Sunday, February 26, 2006

Race On Ice

As we round neatly into Black History Month, I thought this column would be an instructive review of the just-completing Olympics (and besides, the Olympic hockey finals start in about an hour and I needed to drop a post before then :-). )

One of the unfortunately messy stories out of Torino took place on the speedskating oval, where Chad Hedrick and Shani Davis, fierce rivals, played out their anger towards each other. Hedrick is white (and Texan), Davis is black (and from Illinois). Davis would be (and was) the first African American man to win a gold medal and the first African American to win gold in an individual competition. Hedrick was after five gold medals to match Eric Heiden's feat in skating, and one of those events was the team pursuit event. Hence, he needed Davis.

The US federation overseeing speed skating pushed Davis to compete in that event, which would be held mere days before his best event, the 1,000 meters individual. Davis refused, on the grounds that racing the pursuit would hinder his chances of winning gold in the 1,000. Hedrick, understandably, got upset at this hit to his quintaurum medal chances.

What wasn't understandable was how Hedrick expressed his anger, questioning Davis' patriotism, and his loyalty to the team.

To their credit, NBC never played up the racial aspect of this dispute.

Or was it to their credit? Maybe they should have delved into this aspect of the dispute a little more closely. After all, Davis' credentials for the sport are impeccable. He has qualified now for the Olympics in two separate disciplines, short-track speedskating and long course skating, which is a little like a sprinter running a marathon. Davis is the reigning world all-around champion. Davis has trained for the Olympics since he was a little boy in Evanston, IL, when he had to run home from school because he liked wearing a shirt that honored skating legend Bonny Blair, and bullies would beat him up.

Hedrick came to the sport four years ago. He decided to try it when he saw his good friend, Derek Parra, win a gold medal at Salt Lake City. He was sitting at a blackjack table in Vegas. He's been called the Paris Hilton of the skating world (I can only imagine him and Bode Miller at the same party!)

Hedrick said he had big shoes to fill, and wanted to fill them with gold medals for his personal glory. Davis said he just wanted to compete and do his best.

And *Davis* is disloyal to his team? Davis' one gold medal would mean more to the American team than all of Hedrick's five medals (and likely celebratory "drunk-and-disorderly" arrest). The first by an African American male. The first by an African American in an individual event. Versus five by a hard-drinking, late-night partying "good ol' boy". Whom would you rather see succeed?

And yet, here's how it played out on NBC and particularly by the MC of the Olympic coverage, Bob Costas. From a column by Christopher McIntosh, on the Athens Exchange website:
Jay Mariotti - writing about a hometown boy in his hometown paper (Chicago Sun-Times) - called Davis one of the most selfish Chicago athletes since Frank Thomas and Sammy Sosa.
That theme was pretty much picked up by Costas and NBC.

Of course, Davis didn't help things much when after his silver medal in the 1500 meter race, he said the following: " 'I'm just throwing this out there,' Davis said, but 'it would have been nice if after I won the 1,000-meter race, he could have been a good teammate and shook my hand, just like I shook his hand - and hugged him - after he won the 5,000 meters.' " While his point is valid, if you're really looking at the good of the team and what America stands for, you swallow your Texas-sized pride and congratulate an adversary on a job well done.

Just like Davis did.

But, to the race thing. From Les Payne of Newsday:
Naaah, ice skatin's definitely a white man's game. Back in the '40s, everybody knew this about baseball, same as at the turn of the millennium with ice skating. Skaters like Chad Hedrick were born to their entitlements. The "sun people" played basketball contentedly on their side of town. Blacks had more speed, less pain, more brawn, less brain. This impure approach was kept on the playground and off college campuses until deep into the '60s.

First, there was a trickle of blacks into college hoops. Then greedy, ambitious coaches broke the covenant and placed winning above white entitlement. In '66, a traitor out of Texas Western College took an all-black team to the NCAA championship - and won. Basketball fell to the black hordes.

All was not lost. White boys still had golf, tennis, rugby, ice hockey, tiddledywinks and the Winter Olympics. That was before Arthur Ashe, Tiger Woods, sort of, and most definitely Cherie Davis. This Chicago mother hooked her 6-year-old son on speed skating by feeding him quarters at the city rinks. Jeered by hoop-playing "sun people," Shani Davis stuck with ice skating.

When the talent of the wunderkind proved irresistibly world-class, the speed-skating federation stepped in to put down this black, mother-son rebellion. Cherie was a handful. She accused the lily-white federation of running the sport "just like Augusta National Golf Club." Her son's sponsorships dried up. Skating was not to go the way of basketball. The pressure drove Davis to live in Calgary to skate in peace.

Since winning the 1,000-meter and edging Hedrick in the 1,500, Davis has been celebrated as a pioneer as well as demonized by Hedrick supporters, some media and nasty fans. Welcome to territory familiar to Jackie Robinson, who had pitchers throw at his head, base-runners slide murderously on him, all while his teammates stood idly by.
Instead of celebrating this accomplishment with little more than a passing kudo before jumping back on the "selfish bastard" bandwagon, NBC and the rest of the coverage of this disagreement did signal service to advancing the causes of ignorance and entitlement of the privileged. And signal disservice to the Olympic spirit of competition and achievement beyond gold medals.

Which is really funny, because just yesterday, the network did a really nice little documentary about Eugenio Monti. An Italian bobsledder who gave a team from England the tools to beat him for a gold medal. This guy ought to have a movie made about him.

To Les Payne for the last word:
Chad Hedrick knows nothing of the terrible price Davis had to pay to lace up his skates at the Winter Olympics. This selfish oaf is insulated from concerns other than his narrow sense of racial entitlement, blind as he is to the real lessons of black American history. That great sucking sound is the yelping about speed skating as the latest lily-white sport to be breached by a black athlete.

UPDATE: To its credit, when NBC reviewed the Olympic speedskating events late yesterday afternoon, they made a point to show that-- after Hedrick's hissyfit about "team" and winning for America-- the US lost the team pursuit because KC Boutiette couldn't keep up and then they showed Boutiette deeply upset and being consoled.

By the Russian team. So much for "team spirit," huh, Chad?

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