Winter Olympics: One Black and One White, On the Surface A Most Unlikely Pair

Joseph HarkinsContributor IFebruary 15, 2010

VANCOUVER, BC - FEBRUARY 14:  Aliona Savcgenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany compete in the figure skating pairs short program on day 3 of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics at Pacific Coliseum on February 14, 2010 in Vancouver, Canada.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

They could have been, well, Frick and Frack.

Or, as they appeared from their ruffled collars down, just another skating pair dressed as circus clowns with their embroidered patches tracing the middle of their sequined body costumes.

Certainly, they could not have been German.

Certainly not a black man. And certainly not with a white woman.

Yet beneath the plucked raised eyebrows, they were. Under the make-up accentuating each of their right cheeks, they were. And for the entire world to see, they were.

One black. One white.

They were German pair skaters waiting anxiously backstage for judges to post their scores after the short program at Sunday night's skating competition at the Winter Games in Vancouver.

On the surface (ice for these purposes), Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy would appear to be Germany's most unlikely pair—certainly to American sports fans and a media which can be counted on to put more labels on U.S. Olympic athletes than Budweiser does to bottles.

Ask Mary Lou Retton, the gold-medal winning Italian-American gymnast. 

Ask Kristi Yamaguchi, the nation's most notable Asian-American figure skater.

Ask Shani Davis, the speed skater who will attempt to become the first African-American Winter Olympics champion when he takes to the ice in Vancouver.

Ask Robin Szolkowy, born in the town of Greifswald to his mother (an East German nurse) and his father (a Tanzanian medical student), who returned to Africa before the birth of his son.

Although black athletes are extremely rare in the former East Germany, Szolkowy told the New York Times before the Games that he never experienced racism or discomfort.

Tall and lean, the dark-haired Szolkowy was raised by his mother and adapted easily to German life, beginning to skate at age four before moving to Erfurt and switching to pairs as a teenager.

Szolkowy had seen pictures of his father, but it wasn't until 2008 at a hotel in Vienna (where his father was attending a conference) that the two actually met.

“It’s not so easy after 28 years when you meet your father,” Szolkowy told the Times. “But it is good now to have an image of him, and it was so strange and so similar. I saw my father and knew how I would look and move in 30 years.”

The Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution adopted on Dec. 6, 1865, officially abolished and continues to prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime.

In 2010, a black president sits in the oval office.

More than 70 years have passed since Adolph Hitler laid the blueprint for his plans to develop a master race in Europe.

It's been more than 60 years since the German Army waged a ruthless World War, amassing some seven million deaths in Ukraine, where Szolkowy's partner was born.

And it's been 20 years since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, which unified East and West Germany.

Almost a year ago, at the world championships in Los Angeles, Savchenko and Szolkowy took to the ice for their free skate, performing to the music of Schindler's List. They received a standing ovation from those in the Staples Center crowd, among them Igor Steuer, their controversial coach and choreographer, who brought the pair together to compete in 2003.

Steuer is a former member of Stasi, the East German secret police.

On its website, the German Embassy to the United States makes mention of Szolkowy and Savchenko as "triumphant" Olympic athletes. There is no reference to race, no labels to look beneath, and no stereotypes to proliferate anyone's agenda.

They are man and woman. German and Olympians. Skaters and pairs.