HOW do you take your Olympic coffee — white, or black? In Rio, coffee is prepared from beans imported from countries across the world — Bolivia, Ethiopia, Jamaica, Kenya, Australia, even Thailand. Its percolating machines filter them, a metaphor for the transient internationalism of the Olympic Games themselves.
Never before, though, in the history of the Olympic Games has the subject of colour and race been given such inordinate exposure by sports commentators. Until Rio 2016, certain categories of sport were reserved, like the poorer seats at the back of a segregated bus, for people of colour. It has been a given that any sport requiring equipment or facilities could be pursued only by those who could afford it.
Sports such as “archery, canoe/kayak, cycling, equestrian, rowing, modern pentathlon, sailing, shooting and triathlon squads” were, as one commentator put it, “blindingly white”. Black people were good for running and boxing.
Nothing proved this point more than the statistic that out of all the gold medals won by runners, over half have been by ‘African’ athletes, and in boxing ‘Africans’ alone have won 40 medals. Or that, in the 1960 Rome Olympics, the winner of the showpiece marathon Abebe Bikila, an Ethiopian, ran his race barefoot.
Rio 2016 has changed that, irreversibly. Black is the new gold. The Western media crew of voluble sports commentators have yet to adapt to the new paradigm. A young American girl wins a gold medal in the 100 metres freestyle swimming, and she is touted as the first black/Afro-American girl ever to win such an event. Her compatriot, Simone Biles, wins four gold medals in gymnastics and the media marvels at how a black girl can break the colour bars, horse and rings. Daryl Hanes gains a silver medal in the men’s sabre fencing, and his achievement carries the addendum that it is the first time in 112 years that a black/Afro-American has won in this category.
Almaz Ayana secures the gold for 10,000 metres long distance run, but then, she is from Ethiopia. And when a young woman, Ibtihaj Muhammad, appears — in a hijab — to compete in a fencing match, the attention of the viewers is drawn not to her skill with an épée but her decision to hide her hair.
No hijab will ever be large enough or thick enough to hide the bias of some of the more raucous elements of the reporting media. Their remarks about black/Afro-American female sportspersons remind one of Dr Samuel Johnson’s famous observation about female preachers. Told by James Boswell that he had heard a woman preach, Dr Johnson’s retorted: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”
For one particular contestant — Yulia Refomiva, from cold-shouldered Russia — the Rio Olympics were another battlefield. “Rio was awful,” she lamented, “it was war.” To be booed after four years of preparation, effort, training and high-pressure performance was more than a waste of adrenalin. It was a negation, a perversion of the Olympic spirit. The spectators became judges, and the judges spectators.
If the Russians are to be believed, the United States has conspired to hamstring Russia. Whether Russia could have posed a serious challenge to the US, or for that matter Great Britain, in the medals table is now a matter of Monday morning conjecture. It would appear, though, that both Russia and China have lost interest in the Olympics. They no longer see it as an arena in which they need to prove themselves. In Beijing 2008, China could not afford to lose.
In Rio, China did not care if it did not win. That is not to say its Olympic team did not give their best. They did. But the embers of Beijing had been banked, its fire tempered. The colour of the medal no longer drove the Chinese.
India had sent the largest Olympic contingent in its history to Rio. Over a billion Indians hoped for a richer trawl of medals than one silver and a single bronze — the first for badminton and the second for wrestling. The silver came as a hard-won surprise. The latter was to be expected.
After all, India has had enough practice. It has wrestled with Pakistan for 69 years over everything — Sir Creek, Rann of Kutch, a seat in the UN Security Council, a place in the ECO, and perennially Jammu & Kashmir.
If only the statue of Christ the Redeemer above Rio could be transposed to Wagah border. With one arm outstretched into Pakistan and the other into India, who knows? He might perform the miracle for them he did for the Brazilians. They are still celebrating their soccer gold by crying into their coffee.
The writer is an art historian.
Published in Dawn, August 25th, 2016