Writers Offer A Look At 'Unlikely' Winter Olympians

At the Winter Olympics in Vancouver all eyes will be on big-name athletes such as speed skater Shani Davis and snow boarder Shaun White. But there are a handful of athletes from countries that don't traditionally have winter — let alone winter sports — programs. They are unlikely Olympians, and host Michel Martin speaks with Susan Glasser, the executive editor of Foreign Policy magazine, about them.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

But we're going to turn, now, to, I think happier news in sports, at least, kind of a - I don't know. It's kind of little those things that you don't expect to see in the Winter Olympics. A lot of people will remember the Jamaican bobsled team that competed in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. The story was so charming that it inspired the 1993 movie "Cool Runnings." But they are not the last people to make an unlikely trip.

Here to tell us more about this, is Susan Glasser. She is the executive editor of Foreign Policy Magazine, which has a very fun feature that you can read on their Web site, profiling some of the Olympians that you might not have expected to see. She's here with us, also. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

Ms. SUSAN GLASSER (Executive Editor, Foreign Policy): Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: What gave you the idea?

Ms. GLASSER: Well, you know, we were talking about the outlier concept, the idea that the Olympics are not always that neatly packaged thing you see at eight o'clock at night on NBC, where you see a few Americans competing against other people. They usually win the gold medal. Everybody goes to sleep happy.

You know, that these are - that there is a whole lot more going on there. And that this is an unusual showcase for the world, right. And we went, we looked. Our wonderful researchers Kayvan and Andrew found just extraordinary stories about the guys from Taiwan, and Ghana, and Brazil; and Iran has its first woman, ever, competing in the Olympics this year. There is a Jamaican skier this year, perhaps an homage to the bobsled team. It's - there is a whole world of, sort of, interesting things that tell you actually something more about the globalization of sport, about immigration, about what it takes to compete. You know, is it only a Romania that can be good at gymnastics, is it only Canada and the U.S. and Russia that can play hockey?

MARTIN: And well, speaking of what it takes to compete, I think one of the things you need to compete is a fabulous outfit. And by any standard, this is a photo essay, so I really recommend the people to try to get a look at these pictures. But talk about - one of my personal favorites, just based on the outfit, was the snow leopard Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong, who's Ghana's first Alpine skier. And he's got this fabulous you depict him in this fabulous kind of leopard print ensemble. But how did he do it? How did he do? Where does he train? Certainly, he can't train in Ghana.

Ms. GLASSER: Well, that's exactly right. And actually if you drill into the stories of some of these folks, that's what you find in general is that people who have a passion to compete, either was turned on because they emigrated from Ethiopia to the United States and they happen to go skiing.

In the case of the the so called snow leopard from Ghana, he was actually born in Glasgow, studied in Britain, got addicted to the sport there and, you know, has trained ever since, of course, outside his own country, where the temperature never goes below 70 degrees. So, he is obviously not doing a lot of skiing in Ghana.

And if you look at it, that's a lot of the story for a lot of these places. For example, there is a very heart warming story about a Turkish figure skater, who went to the first rink that was open near her hometown. She loved it so much. Her entire family immigrated to Canada to support her dream of competing in the Olympics.

MARTIN: That is interesting. That's a Tugba let me see if I put - Tugba Karademir, Turkey's first female figure skater. And she you called her in the piece, that - a Turkish Delight. What about the Zaretskys, the ice dancing siblings from Israel. Do you know how they got their start?

Ms. GLASSER: Well, you know, I think they also have competed extensively outside the country. That's one of the that's one of the stories...

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. GLASSER: ... that really shows up when you look at these folks and how did they make their way to the Olympics from these unlikely places. They don't have the infrastructure, and that's why they are still only a few, that's why they are outliers as opposed to standard. There is nothing inherent, probably, physically or genetically, that says that, you know, a skier can only be a great skier from a cold weather country. But there is not the infrastructure there. There's not the training facilities. There's not the qualifying round.

For example, Latin America doesn't have its own qualifying round set up for the Olympics. So they have to go against these much better funded North American or European countries to compete for a spot in the Olympics. So, there's a lot of structural reasons, too.

MARTIN: Dave, you're still with us. I wanted to ask about whether - why is it that - and this is one of the things that people perpetually talk about, is that why is it that we see so little of these athletes from around the world in the coverage that we typically see...

Mr. ZIRIN: Hmm.

MARTIN: ...as Americans?

Mr. ZIRIN: Well, it...

MARTIN: I mean, of course, we will see the top contenders in gymnastics or in ice skating or in ice dancing and, of course, if they are from other countries, they will be showcased. But it's typically in relation to whether or not that they'll beat an American. And I'm just wondering, why do you think we see so little of these other athletes?

Mr. ZIRIN: Well, that has everything to do with NBCSports and how it operates with the International Olympic Committee. This past year, the ratings on NBC are actually the biggest five day ratings for an Olympics - a winter games, that are not taking place in the United States, in history. They are up 22 percent from the Torino Games four years back.

And how does NBC do it? They do it by feeding nationalist coverage, by showing USA athletes because they think that's going to get the highest market share. And when you're NBC and you've been swimming in the sea of Jay Leno, this last fall, I mean, any ratings relief is good ratings relief.

MARTIN: And well, it's interesting. Did you think that if they were to show these others, I mean, I'm asking you to speculate, but you do you think that if they were to show some of these other stories because I must say this is very charming feature.

Mr. ZIRIN: Oh, I have to tell you...

MARTIN: And I think that's just been amusing to see...

Mr. ZIRIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...what and inspiring to see what people will do to pursue a passion?

Mr. ZIRIN: Oh, let me be totally clear. I think they are underselling the audience. I mean, when you think of some of the great Olympic darlings over the generations, you think of people Nadia Comaneci, Olga Korbut, it's not necessary that it has to be American to capture America's heart when it comes to these athletes. And I wish they gave the audience a little bit more credit and showed some of the international diversity of competition.

MARTIN: Speaking of international diversity, cross country skier Robel Teklemariam who hails from Addis Ababa, he - of Ethiopia. He is their - the Ethiopia's first winter Olympian. He didn't do very well, finished 93rd in his first cross country race earlier this week, but did he get an A for effort?

Ms. GLASSER: Well, I think that's the way to look. That's part of the reason why you're not seeing these folks on NBC's prime time Olympic coverage is because the odds are so heavily stacked against them. Were they to be in the final heats of some of these races, they would be shown on American Network TV. But there is no question that the these countries are competing for pride of place. Some of their Olympic officials are very open about that. They say we want to improve our own time. We want to have our personal best.

We want to show the world that we're here, that we're being recognized. For example, Taiwan has a luger. You know, that becomes a point of political pride in some places that are disputed. There is a sister and brother team from Cyprus, for example, another place that's been a highly disputed zone for decades. And so, I think there are political, as well as, international pride reasons. But I think of all the people that we featured in our photo essay, I wouldn't look for a single one of them to get a medal this time around.

MARTIN: Is there any - I'm putting you on the spot. Is there anybody you're specially rooting for?

Ms. GLASSER: Well, I'm with you. I thought that this snow leopard outfit was just an absolutely winning thing. And I'm hoping that maybe he gets a, you know, sort of a TV contract or something like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GLASSER: If not an Olympic medal.

MARTIN: There's something about dreads coming out of the - dreadlocks coming out of the ski that this...

Ms. GLASSER: It just looks cool, yeah.

MARTIN: It is cool. It is very cool.

Mr. ZIRIN: I don't know if the network television is allowed to say the words Kwame Nkrumah though. So, that might be a hard thing for him to breakthrough.

MARTIN: I don't know. We have to see.

Mr. ZIRIN: A little political joke, all right.

MARTIN: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Dave Zirin is a sports writer for The Nation. He is also the author of, "A People's History of Sports in the United States: 250 Years of Politics, Protest, People, And Play." He was here with us ion our Washington, D.C. studio. With Susan Glasser, the executive director I'm sorry, the executive editor of Foreign Policy magazine. She was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studio also. And we will have a link to the story that her magazine produced on our Web site. Go to npr.org, click on programs, then on TELL ME MORE. Thank you both so much.

Ms. GLASSER: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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