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Bryant Gumbel: skating on thin ice

Posted by Richard on February 20, 2006

Put yourself in Bryant Gumbel’s place for a moment. You’ve got this show, "Real Sports," on HBO. They’re paying you huge sums of money to be provocative and entertaining, not to keep your enormous ego in check. You’ve got to come up with a clever closing monologue for the next show. The producer told you last week’s was pretty lame, and you need to punch it up a bit.

It’s February. Things are pretty slow in the world of sports. Football’s over. Baseball spring training hasn’t started yet. And who cares about NASCAR, or about the NHL and NBA until playoffs? If it weren’t for the stupid Winter Olympics, there’d be nothing going on. That’s it! Trash the Winter Olympics — make it a bit edgy and fun!

What can you say about the Winter Olympics? Well, you can always get a chuckle by poking fun at the weird events — biathlon, curling, luge, skeleton — and dissing figure skating will earn you points with the beer-and-wings crowd. And here’s an idea for something both edgy and funny: complain about sports invented in Scandinavia and the Alps being dominated by white people.

Yeah, the producer will love this monologue — now to deliver it with the characteristic Gumbel air of smug sarcasm and superiority:

"Finally, tonight, the Winter Games. Count me among those who don’t like them and won’t watch them … 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 … 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."

Imagine Gumbel’s surprise when the fit hit the shan, and people started calling him a racist and a bigot and a pompous ass (well, OK, people have been calling him a pompous ass for many years, but…). Most of the anger, curiously enough, didn’t come from figure skating fans, but from people irate about the bolded sentence above.

What Gumbel didn’t count on is that nowadays there are a lot of pigmentally-challenged people who’ve learned what I call the Law of Comparative Outrage: whoever takes offense first and loudest gains the advantage. "How dare you suggest that white people can’t be world-class athletes!" "How dare you imply that people of color aren’t welcome in the Republican Party!" "How dare you sneer at women and gay men for openly and honestly displaying their emotions after blowing a triple lutz!"

Personally, I wasn’t bothered by his remarks (although I found them no funnier than most of what Gumbel says — which is to say, not very). I wish everyone of every shade and persuasion were less thin-skinned and sensitive. I think humor was funnier back when we could laugh at each other, not just with each other. Did you hear the one about the Irish midget priest with a harelip?

I do think it’s odd that Gumbel would deny Olympic status to skiing and skating because the ancient Greeks didn’t do that. When the Summer Olympics come around, is he going to object to cycling, basketball, kayaking, shooting, and synchronized swimming? (Actually, I’ll sign the petition to dump synchronized swimming.) And I can’t help wondering what would happen if Terry Bradshaw said he won’t watch the NBA playoffs because they look like an NAACP meeting (glandular freak chapter).

What amused me, though, was Gumbel’s lousy timing. About the time reaction to his remarks had peaked and was beginning to die down, a kid from the south side of Chicago named Shani Davis won the gold medal in men’s 1000 meter speedskating, and suddenly his picture, frequently accompanied by a reference to Gumbel’s remarks, was everywhere.

Shani Davis

Of course, he’s not the only black athlete at the Winter Olympics. Booker Rising has been profiling them in what she calls the Black Ice Series. I don’t see a list of links; just keep scrolling or search the page for "black ice." Or, there’s a partial list at The Texas Songbird.

Booker Rising is also where I found the nice picture above, in this post about Davis’ gold medal performance. I don’t know where Shay got the picture, and I hope she doesn’t mind me borrowing it.

I bet ice skates (or roller skates, which is what Shani Davis started on) cost less than most of the poputar big-name basketball shoes. Maybe the next time Bryant Gumbel talks to a bunch of black kids, he should tell them about Shani Davis and encourage them to pursue a sport for its own sake, and not for some one-in-a-bazillion chance to become an overpaid football, basketball, or baseball star.

Of course, there’s the danger that some of them would get figure skates and some day end up in that "kiss and cry area."

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