The Fastest Man on Ice

Thursday, February 18, 2010 | 10 Comment(s)

I have been getting into the Winter Olympics. While I understand that there are many sound arguments both for and against the Olympics, I honestly don't care. All I know is that i have been pretty psyched up to watch all of the crazy events no matter if it includes skiing with a gun (biathlon) or cleaning ice with almost supernatural OCD (curling). I dont recall being this into the games in previous years, so I can only imagine that this change has at least something to do with the fact that my gf, who was a competitive x-country skier through high school, gets super excited for the games. And i, as is my tendency, generally get pretty psyched up for things my gf is psyched about. I am, admittedly, easily excitable. It's a good dynamic overall.

But something happened last night during the speed skating event that got me pretty friggin mad at NBC (who is broadcasting the Olympics), and I feel the need to share what took place with you all, as both a matter of venting and perhaps even a quick social psychology lesson. Get out your pencils (laptops), class is in session.

Shani Davis, for those of you who don't follow the games that closely, is the reining 1000m speed skater (he will also compete for the 1500m) from the US. He was brought up by a single mother in Chicago, and he is black. Shani Davis, at what is considered the speed-skating "middle distances," is the fastest man on skates. He's beautiful to watch and, from my understanding, has an absolutely grueling training regimen. Additionally, for those of you who might not assume this, there are NOT a lot of black speed skaters. Rephrase: I do not know of any other black speed skaters ever. Shani was the first African-American to win a Winter Olympic gold medal--ever.

It also needs to be said that Shani is . . . um . . . quirky. He trains separately from the US team and recently even called Steven Colbert (who saved US speed-skating by helping them raise sponsorship) "a jerk." He later raced Colbert (giving the novice a 12 min. head start--hilarious tv) and blew his doors off. All this is to say that Shani has not been without controversy throughout his career. Some of it deserved, some of it not deserved.

But last night, as Shani was winning his second gold in defending his 1000m gold, the NBC announcer said this, "Wow, Shani Davis, who just has amazing natural talent, . . . " I don't know how the sentence ended. My anger has clouded my memory. Now, let me tell you why that statement is racist.

I'm sure the announcer doesn't "hate black people." He wouldn't say he's racist at all. But he is participating in a practice that devalues the accomplishments of the minority, in order to keep the status quo of privilege tilted in his favor. To say that Shani has, "natural ability" at speed skating, is laughable. On a lot of levels. First, it is explaining away all of the incredible amounts of training and work it takes for anyone to be the best at any sport (even curling). I don't care if you are born with blades growing out of your feet, you still can't be the fastest person after 1000m on ice without unwavering dedication and sacrifice. Second, natural ability huh. The ability that Shani was born with for going fast on ice. Yah, that's likely. I mean, just considering the incredible number of opportunities Black youths have to get on the ice . . . i mean . . . there is natural talent all over the place. Oh wait, no. Shani Davis, quirky or not, overcame what have got to be unrelenting odds to become the athlete he is. And once again, AT SPEED SKATING! To call his success a result of some innate ability, and not to credit his success to him as an individual, is to explain away Shani's triumph as a matter of essentially genetic luck. And this has everything to do with race. America has a long and un-proud tradition of explaining away Black successes as a matter of some predetermined genetic physical advantage (my friend, also black, when I recounted this story added, "yah, Shani must have thought the ice was grass, and just ran."). This serves to discredit the idea that the minority group member earned his/her success and distances the minority group from being able to take credit for their success. It also serves to create the idea, linguistically, that positive traits from minority group members are specific to that individual, whereas positive traits of majority group members, are more generalizable to the group (e.g. Norwegian's are great at x-country. Instead of, Sven has incredible innate ability.). Rest assured, when the valence is reversed, aka. negative attributes about minorities, the language generalizes to the group once again (and negative majority group traits are individualized to the specific individual, to spare the group). And now, all of this bullshit has people thinking that Black people are born at a physical advantage.

*edit: From the response this post is getting (which i LOVE) i feel the need to clarify something. I think what is missing from my explanation is the inflection of the announcer who, in my mind, was explaining Shani's success as a factor of his natural ability RATHER than his grueling workout regime and training--which are insane.

On an unrelated note, I saw a news report the other day talking about a recent car accident that, "police believe 'speed' was a factor in" Good thing I was sitting down when i heard that. (I would love to see what 2 parked cars getting in an accident would look like.)


  1. Careful on your way down from that horse, wouldn't want you to fall on your natural ass. While I don't disagree per se, the commentators ALSO use the same language about white, female downhill skiers AND male snowboarders. Neither were born with anything special as it relates to balancing on long, flat surfaces and moving quickly downhill on icy mountains, but that doesn't mean it is a racist comment. I too watched Shani Davis and was impressed, but part of the "natural talent" comes from grace on ice and mental acuity to understand when to glide, when to press and when to go crazy with speed. Same natural ability that Tiger Woods has when faced with a 25 foot put for eagle and a win. Same natural ability Peyton Manning has when faced with 2 minutes and 95 yards for the win. Absolutely, 100% agree that training and commitment make up most of those efforts, but if you and I both spent 22 hours/day for the past 10 years, we would be NOWHERE near those guys. Slow-mo out. Mwuuua.

  2. Hey Eric. I'll break this down.
    1) Being educated on a subject (aka. studying this stuff for the past 4-10 years) doesn't equal being on a high horse (or high douche horse for that matter). It's a common political strategy these days actually, to think that those who actually devote their time to understanding these issues, then somehow become "the elite" when they try to inform the more general public.
    2) I have not heard the words "natural ability" used for any of the athletes you mentioned (and there are, i believe, different announcers for the different disciplines), and i've been watching. Saying someone has the ability to "go bigger" than everyone else (a la Shawn White) is different than saying he was blessed with some natural ability to be able to do it.
    3) here is the beginning of Lindsy Vonn's wikipedia entry--see if you can find "anything special that points to privilege and opportunity when it comes to balancing on long, flat surfaces moving downhill": "Vonn was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and was raised in the Twin Cities metro area, in Burnsville. She was on skis at age 2 before moving into Erich Sailer's renowned development program at Buck Hill, which also produced slalom racer Kristina Koznick. Her father, Alan Kildow, who had been a national junior skiing champion before a knee injury at 18, "pushed" her very hard, according to Sailer.
    When she was 10 years old she met Olympic gold medal skier Picabo Street, whom she considers her hero and role model. Their meeting made such an impression on Street that she remembered the meeting and later would serve as Vonn's mentor in skiing. Vonn commuted to Colorado to train for a couple of years before her family moved to Vail in the late 1990s"

    3) I disagree with you that the natural ability being commented on relates to Shani's mental acuity. I mean, all of these athletes are trained and videotaped and analyzed--I just don't think, in the end, that it's Shani's cerebral advantage that the announcers are talking about. You can feel free to disagree.

    4) I honestly believe that if we dedicated our lives from an early age to an athletic pursuit--and were given the privileges of top notch training-- we too could compete against the best. Personally though, I don't have the drive, commitments, or inclination. But I don't see why we would be destined to fail.

    5) I have CERTAINLY never heard innate ability talked about with Peyton (or Tiger). They talk about their work ethic or their talent level, but never have I heard anything that points to Peyton's success being the result of innate ability. In his case, being the son of a former pro QB also probably gave him a leg up on the competition. Interestingly, I have read some interesting articles recently about the reverse discrimination for white running backs in the NFL.

    I really could go on and on about this. But I'm gonna stop here.

  3. This dialogue is much more meaningful and intense than the conversation my boyfriend and I had last night re: when not training for the Olympics, thus undergoing drug testing, does Shaun White smoke weed? Were we stereotyping by asking this question? Absolutely.

  4. He smokes weed. No doubt.

    On another note, when I read Matty's first published book entitled "Natural Abilities: racist or realist?", I'm first in line for the book signing.

    No doubt a page turner...

    BTW, it is 74 degrees in San Diego today. I'm wearing shorts. February 18th. Love it.

  5. @Becky. Weed. Yes.

    @Lefty. For clarification. Does natural ability exist, yes. Does it win you an Olympic medal-- no.

  6. hey mattiti--
    i totally agree with you on this--
    as a person studying language I was very much aware about the Shani reference the announcers made last night and started a dialogue about it today in one of my classes. Everyone was in agreement--it's these sublties of language that often have the most loaded content, no?
    Not to mention the historical accuracy of your assertion that "America has long and unproud tradition of explaining away black successes as a matter of some pre-determined genetic advantage"...etc.
    So anyway, just wanted to offer my two cents--thank you for this post. Am excited to read more from you! miss you & sending some sweet CA warmth your way.

  7. I didn't hear/watch this, so I have to trust that the announcer was talking about this athlete in qualitatively different ways from which he would talk about other athletes (don't they *all* have great natural ability? Isn't that the whole fucking point? I could train til my ears bled, but wouldn't even come close to the same league as any Olympian).

    Matti, you have great natural talent as a social psychologist. That's not to say that you were born to *be a social psychologist.* Rather, you were born with a constellation of strengths and qualities that facilitate doing social psychology--intelligence, sensitivity, tolerance for ambiguity, a passion for social justice, intrinsic interest in human behavior, etc. THose qualities give you an advantage over other people who might study social psych books until their eyes cross but who jsut donb't have a facility for it. We see this all the time--undergrads who want to go to grad school, but you just *know* they don't actually have what it takes, despite being motivated. So yeah, natural ability is part of it, and it's not predestination--I doubt anyone would suggest some people are born with natural skating ability, any more than they are born with natural banjo-playing ability. But people do differ in the skills and physical attributes and other qualities that facilitate these pursuits.
    Of course, you might be the most intelligent and socially sensitive guy on the planet, but you still have to study and work your ass off to earn a social psychology doctorate. The ability amounts to nothing without the training. But the training would be pointless without the ability. It's valid to say that *both* are present and both are important.
    It makes some sense to me, then, to comment that a certtain athlete excels because she trains much harder (or better) than others, and it makes equal sense to say another athlete excels because he has greater natural ability (and of course he trains hard, but so do his competitors--what gives him the advantage is his superior talent).
    I think of Michael Phelps, who (according to what I've read) was blessed with a perfect storm of multiple physical attributes that facilitate swimming (long torso, big feet, etc). So Phelps has a natural edge--and I'm not sure there's anything wrong with pointing that out.
    Granted, I don't know this skater from Adam, and so I have to assume that this situation is clearly different--perhaps this "natural ability" the announcer was talking about is actually no greater than any other speed skater, in which caqse your point is well taken that the perception of such ability is likely an interpretation that is biased by racial stereotypes.

  8. Natural ability can win you an Olympic medal if your ability is to bend space-time, or you are Flash Gordon, even if you are a black Flash Gordon.

  9. People, one way or the other it boils down to this: Chicago produces people who are just plain worth having sex with. No need to get all touchy and "you're so wonderful as a person but wrong". Just go out, find a person with some affiliation to Chicago, and have sex with them.

  10. PS. My very very good friend Nick can be found on the South Side of Chicago. He is very good. And thorough.