Tonight, one of the Olympics' few black figure skaters will perform Out of Africa with his white partner. And then there are the censored Russian ice dancers whose "Aboriginal dance" used to include brown skin suits, fake eucalyptus, and warpaint.
Should we take offense, or take it with a grain of salt?
Olympic diversity is, after all, stunning: Diversity of bodies, culture, and language, intermingling in a happy zone of sportsmanship and brotherhood. But with 82 nations parading through Vancouver this year—each angling for its moment of glory—multiculturalism may err on the side of trite. (See: Opening Ceremony, Parade of Nations. Natives beating drums! Bermudans in Bermuda shorts!) In no sport is this minstrelsy of nations more apparent than in kitschy, gimmicky, stage-crafted world of figure skating. Two examples from this year's masquerade on ice, and whether you should be offended:
Exhibit A: Mixed-Race German Pair Chooses an Awkward Song
Tonight, the Olympic's only medal-contending black figure skater will fling a petite blonde woman in time with music from the movie Out of Africa. Here's a preview of Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy's Out of Africa routine, which led them to a first place finish at the 2009 ISU Grand Prix:
Savchenko and Szolkowy are currently ranked second in the pairs figure skating competition. My gut instinct upon seeing them and reading the title of their upcoming Long Program was "Uh oh," but the music is of the muzak variety, which dulls all outrage to a low, slow snore. (Then again, if it's aurally forgettable, why not choose something with a less-awkward title?) "Black" also may not be how Robin Szolkowy sees himself—he is the multiracial son of a Tanzanian doctor and German nurse, born and raised in Germany. (Which once colonized Tanzania! But mostly it was the Brits.) So now I feel like I'm having one of those not-totally-racist-but-not-comfortable-either "No, Grandpa Harry, nobody says 'negro' anymore" conversations.
Conclusion: Don't be offended, but do avoid making eye contact with Grandpa Harry during this routine.
Exhibit B: Russian Ice Dancing Champs Perform 'Aboriginal Song'
World ice dancing champions Oksama Domnina and Maksim Shabalin first horrified international audiences when they donned brown skin suits, war paint, and eucalyptus leaves to perform an "Aboriginal Song" for an Original Dance in January:
Indigenous Australians protested that the routine as "very offensive," "cultural theft," and embarrassingly juvenile. Plus the didgeridoo was all wrong. After some bureaucratic haggling, Domnina and Shabalin agreed to split the difference: They'll ditch the costumes, but will use the original music and choreography for their Olympic performance next Monday. The pair say they meant no harm, they just didn't want to do "another Slavic dance." In an athletic field where women routinely don flamenco negligees to sashay like a gypsy to Carmen, where illusion netting is never quite the right shade, and in a nation where they don't have aborigines, you can sort of see where they're coming from, right? And yet, no, you can't, because how could a well-traveled world-class Olympian possibly think using a "skin suit" to alter the color of his "skin" is a good idea?
Conclusion: Be offended, and pity the victims of cultural relativism. There are a lot of them.