White snow, brown rage: The racial case against the Winter Olympics.

Scenes from the Olympics.
Feb. 13 2010 7:23 AM

White Snow, Brown Rage

The racial case against the Winter Olympics.

This weekend, India's Shiva Keshavan will enter the starting gate for his fourth Olympic luge competition. In 2006, Reihan Salam explained that he was rooting hard for Keshavan because—as a man of a darker hue—he grew up without many winter-sports role models. As a child, Salam wrote, "I hungered for a mahogany man-killer who would avenge me on the slopes and forever banish my Winter Olympics-induced shame." His entire piece is reprinted below.

Shiva K.P. Keshavan. Click image to expand.
India's Shiva K.P. Keshavan 

While watching a bunch of young, white Olympians zipping and flipping around on their newfangled snowboards the other night, I couldn't help thinking: What if Bangladesh, my parents' native land, had the geopolitical muscle to turn an extremely Bangladeshi-friendly activity into an Olympic sport?

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Bangladeshis are very good at making things from jute, assembling button-down shirts for export, and organizing crippling general strikes. All of these activities involve tremendous mental dexterity and physical prowess. All can be performed in the bitterest cold. And, unlike "snowboarding halfpipe," not one is compatible with head-bopping to Juelz Santana on your iPod—a surefire indication that your "sport" should not be conducted on the Olympic level.

Mind you, I am rooting for the United States. I am pleased to see that a generation of would-be ski bums are putting aside the Propecia, the Jack Daniels, and "the doob" in the hopes of becoming Olympic contenders. And though I spent my childhood winter vacations eating chipped lead paint, I don't begrudge those of my compatriots who were off drinking hot cocoa with Muffy, Buffy, and Tad. Still, I can't help but wonder: What if there had been chocolaty role models taking the slopes by storm when I was but a young pup?

Like the Augusta National Golf Club, the Winter Olympics is "exclusive." Paul Farhi, writing in the Washington Post, has described it as "almost exclusively the preserve of a narrow, generally wealthy, predominantly Caucasian collection of athletes and nations." Growing up, I forsook the lily-white Winter Olympics for the multi-culti Summer Games. I still vividly recall the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, when my middle sister and I cheered on every wiry, diminutive American athlete of a darker hue. When you squint, a fearsome Latino bantamweight looks not unlike one of the burnt ochre Salams.

Now, let's compare that image of a powerful brown-skinned pugilist with that of my Winter Olympic role models. In 1988, we of course had the Jamaican bobsled team, immortalized in the classic film Cool Runnings. Given the team's lackluster performance, Stool Runnings might have been a more apt characterization. Pluck and determination count for something, to be sure. And yes, Jamaica has no snow, leading some softhearted types to give its Winter Olympians a pass. But even as an 8-year-old, I was hoping for something more. Specifically, I was hoping to see this Third World band of brothers humble their colonialist oppressors with furious bobsled action. Instead, I was told that merely finishing the race was a "triumph of the human spirit" for these stumbling boobs. Meanwhile, pasty and perfumed Hanz and Franz were high-fiving each other on the medal stand. Call it tribalism of the basest sort, but I will never apologize. I want some brown sugar, on ice.

Deep in my heart, I hungered for a mahogany man-killer who would avenge me on the slopes and forever banish my Winter Olympics-induced shame. This year, I had a strong candidate, Indian luger Shiva Keshavan. But the story of this "great brown hope" is not one of unmitigated joy and triumph. It's a parable for the tragedy of modern India. More than that, though, Shiva's struggles teach us that a brown man trying to make it in a white man's world is like luging uphill.

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