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?

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.

Like so many of us, Shiva fell in love with luge at a young age. He was only 16 when he took part in the 1998 Olympics, barely four months after his very first luge run. Shiva also competed in the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City. It should come as no surprise that he was India's sole Winter Olympics representative both times.

This year was supposed to be different. The world has changed, and so has India. Once considered a pestilential backwater full of wild-eyed mystics, India is now seen as an IT powerhouse full of wild-eyed engineers. Engineering prowess, of course, is a requisite in the luge, a sport in which cold-weather scientists and athletes team up to conjure the sleds of the future. With his country behind him, it seemed, Shiva could steal the show and start a new era of brown-man dominance.

Alas, it was not to be. Shiva finished 25th out of 36 lugers, thanks entirely to the nonfunctioning "Indian Luge Association." You see, this so-called luge federation provided Shiva with virtually no financial assistance, forcing him to pay for luging essentials out of his own pocket. Rather than spend his hard-earned money on a high-tech, precision-engineered sled, Shiva blew more than $300 on a fancy, saffron-colored luge suit. He must have surmised that the lusty "ooohs" and "aaaahs" emitted by ladies swooning over his luge-suited frame would propel him at a velocity approaching the speed of light. Regrettably, that is not how the laws of physics operate.

Like Shiva, India has a maddening tendency to misplace priorities. You'd think the country would pony up for a world-class Olympic squad befitting its newfound status as an economic juggernaut. Instead, it seems that some New Delhi nerd decided to prioritize providing basic services to an impoverished population racked by the twin plagues of illiteracy and disease.

Disappointed yet again, I can't help but conclude that my hopes of adding a drop of Hershey's Syrup to the skim milk of the Winter Olympics were misplaced. Though chocolate milk is, as New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin recently pointed out, a "delicious drink," the deck will always be stacked against the droplets among us. After all, I'm starting to realize, we brown folks hail from largely snowless, tropical climes. It's not fair, but it's the cold, hard truth.

So, I'm giving up on the Winter Olympics. Like a latter-day Marcus Garvey, I recommend that brown men abandon the white man's "winter games." Instead, we will master ancient Indian sports like kalaripayattu, kabbadi, and, who can forget, kho-kho. And all will be well.

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Reihan Salam is a columnist for Slate.