for Vendetta

    IMPEACH Bush

    by smugbug on Mon Feb 20, 2006 at 09:26:04 AM PST

  •  Gumballs (none)
    I don't know why Gumball cares that there aren't many black faces at the Winter Games.  Is LeBron James a better athlete than Georg Hackl?  Well, duh.  But that's not the point -- the Winter Olympians have honed their particular skills to a greater extent than anyone else, and are competing against each other to see who's the best.  In other word, you're watching sports.

    Further, the Olympians are representing their country, not their race.  If Gumball had just said he didn't care for the sports being shown, then fine.  I disagree with him -- curling rocks, and the fact that ski jumping is called the "national sport of Norway" cracks me up -- but whatever.  Dragging race into the equation seems disingenuous and needlessly inflammatory, though.

    Now, all that said, the GOP line was pretty funny.

    "If we abandon our ideals in the face of adversity and aggression, then those ideals were never really in our possession." -- Army Capt. Ian Fishback

    by sansho1 on Mon Feb 20, 2006 at 09:28:07 AM PST

  •  Bryant Gumbel is a self-important jackass... (none)
    ... and always has been.

    My guess is he wanted to "make news" because no one was watching his show.

    Congratulations, Bryant.

    But my guess is that a lot of people STILL won't watch your show.

    Visit Satiric Mutt -- my contribution to the written cholesterol now clogging the arteries of the Internet.

    by Bob Johnson on Mon Feb 20, 2006 at 09:30:25 AM PST

    if he was still covering them for NBC, you bet he'd be plugging it.

    he left because he stopped being entertaining.
    they got rid of him because he was beginning to lose ratings.

    like Howard Cosell said of another jerk jock:
    "you just weren't good enough"

  •  Portugal 2006 Winter Olympic team (none)
    I can say with a straight face that I know the whole team.

    I grew up with him.

    -7.38, -5.74 This is your world. These are your people. You can live for yourself today, or help build tomorrow for everyone.

    by DisNoir36 on Mon Feb 20, 2006 at 09:46:35 AM PST

  •  Anyone who thinks (4.00)
      figure skaters aren't athletes has never tried it. Those little 16-year-old girls can skate faster and harder than any NHL player. And anyone who has ever put on a pair of skis knows that what mogul skiers or downhillers do is nothing short of awesome. And cross-country skiers? These guys are ironmen.

      I'd like to see Gumbel try his luck at ski jumping.

  •  I'm no fan of Bryant but... (none)
    Clearly Gumble's comments were a statement about both about class differences (and thus how that affects the enthnic makeup of the Winter Olympians) as well as the incessent, disingenous marketing of the Olympics as featuring "the best atheletes in the world." Regardless of race, the sports featured in the Summer Olympics are far more egalitarian in nature requiring little equipment and can be easily trained for year-round.

    Growing up in New England as a former competitive (and, yes, white) ski-racer, I can attest to the expense involved for equipment, lift tickets, lessons and transport. Many atheletes are not as fortunate as I was.

    I do think that Gumble could have articulated his point more clearly so that when taken out of context, it would not have been such an easy a mark for those looking for the excuse to cry racism. In our increasingly polarised society, it is unfortunate that there are many who lay in wait for such an opportunity. If they can then call a prominent black figure a racist, so much the better.

    No no no! My name has nothing to do with Star Wars.

    by Anacher Forester on Mon Feb 20, 2006 at 09:56:59 AM PST

    •  Every sport that involves a geographic (none)
      component will favor one set of athletes over another.  For example, one of the skiers in the downhill trained at Mont Tremblent which is nothing but ice all year round.  This individual was probably handicapped in the descent because the snow was very soft.  If you are used to cutting your edges on ice you will do so out of habit and this will slow you down on soft snow.  Now, if the games had been held in Montreal, the Italian skiers might of been disadvantaged.

      As for equipment, a good kayak probably cost the same as a snowboard and a year round ski pass.

  •  these are the greatest athetes in the world (none)
    in their sports and some of the greatest in world in any sport.  Just because no tmany people play a particular sport doesn't minimize the athleticism of those who do.
    So kids in Norway ski rather than trying to clear off the basketball court everyday.  Can't play much basketball with glove on anyway.  And skiing on snow is faster than running in it, hence cross country skiing.
    When the lake is frozen most of the year it's easier to skate on it than to take up swimming.  

    BTW, if you have ever tried X-country skiing for an hour or so, you'd know that those skiers are every bit as athletic as any distance runner.  

  •  Ohno Speedskating Comments (none)
    So I'm really curious to see what people think of Apolo Ohno's behavior during this Olympic season. At every turn it seems as though he or his father is making some type of statement regarding the South Korean speedskaters.

    Typically they seem to allow themselves to be led into these statements by interviewers, but the current issue of Men's Journal has an interview with Ohno where he and his father are both clearly quoted accusing the South Koreans of blatant cheating.

    I'm wondering if other people think this is racism or just a very public case of sour grapes? If Apolo is indeed that good, shouldn't he be able to overcome the South Koreans through his own skill and merit? I mean, that's how he got his Lexus LX470 SUV with the 20" rims and Pirelli Scorpion tires, right?

    •  racist? (none)
      Since he is part Asian, I doubt that.
      But the Koreans do work as a team and they did work to gether to block him in.  It's kind of like when the Italians and Germans refuse to take their turn leading the pack in a cross country race.  It is not illegal, but it's not really good sportsmanship either.
    •  Not too sure about the specific comments (none)
      you mentioned, but I think the cheating issue comes out of the fact that members from the same country are not allowed to facilitate each others performance.  It seems however that the South Koreans routinely do this and the refs never call them on it.  If they don't clean up that situation it is going to become like skating.  People will know the fix is in.

      I saw the final though and thought it was a clean win since the second South Korean didn't make his move on Apolo until the last minute.  Thus, he wasn't in a position to conspire with his other team member.

  •  Wow what a reaction (none)
    I'm not a Gumball fan either, but I saw the pomp and circumstance and thought, "what a theatrical production.  It seems to have lost the raw energy of grit and simplicity and been replaced by singing, dancing, fancy costumes steroids, etc."   When I see the films of the olympics in 1936 for instance, I see something that seems lost in our commercial materialistic societies. I can agree with Bryant's disdain for the comments  about "the greatest athletes in the world" statement.  It is a lot about class and wealth and perhaps Bryant's comments were a little off the mark, but over the top??

    Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities-Voltaire

    by hairspray on Mon Feb 20, 2006 at 10:39:47 AM PST

  •  funny (none)
    As you can see from the comments here, race is one issue on which whites of all political persuasions can often find common ground.
    Not a dig at anyone here, just an observation.
  •  Them Olympics suck. (none)
    Gumbel's point is that the Winter Olympics is not competitive as most of the events are subjectively judged. Furthermore, given what has come to be inordinate black participation in sports, the absence of that whole race in the Winter Olympics can be argued to be a factor in favour of Gumbel's uncompetitive assertion. A large part of what he said is stupid, but that's because he let himself out to be attacked.

    The guy doesn't like the fact that its an all-white retreat fo rich people. The athletes are not all rich for sure but the audience is.

    I personally think the Winter Olympics is a joke too for similar reasons. It just has too many sports and events that would not palpitate geriatric hearts.

    Face it the Winter Olympics is lame and is actually facing a decline in viewership and popular interest.

    •  Heart, be still... (none)
      Can any winter sport compete in excitement with: Archery,Badminton,Equestrian Events, Fencing, Handball, Judo, Rowing, Sailing, Skeet Shooting,
      Synchronized Swimming, Table Tennis, Taekwondo,  
      Water Polo & Weightlifting.
      Ticket prices at both summer and winter Olympics are not for the working class.
      I will agree that the Olympics, both summer and winter, have become more of a spectacle than they should be.
      It is true that many people don't watch Olympic sports at any other time. But to follow Gumbel's train of thought, what about March Madness. It's basically a yearly gambling ritual, which attracts an audience that doesn't pay much attetion to college basketball at any other time.
      If Gumbel had made a legitimate criticism, that would be fine. But he denegrated the athletes. His ignorance was showing.


      Don't Panic - Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

      by slatsg on Mon Feb 20, 2006 at 12:23:20 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Maybe the reason they don't watch (none)
      is that they are turned off by all the commercials.  I loved watching the winter olympics when I lived in France because they actually showed the events.  The idiotic commentary was kepted to a minimum and you got to see large portions of the events with little advertising interuption.

      Now that I've got NBC as my "host", I've stopped watching for all practical purposes.  Tried to view the skating the other night but it was like two performances and cut to commercial.  Same with the mogul run, two competitors/commercial.  Tack onto that the fact that the program seems to have been organized by someone with ADD and you have the receipe for declining viewship.  Too much hype.  

  •  Rushbo (none)
    Though the content was not similar, I think the magnitude of the level of idiocy Gumbell's comment is at least as bad as Rushbo's black quarterback comment that got him bounced from Monday Night Football. Probably worse since Gumbell is disparaging the athletes directly.

    There are thousands of struggling families and athletes working at winter sports to achieve greatness - to become one of the world's greatest athletes. I would like to see [Insert Famous Summer Sport Athlete Here] try to land a quad-triple combo...or even a waltz jump for that matter.

    •  White men can't jump (none)
      I challenge anyone to say that after watching BEGG-SMITH's performance:


      Also, I seriously doubt that any "athlete" Gumble wants to put up as a paragon of athleticism could make it down that hill without blowing both kneecaps.

      Yes, it is one of those "judged" sports, but if you are a skier, you know that you have just watched a "Chariots of Fire" moment.  That's why I still struggle to watch certain events in the Winter Olympics.

  •  What's he got against kiss and cry areas? (none)

    ... we now know a lot of things, most of which, we already knew... (-dash888)

    by Tirge Caps on Mon Feb 20, 2006 at 01:17:47 PM PST

  •  well (none)
    I dont find any of those sports particularly entertaining to watch either.
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