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Originally published February 27, 2010 at 6:31 PM | Page modified February 27, 2010 at 8:43 PM

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Jerry Brewer

Proud to be black — and at the Winter Olympics

At Cypress Mountain about two weeks ago, a middle-aged black security guard looked at me and grinned. "That makes three," he said. Fatigued, in a classic...

Seattle Times staff columnist

VANCOUVER, B.C. — At Cypress Mountain about two weeks ago, a middle-aged black security guard looked at me and grinned.

"That makes three," he said.

Fatigued, in a classic Olympic reporter's haze, I gave a dense response.

"Three, huh?" I replied, pretending to follow.

"Three of us!" he exclaimed.

We exploded into synchronized laughter. Same old joke: Black folks care as much about the Winter Olympics as we do tanning beds. Same old reaction: I know, right?

After the brief exchange, I walked away with a white colleague and said, "Don't expect to see a fourth, either."

Back to work. Back to snow. Back to ambivalence. ...

Richard Prince, who writes a column on diversity issues for the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education's Web site, tracked down some telling Nielsen information about African Americans.

While these Winter Olympics have dominated American television, they ranked among the top 20 shows that blacks watched only once during the first week of the Games. They lagged behind shows such as "American Idol," "NCIS: Los Angeles" and "Undercover Boss."

Many blacks still consider these the White Olympics, even though speedskating gold medalist Shani Davis thrives and the Canadian hockey team relies upon star forward Jarome Iginla, the first black to win the NHL's goal-scoring title.

In addition, Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong, a skier from Ghana nicknamed the "Snow Leopard," enjoyed his Olympic debut here. And France's Vanessa James and Yannick Bonheur, who used an online partners search to find each other, became the first black ice-skating pair.

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"We want to climb the ladder to show that black skaters can stand on the podium," said Bonheur, after the duo finished 14th.

Eight years ago, I realized why the Olympics captivate me. It happened on a bobsled course in Park City, Utah, when Vonetta Flowers, a former track-and-field athlete from Alabama, won a gold medal in an event she barely knew existed as a child.

Flowers claimed victory in the two-woman bobsled with driver Jill Bakken and became the first African American to win gold in the Cold Weather Games. She almost caused a flash-food warning with her tears.

"I never thought I'd be here," she said that day.

It was the enduring memory of the first Olympics that I covered. It reassured me that the Winter Games could be for people like me. This wasn't about overcoming deprivation or racism. It was bigger than that. It was about a woman redefining herself, finding herself, and as a result, African Americans finally joined this multicultural, international event.

Olympic firsts inspire me. They're like adding babies to a family. In these Vancouver Games, we watched the first Winter Olympian from Ghana and the first from Peru. We watched the first black ice-skating pair. We watched the first Korean win a figure-skating gold medal, the first U.S. team to win a nordic combined gold and, as narrowly defined as it sounds, the first Canadian to win gold on home soil.

It's so profound to see someone we can relate to on this stage.

Which is why seeing Flowers eight years ago uplifted me. And why, random jokes aside, it's wonderful that of the three of us you find here on any given day, I'm one of those. ...

Naturally, Flowers' triumph in 2002 started speculation that the Winter Olympics would become less of afterthought for many blacks. It hasn't really happened, but there have been some gains since she made history.

Most significant is speedskater Davis. He became the first African American to win an individual Winter Olympics gold medal in 2006. He leaves Vancouver with an impressive Olympics resume: two golds, two silvers.

He also leaves feeling somewhat more optimistic about how he's portrayed.

Davis is a loner, a man who coaches himself and finds his own sponsors, an Olympian soured by past experiences. He made the U.S. Olympic team in 2002 as a short-track competitor, but he endured whispers that he made the team only because buddy Apolo Ohno conspired to fix the Olympic trials that year so Davis could qualify. Four years later, Davis and teammate Chad Hedrick had it out over the team pursuit. Hedrick accused Davis of being unpatriotic for not competing in that relay.

Davis kept to himself here, repeated his 2006 triumph in the long-track 1,000 meters and added a silver medal in the 1,500. He gave bland answers to reporters. He refused to allow much insight into his greatness. But now that the competition is over, he has opened up more about being a trailblazer. He's proud of setting a new standard for African Americans, but he doesn't want to be defined by it.

"I mean, race is one of those things that you come into the world having," Davis told Michel Martin of the National Public Radio "Tell Me More" show.

"And — well, (a friend) told me, he said when people ask him, he says his race is the 1,000 meters. But for me, it's a bit more obvious. My race is, you know, I'm black. And I think it's a tremendous accomplishment, what I was able to do. But it's not like I'm not allowed to go to the library and be educated or like I'm segregated. I mean, I have all the tools that I need to perform and compete."

Davis made an interesting point. He chose to focus his athletic gifts on speedskating and hasn't been obstructed. His story isn't about beating oppression. It's about talent and willpower. He gets credit for being the only one, in a sense, but he decided to be the only one. And if other African Americans liked the Winter Olympics more, maybe they could be like him.

It took 14 years to get from figure skater Debi Thomas, the first black to win a Winter Games medal in 1988, to Flowers' triumph in 2002. But at least there's been gradual progress. ...

I saw my favorite security guard/comedian during my last trek to Cypress Mountain.

"I remember you," he said, laughing. "How could I forget?"

This time, I was alert and ready to banter.

"Still just three of us?" I asked.

"No!" he said, shaking his head. "More today. Four or five!"

Same old joke. Same old reaction. Then, a new thought: gratitude.

"I'm glad you're here," the security guard said. "I'm glad I'm here. It means something, you know."

Yes, it does.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 , Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer

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Jerry Brewer offers a unique perspective on the world of sports.
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