PYEONGCHANG, Korea, Republic Of — Shani Davis made history as the first black athlete to win an individual gold medal at a Winter Olympics in 2006 and the winningest man in American speed skating. So when the speedskater tweeted his outrage after losing the opportunity to represent Team USA as its flag bearer in Friday night’s opening ceremonies, his #blackhistorymonth hashtag served as a kind of racial shorthand.
And it resonated with African-Americans far beyond sports.
For them, it was a familiar scenario: Despite being exceptional in a field dominated by whites, he was bypassed for a job he deserved. What’s more, when he pointed that out, he was shouted down as an ungrateful distraction.
From celebrities to corporate America, the slight was a reminder of what blacks regularly experience in a white world — a feeling that the game is rigged.
The coin toss is almost beside the point. That the vote was tied between a bronze medallist and a two-time gold medallist points to an outcome that also included intangibles — among them, likeability and popularit y. While a coin cannot be biased, people can — and often, the results of racial bias can sting with unfairness.
To understand Davis’ indignation is not to focus on a twist of fate or his skin colour, but to ask: What if Erin Hamlin had been denied as the more decorated Olympian?
Unlike the Summer Games, where black athletes are dominant and ubiquitous, the Winter Olympics offer fewer opportunities for them to shine. Black athletes at the Winter Games are often treated as an anomaly — a fact popularized by the movie “Cool Runnings,” about Jamaica’s first bobsled team, which made its debut at the 1988 Calgary Games.
Part of the film’s appeal was in its unspoken message: The Winter Olympics, like certain schools, neighbourhoods or jobs, is not a place where black people are supposed to be.
More than a century after the start of the Olympiad, black athletes are still pioneers at the Games. In 2018, Team USA includes Jordan Greenway, its first black member of the U.S. men’s hockey team, and 17-year-old Maame Biney, its first African-American female speedskater . Jamaica will field its first women’s bobsled team, and Africa’s first bobsled and skeleton athletes will represent Nigeria.
It’s an environment in which Davis has thrived, winning two gold medals and two silver medals at the Turin and Vancouver Games. That he has earned his place in the annals of Olympic glory goes without telling, but the role of flag bearer is about the showing. In what will likely be his last Games at 35, the choice of Davis for the role — a symbol of pride, respect and affirmation for the carrier — would have been among his final honours, save yet another medal.
As the Games open Friday, Davis is being decried and dismissed by many on social media who look to the Olympics as an escape from real-world issues.
The Pyeongchang Games features America’s most diverse group of athletes ever, including 10 African-Americans. Aside from a chance to highlight the milestone in the international spotlight of the world’s largest sporting event, there are the optics of black athletes, draped in the American flag and representing their country.
That’s a notable contrast from the racial tensions of the recently-ended NFL season, which was clouded when protests over racial inequality were overshadowed with accusations that black players were unpatriotic by taking a knee while the Star-Spangled Banner played.
The Davis tweet and the events that produced it are the latest reminder of how race is an inescapable aspect of American life. Even 7,000 miles away, in a bubble of humanity and goodwill, for the black athlete, the myth of the level playing field isn’t limited to sport.