Monday, February 20, 2006

Brief notes on Monday, Feb. 20

In The New Republic online, Lee Siegel explains that the "drama" of the Olympics is that there is no real drama. For example: Siegel dismisses the obvious racial tensions (the fact that Chad Hedrick seemed to think that Shani Davis, the only black speed skater, "owed" him something) as nothing. Obviously, Lee Siegel isn't black, and doesn't know what it feels like to have white people assume their superiority and their prerogative. In The New York Times SportsSunday section, Harvey Araton has an editorial piece in which he tries to "place" the recent problems with the American men's speed skating "team". Basically, Araton's analysis is that Hedrick is a white guy who wanted to win five gold medals, so that he could match other white Americans who've also won five gold medals. But in the Winter Olympics, how many black Americans have ever won a gold medal? So what Shani Davis did was historic, and he didn't lose his focus, and he won his gold medal. And if that meant that he had to concentrate on his particular race, the 1,000 meter speedskating. Davis wasn't going to risk anything by doing the relay the day before.

Because of his dedication to his sport, to the particular race he was going to run, and his need to maintain his focus, he was seen as a "traitor" because he didn't bend to the whim of Chad Hedrick. (Shani Davis has admitted that he was inundated with hate e.mails, most of which used the "n" word, because he dared to defy his "betters".)

This fact, that the Winter Olympics are so fraught with racism and classism, is the true story of these games. It truly is the George W. Bush Olympics: on the one hand, you have a number of dedicated (poor or nonwhite) athletes (such as: Joey Cheek, Shani Davis, Apolo Ohno, Toby Dawson) who have won medals. And then you have the frat-boy white guys, who seem to think that they're owed something, simply because they showed up. Even after they've lost, their arrogance is breathtaking!

(One of the most touching things i read was the blog on the NBC Olympic site by Yuki Ohno, Apolo Ohno's father. Just before Shani Davis's Speedskating 1,000 meter run, Yuki Ohno writes to Cherie Davis, Shani's mother, that they are both there with their sons, they are single parents who have struggled to see their sons win, and yet people still say rude things. And after Shani's victory, Yuki Ohno congratulates Shani, but also Cherie, for all the sacrifices, and for understanding what her son needed to do. Of course, that same say, Apolo Ohno won the bronze medal in the short-track 1,000 meter speedskate.)

Of course, times change: when Kristi Yamaguchi was coming through the ranks, the commentary was often so rude! Peggy Fleming, in particular, at one point (my father remarked on it while we were watching) made a point about the fact that Yamaguchi just didn't have the clean "line" that American skaters should have. Now, Michelle Kwan is an obvious "star", but that's because Kristi Yamaguchi had to put up with so much crap! (After she won her medals, Kristi Yamaguchi got nada endorsements. Nobody wanted to be associated with a "Japanese" medalist.) Bode Miller gets endorsements, and Chad Hedrick gets endorsements....

But some black guy from Chicago? No way.

Since Joey Cheek is from Greensboro, i asked my friend Diane who is there now what the scuttlebutt, and Diane said that there's been a lot of stories about him locally. He's from a working class family that was too poor to send him to a private or "charter" school, so he had to go to the local public schools, which are mostly black. (That's why he's the only skater aside from Apolo Ohno who is friends with Shani Davis.) In the Times today, there was an article by Karen Crouse about Joey Cheek, how he applied to Harvard law school, but was rejected. Though his test scores are good, his grades are erratic, because he has been homeschooled for much of the time, so that he could concentrate on his training. And (of course) he has donated the "bonus" he got from the US Olympic Committee to the Toronto-based Right to Play, a charity run by Johann Olav Koss (described as "the four-time speedskating gold medalist from Norway").

So the point isn't to just accept the (biased) coverage from NBC and its affiliates, there should be some investigative reporting, because the story of these Winter Olympics centers on the distinctions that have been made, and the virtual blackout on press coverage for those Olympians who don't conform. It's like Fox News, even the NBC affiliates: "unbiased" if you happen to be a rightwing fanatic like Bill O'Reilly or Tucker Carlson.

I was sorry that Johnny Weir wasn't able to win a medal, but he didn't whine about it, he knew he didn't skate as well as he could have, and hopefully he'll do better in the future. Of course, there's all this pressure being put on him to come out, but he seems to be ok with doing things at his own speed. But his costumes! That boy is the kind who gives figure skating the name it has.

But what i really thought is that the problem is that NBC has set out its own agenda, and expected the results to match its predictions. They didn't count on what actually happened, and the "machine" of NBC was too bloated to change at the last minute, to go with the flow. For example: there was all this build-up about Chad Hedrick, and when the speedskating team relay didn't go off the way he planned, he got to sound off, because he was already being given air time. But nobody spoke to Shani Davis, no one asked him anything, and even after he won his gold medal, NBC didn't bother with him!

It reminds me of the experience of doing James Toback's film, "The Big Bang": a group of us (i forget how many of us) were taken to a large house in New Jersey, where we were supposed to answer questions about our ideas of the universe, fate, the origins of the universe. Quite frankly, a lot of phoney "big" questions. But while we were there.... well, there was this German woman who had decided that she wanted a baby, and she wanted Toback to be the father. There were no strings, if Toback didn't want to be involved, that was fine. But Toback did keep in touch, and he did see his daughter on occasion. But this German woman had decided that Toback was the man she wanted as her child's father. And she was there, and the little girl, who was (then) six. A very lively, smart girl, though her mother complained that she was lazy, she just liked to sit around, the mother kept trying to get her to be more active. And James Toback's mother was also there! And she had never seen her granddaughter, in fact, she had only heard rumors, but James Toback had never actually confirmed anything. And this was the first time that James Toback's mother was seeing her grandchild!

At one point, Toback's mother came over and sat with us (there were five of us sitting on the couch) and she tried to... well, she was very upset, and she kept saying, why is it so wrong for me to want to be part of my granddaughter's life? But "that woman" doesn't want me to be part of her life! Why?

Now, if i were Toback, i would have realized that, right here, there was this intense human drama going on, and i would have junked the phoney philosophical "discourse" and grabbed the crew, and started following his own mother and his daughter and the German woman who was the mother of the child.

But Toback had his gameplan, and that was it.

If Bode Miller is washing out, then it's time for the coverage to focus on (say) Apolo Ohno and Shani Davis. But NO.


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