Russia not alone on thin ice

I don’t know if anyone will remember Russian ice dancers Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin’s impressive performance in the European Championships 2010 this past weekend.

The pair edged out Italian team Faiella-Scali for first place, but world attention has been drawn to the Russians’ even edgier costumes—skin-darkening bodysuits, red loincloths and body paint for their short program called “Aboriginal Dance.”

Domnina and Shabalin said they did a web search and were inspired by indigenous peoples of Australia.

In response, Aboriginal leaders have said the pair ignored the cultural significance and importance of the colour red and particular body markings.

Further, Al-Jazeera has reported the music they used seems to be from New Zealand, not Australia.

My general rule is that if you’re going to appropriate a group’s cultural and spiritual symbols and make a mockery of them, the least you can do is get the culture right.

The final nail in the coffin, however, is Domnina’s interview with skating website Golden Skate. When asked about the music, she attributed the choice to her dog, saying, “When we switched on the music … my dog started to race around the room like crazy and we understood that maybe this music is what we need.”

The ice dancers’ disrespect and ignorance is disappointing. They fail to acknowledge that their careless mimicry of so-called Aboriginal culture has profited them in the forms of a gold medal and international recognition.

But I won’t belabour the point because public response has largely praised the ice dancers’ skills while condemning their offensive costumes and poor choice of music.

What I find more interesting are the few people who have justified the skaters’ routine by calling for a separation of sports from politics. That’s difficult, given that Domnina and Shabalin plan to perform their routine at the Olympics in Vancouver next month.

The Olympics, of course, are always loaded with controversy: who gets to host the Games, what type of environmental and infrastructure damage host cities need to prepare for and which athletes are (or aren’t) called out for attempting to cheat the system.

In the Canadian context, it’s already been brought up that the Russian ice dancers’ short program will run counterproductive to our aim to show how far Aboriginal peoples have come in Canada.

I find it troubling that Canada would presume to have any type of moral victory over Russia on this matter. It’s difficult to say Aboriginal peoples have “come far” when land with unsettled claims on it has been appropriated for use in the Olympics.

Vancouver 2010’s Aboriginal-inspired mascots—a tokenizing term at best—make veiled references to Canada’s colonial history that downplay its significance. We see 400 years of colonization, forced assimilation, expulsion and cultural genocide neatly condensed into a character profile on the Games’ official website: Sumi, a green cartoon inspired by West Coast First Nations, “works hard to protect the land, water and creatures of his homeland.”

Cute.

In a way, I’m glad the Olympics are here. If the experience of Beijing 2008 and the Vancouver police force’s actions are any indication, we should be in for a series of protests about routinely ignored indigenous peoples’ concerns and other issues.

I would argue that instead of treating them like bad publicity for Canada, we should take advantage of the added media scrutiny and global pressure the Games bring to genuinely examine where our weaknesses are and where there’s room for change.

This isn’t an opportunity for Russia bashing.

We should reconsider our own actions before pointing fingers at Domnina and Shabalin because, truth is, we’re on thin ice too.

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