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Talking about race at the Olympics

By: Dominique Stewart / BSU at the Games
February 24, 2014 Updated: February 24, 2014 at 12:50 pm
photo - BSU at the Games/T. Irby
BSU at the Games/T. Irby 

I was on a train to Olympic Park when it first happened.

The approach was subtle. A quick tap on the shoulder followed by a “take picture?” motion with her hands. She didn’t attempt to talk, knowing the language barrier would pose a problem. She and her friends relied on gestures and smiles to convey the message.

“Photo us?”

I nodded and reached for the camera, only to be met with the shaking of heads and embarrassed laughs.

“No,” she gestured. “You photo us?”

Our silent miscommunication went on long enough for me to regret not learning basic Russian, when it dawned on me: They want to take a picture with me.

So I sat with her and smiled for a few photos. She thanked me for my time, and we went back to being strangers.

Occasionally, we snuck quick glances and smiles at each other. It was the only way we knew how to communicate the bond we just created.

Unaware that the photo op was more than the uniting of two cultures in the spirit of the Olympic Games, I noticed Russians kept requesting to have their picture taken with me.

They would single me out of my group of five and motion for me to join them and their families in front of the Olympic rings or the torch. They would position me in the center and cradle me with a side embrace. It was comfortable. Familiar. Like taking a picture with good friends.

It took me two days to realize the reason for my popularity. I had posed for three back-to-back family photos in front of the torch when one of my blue-eyed, blond-haired friends said, “You know you’re only getting this attention because you’re black?”

I hadn’t.

I was stuck on this illusion that the Games bring people from different ethnic backgrounds, cultures and races together to create this international friendship and bond, even if it’s just for a few weeks. We were one.

I looked up to the 87 flags that encompassedthe torch. They are the symbol of the unity that the Games create, but for me, talking and taking pictures with people from other nations was becoming the actual bond.

The possibility of my race being a factor hadn’t crossed my mind. Wasn’t being used as a prop offensive?

If someone in the States asked to take their picture with me because I’m black, I would be insulted. No, I’m not going to be the butt of your joke or your token black person.

Being black in America has a dark history that makes you wary of the intentions of others.

Why would it be OK anywhere else?

Well, it’s the Olympic Games. You come knowing you’re going to be surrounded by people from different cultural backgrounds, some of whom might never have seen a white person or a black person.

“In Russia, like Moscow and St. Petersburg, there are some black people, but in mountain regions there are none,” Gleb Ivanvo from St. Petersburg, Russia, told me. “So it’s interesting to them.”

Quickly surveying the Olympic Park, and you would have noticed the lack of representation of dark-skinned individuals at the Winter Games.

In addition to a dearth of black spectators, only 19 of 2,800 athletes were black. Not a lot of countries with high concentrations of dark-skinned individuals participated in this year’s Winter Games—only three countries in Africa and Jamaica joined.

So I began to understand why I was singled out. There was hardly anyone else representing black people. Before accepting the occurrence, I wanted to ensure they weren’t making a mockery of me by asking for a photo.

So when Kartseva Zul’Fiya from Sochi requested a photo, I asked, with the help of a translator.

Me: Why did you want to take a picture with me?

Zul’Fiya translated: You have very exotic appearance, very beautiful.

Me: Do you like seeing people that are different than you?

Zul’Fiya translated: It’s exciting to see people that are different skin color. Always wanted to approach, it’s such a drive. So exciting.

Me: What are you going to do with the photo?

Zul’Fiya translated: I will change laptop screen saver and show it off to friends and family.

I got the same general responses from other Russians I interviewed, all supporting this idea that it’s a good thing to see different races and nationalities.

Thinking back to all the Russians who requested a photo, I sensed this genuine desire to interact with different cultures.

They approached me with a childlike shyness as if they genuinely wanted me to be in their family album. They released this sigh of relief when I accepted their unusual request and expressed this overwhelming gratitude when it was done.

There’s this pride that Zul’Fiya says comes with getting the courage to come up and ask for a photo when you fear getting rejected. It’s that pride of taking that step towards meeting different people that you hold onto.

“Take a look at this woman,” said Zul’Fiya, pointing to a random woman at the park. “She’s white. There’s nothing special about her. But these guys are interesting,” she said, referring to the black Canadian bobsleigh members and myself.

Eventually a sense of obligation to make sure every Russian had a positive outlook on dark-skinned people started to form in me because I knew I would probably be the only interaction they would have with one.

But there was a greater obligation to myself to show that it was OK to be different. That it was OK to be recognized for having a darker complexion.

So on my last day at Olympic Park, I ditched my stand-and-smile pose for a Rosie the Riveter stance. With the stitching of “USA” running along the side of my arm, I embraced the fact that I am a dark-skinned American woman.


BSU at the Games is a freelance news agency operated by 41 student journalists reporting from the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games through an immersive-learning program at Ball State University.

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