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Global Humanitites Institute


MC Students Inspired by the Winter Olympics

March 18, 2018

I grew up in the snowbelt of northeast Ohio.  The “lake effect” – brutally cold winds blowing across Lake Erie – would result in significant snow accumulation every winter.  Oblivious to the adult concerns of shoveling driveways and paying painfully high heating bills, I reveled in snow every winter. As a kid, my siblings and I would head to our backyard hill and sled for hours.  This was a pre-Internet, pre-cable TV era. Entertainment was found outdoors.

As the years passed, I tried a variety of winter sports:  ice skating, downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing.  When I was in my 20s in grad school in Vermont, I would grab my skis and head to the woods.  The swishing of the skis, the creaking of ice on the Connecticut River, and my breath were the only sounds.

When the Winter Olympic Games come around every four years, it’s no surprise that I catch Olympics fever and tune in to watch luge, skeleton, bobsled, skating, and skiing. As an English language teacher, the Olympics combine some of my favorite things:  international goodwill, learning about different cultures, and snow, beautiful snow.

My students, who hail from African countries, Latin America, and the Middle East, are, unsurprisingly, pretty blasé about the winter Olympics.  They’d shrug and roll their eyes as I shared my excitement about the Games. Meh. Not for us.

As Rollo Romig pointed out in The New York Times Magazine on Feb. 9, “In theory, the Winter Olympics is a global event. But winter is not a meaningful seasonal category for nearly half the world’s countries. And nearly half of the countries of the world have never competed in the Winter Games."

But that’s changing.  To my delight, I recently discovered athletes like Shiva Keshavan, a luger from the Himalayan mountains of India who turned down a lucrative deal to compete on the Italian team because he wanted to represent his home country in the Olympic Games. When he started out, he had to make his own luge.  Now he’s determined to become a coach and mentor to young Indian athletes who want to learn the sport.

How about Akwasi Frimpong, a track athlete and skeleton racer from Ghana, who discovered his love for the sport while living as an undocumented teenager in the Netherlands?  With the support of Dutch soccer star Johan Cruyff, he was eventually able to gain his Dutch passport, excel in both track and skeleton, and later compete under the Ghanaian flag.  Sporting the vivid yellow, green and red of Ghana’s flag and dancing to West African music after a race down the track, Frimpong’s love of his sport and pride of his roots are clear.

Let us not forget Pita Taufatofua, better known as the Shirtless Tongan.  Here’s an athlete who competed in the Summer Olympics in tae kwon do.  Wanting to compete in the Winter Games, he taught himself to ski in under a year and spent only 12 weeks on snow learning his sport.  “If I win a gold medal, I’ll be happy,” he told CNN in an interview on Feb. 16.  “If I come in last, I’ll be happy.”   Miraculously, he not only qualified for the Games, but he managed not to come in last in the grueling 15-km cross-country event.   Grinning from ear to ear, he waited at the finish line to welcome fellow skiers – from Mexico and Colombia – at the back of the pack.  “People are scared to fail, scared of criticism, scared of what their mum or dad will say about stuff and then they don't do anything," he told CNN.  Now, he’s working to inspire kids from his small South Pacific island nation to pursue their own dreams.

And the magnificent Nigerian bobsled team – Seun Adigun, Ngozi Onwumere, and Akuoma Omeoga.  These women, track and field athletes, were born and raised in the US but are proud of their Nigerian roots.  “Although we’re American, we’re also Nigerian… That’s the culture we were raised to respect and understand,” Seun Adigun told the Voice of America in an interview from Feb. 15.  They’re an inspiration to Nigerians but also to young women athletes across the globe. Their goals?  “To help women, the country, the continent,” Adgiun told The New York Times in an interview that was published on Feb. 17.

As I shared these stories with my students, I could see their interest in the Games beginning to grow.  In a recent essay assignment, I asked them to consider the effects of these under-represented athletes on the Olympic Games, on young people, and on the image of their home countries.

One of my students, who is from Ecuador, discovered the story of Ecuadorian Klaus Jungbluth Rodriguez, who learned to ski while studying in Norway.  She wrote, “I felt proud when I knew that an Ecuadorian athlete was going to represent my country, so it was easier for me to realize how people of under-represented countries felt when they watched their flags present in this event; moreover, that made the event more interesting for me and my compatriots.  I know all their work will not be in vain, for even if one person is motivated, their work will be done.”

Another one of my students, from Madagascar, discovered the story of Mialitiana Clerc, originally from Madagascar and adopted by a French family.  Inspired by her story and by other athletes, he wrote: “Even though (athletes from under-represented countries) certainly will not win a medal, they could leave a legacy behind and move the sport forward. Diversity plays an important role in these kinds of events and athletes could represent their cultures in many ways.

The stories of my students – while unknown to the world - are similar to those of these athletes.  Some of them have experienced the uncertainty of living without documents, like Frimpong.  They know financial struggles, as did Keshavan, who worked endless hours as a waiter to make ends meet while training without any financial support from his country or sponsors. They know the pain of overcoming obstacles, like Taufatofua who trained – and fell, repeatedly – on brakeless roller-skis while learning his sport in Tonga.  They know what it’s like to claim two identities, like the Nigerian bobsledders who proudly declare that they are American and Nigerian.

“These athletes remind me of how we should be proud of ourselves and our countries,” my Malagasy student wrote.  “I hope that the message behind their hard work will pass to the next generation because they were the pioneers.”

Only half the world’s countries competed in this year’s Winter Olympics.  But the largest contingent of African athletes, with eight African nations, competed in Pyeongchang.  In Beijing 2022, I expect that number to grow.  Maybe the Games will eventually become the truly international celebration they were intended to be. You can bet I’ll be tuning in – and so will my students.

Heather Bruce Satrom 
Associate Professor, English Language for Academic Purposes program, TP/SS campus 

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Tuesday, April 24, 9:30 to 11 a.m. CM211 

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For exemplary performance in Introduction to Global Humanities, GHUM101

The Global Humanities Institute, in collaboration with the Peace and Justice Studies Community, proudly announces a scholarship to support the work of students and faculty actively involved in learning and teaching in the global humanities. 

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 An interdisciplinary General Education course that focuses on contemporary issues about fairness, equality, and community around the world from the perspective of the humanities. This course is offered every semester on every campus. Register now for Summer and Fall 2018. A student scholarship is available for this course. Download the flyer for more details. 

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A. Student Scholarship [Three available each year] 

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Director's Message

The Global Humanities Institute was created in 2012 with the support of a challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The NEH, the world’s largest supporter of the humanities, put forth a new initiative, Bridging Cultures, whose aim is to “engage the power of the humanities to promote understanding and mutual respect for people with diverse histories, cultures, and perspectives within the United States and abroad.”

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View on the Campus Conversations web site.

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