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"Cultural Lens"

What are your feelings about Shani Davis? What about Bode Miller? Davis , for those who did not follow the just completed Winter Olympics in Italy , is a speed skater who has been roundly criticized by his teammates. Why? He decided not to join fellow team members to compete for a team medal in speed skating. According to Davis , he wanted to focus on his individual race. Without him, the U.S. team had no chance to earn a medal in the team event.

Miller, a U.S. skier, has made a number of controversial remarks pointing to his desire to do things his way even if it gets him into trouble. For example, on 60 Minutes he talked about skiing a race while he was drunk.

Many reporters from the U.S. covering the Olympics have been highly critical of Davis and Miller. After all, the Olympics is not about the individual, it is about something much bigger. Or is it?

Often, members of the media are oblivious to their cultural lens when they cover events such as the Olympics. In other words, they fail to appreciate how their cultural background affects what they see and how they report what they see. While we hold up teamwork and winning a medal for one's country as an ideal, I wonder how many athletes are more motivated by their own individual goals and achievements. As Davis said, my job “is to make sure I take care of myself the best I can because I worked hard to get to where I am now.” And he has no doubt worked extremely hard. Notice how many time athletes focus on “I” and “me” and “myself.”

In the U.S. , we are taught “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” In Japan , people are taught “the nail that stands up gets hammered down.” Miller was comfortable bringing all kinds of attention to himself. Should we be surprised?

We live in a culture that focuses on individualism instead of collectivism. In other words, many of us have been socialized to prioritize “me” over “we.” This is part of our cultural upbringing. Each night, ESPN shows the ten sports highlights of the day. Virtually every highlight features an individual performance – Shaq slam dunking a basketball, Ray Lewis making a game saving quarterback sack, or maybe Tiger Woods sinking a long putt.

Look at the current sports statistics in The Carroll County Times for high school basketball. The statistics show who are the individual leaders in categories such as scoring and three-point field goals. Consider what would happen if The Carroll County Times decided not to publish the points tallied by individuals in the box score. My bet is that more than a few players and parents would be extremely upset. Given our cultural background, it is surprising that more athletes do not place their own personal goals over the team.

Ralph Linton, an anthropologist, says culture is to humans like water is to fish. The last thing a fish swimming in water is going to see is the water. Similarly, culture is invisible to us much of the time because we are immersed in it and always have been. Therefore, we take it for granted. We tend not to see how culture is influencing us or those around us.

Prior to the Winter Olympics, Bryant Gumbel commented on the lack of diversity among the athletes. He made these remarks during his closing commentary on HBO's “Real Sports.” While the cultural context of his remarks was not immediately visible to him and many others, what he said about diversity bears closer examination. He discounted the abilities of athletes who compete in the Olympic Games. According to Gumbel, they are not the world's greatest athletes because blacks are so underrepresented. Gumbel's definition of diversity is restricted by his cultural upbringing and cultural arrogance. Like many other journalists from the U.S. , he equates diversity with race. Even though the Olympics highlights tremendous cultural, linguistic, religious, social class, and gender diversity, Gumbel could not see beyond the lens of race. Interestingly, people in many other countries view diversity very differently.

Shani Davis, mentioned earlier, was the first African-American to win a gold medal in an individual event at the Winter Olympics. He was asked about that accomplishment after winning the 1,000-meter speedskating competition. His response, which caught the U.S. reporter off-guard, was, “To me, it doesn't matter what color I am. He continued, “Black or white, Asian or Hispanic, it doesn't matter to me as long as the message I'm portraying to people that watch me on TV is positive…” While some of us might think his accomplishment is all the more significant because of his race, Shani expressed his thoughts and his own cultural upbringing. Should he be criticized for that as some have done?

Speaking of sports and the media, I just got around to reading a recent Sports Illustrated dubbed as the swimsuit issue. On the cover are eight white women, mostly blonde, and all revealing their assets. What struck me about this picture, and virtually all of the pictures inside, are the lack of women who are African American, Asian American, Latina , and Native American. What does this reveal about our definition of beauty or sexiness in the United States ? As our population has become more culturally diverse, why hasn't our image of beauty become more flexible? As far as Sports Illustrated is concerned, it might be revealing to look at the racial, ethnic, and gender diversity of their executives - the people who decide what to cover and how to cover it.



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