But she’s also made more strides for feminism in the gun world than any single human being, with the possible exception of Zhang Shan of China. Shan is the woman who stunned the shooting world in 1992 when she won gold at Barcelona in skeet. The governing bodies didn”t like a woman beating every man in the world, and so they stopped letting women enter the men’s events and created a separate women’s event instead. They also made the rules different for the two events so that it would be impossible to compare the men’s scores to the women’s scores. (Up until 1984, women hadn”t been allowed to compete at all, and before 1992, the only women’s shooting events were three-position rifle, air rifle, and sport pistol”essentially the events that children train in.)
By the time Kimberly Rhode came along, the Olympic Committee had approved women’s events in double trap and skeet, two of the most prestigious men’s events. Kim won gold in double trap at her first Olympics in Atlanta in 1996, then bronze in 2000 in Sydney, then gold again in Athens in 2004″only to be told that women’s double trap would no longer be offered and so she would be unable to defend her title in 2008. She had to learn a completely new sport”skeet shooting. She had to throw out all of her training for the past 15 years and start over. And that’s when things got interesting.
At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, there was a sudden-death shoot-off for gold, silver, and bronze. She took silver. Four years later she had her best Olympics ever, winning gold in London while hitting 99 out of 100 targets to tie the world record she had set the same year, a record she shares with Slovak shooter Danka Bartekova, a record that still stands today.
Throughout these 20 years of competition, Kimberly has demonstrated all the qualities we expect from an athlete featured in an up-close-and-personal profile of the type NBC normally loves to display. She mentors young girls. She works with the Boy Scouts. Asked why she was coaching a young girl new to the Colorado Springs Olympic Shooting Center, she said, “Because she asked me.” She trains seven hours a day at a range in Newhall, Calif., shooting anywhere between 500 and 1,000 rounds. A 500-round day is better than a thousand-round day because her method is to go to each skeet station and shoot 25 highs, 25 lows, and 25 doubles. If she misses one, she makes herself start that station all over again. She continues until she’s covered all eight stations. Most impressively, she makes herself available to anyone and everyone interested in shooting”so much so that the gold on her first medal in Atlanta is starting to wear off because, whenever she poses for pictures, she drapes all her medals over the person she’s with. She passes them around the room at elementary schools so kids can touch them. In other words, she’s about as outgoing and civic-minded as it gets, the sort of patriot you might want…uh…carrying the flag?
Unless somebody, somehow, somewhere has a hang-up about that gun thing.
Kimberly was born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley, which is historically one of the great American ranching centers. I recently toured the oldest structure in the valley, the Mission San Gabriel ArcÃ¡ngel, established in 1771 by two Franciscan priests sent to save the souls of the Indians and establish the claims of Spain to California. The mission still has a 1950s family-road-trip feel, with its antiquated gift shop and quaint signs explaining the finer points of tallow rendering and how to make adobe brick. What’s interesting to me is that, for security, the mission would have been defended by a musketeer, using the earliest version of the shotgun or what was later called, in its sawed-off form, the coach gun. I doubt there were any crack Spanish infantrymen sent to the wilds of California, but it wasn”t the clumsy weapon you see in Revolutionary War reenactments. A trained musketeer, using the matchlock musket invented in Spain, could fire five rounds per minute.
So the shotgun has a long history here. The mission is still functioning, but it’s now surrounded by suburban homes. The Rio Hondo, once the lifeblood of the mission, now irrigates a golf course. The orange groves are gone. The ranches are long gone. The San Gabriel Valley is the essence of urban sprawl and international communities, with lots of Asians settling here in the past twenty years. You don”t see as many horses as you once did, which is a shame because the sterling silver conches on the saddles of the California vaqueros were a thing of beauty. The Pasadena Sheriff’s Posse, which used to make occasional appearances at the Texas State Fair in Dallas, was a living lesson in the differences between the cowboy traditions of California and those of Texas. (Texans prefer less silver but fancier leatherwork.) But all of those traditions”the riding, the shotguns, the ranch life”derive from the Spanish, which would seem to be something we should be emphasizing right now.
Instead we have a lot of concentrated attempts to write off this heritage as culturally oppressive or, at best, meaningless. Kimberly Rhode is not toasted by the Hollywood glitterati. In fact, due to California laws passed within the past decade, she’s afraid that her mother’s deer rifle now legally qualifies as an assault weapon and can”t be passed on to her son. Dozens of youth programs are endangered by new state laws saying you can”t loan guns or shells, meaning coaches can”t help grade-school students and Boy Scouts can”t earn merit badges. Thousands of guns that have stayed within one family for generations”thereby unregistered and unregulated”are in a sort of legal limbo because they can”t be left in wills. Kimberly’s local gun club in Monrovia has a children’s program that allows kids to shoot for free once a month”except the local city council is trying to rezone the club out of existence.
It’s the kind of madness that NBC encourages with the way they cover the Olympics. They go for the safe story, and the obvious story, and the narrative line that reinforces whatever popular prejudices exist at the time. This is because of a conscious policy instituted in 1996 that all of their coverage would be (a) America-focused, and (b) female-friendly. (Tears, please. Lots of them. An early version of reality TV.) Unlike ABC, which had the Olympics franchise in the “60s, “70s, and “80s, NBC didn”t want a bunch of foreign-sounding names from exotic places covering up the chants of “USA! USA!” In other words, they program the Olympics according to templates drawn up long before the first event is ever played.
I attended those Atlanta Olympics where the NBC ratings strategy was first used, and saw firsthand how badly it works, because one of the events I witnessed was the men’s 5,000-meter race.
Track-and-field experts expected the race to be dominated by the Kenyans as usual, with two dark-horse prospects”Khalid Boulami of Morocco and Bob Kennedy of the United States. One of the runners not expected to do much had the tongue-twisting name of Venuste Niyongabo, a 23-year-old from Burundi who normally ran in much shorter races. He was the only Olympian from Burundi. Burundi was in the midst of a brutal civil war between the Hutus and the Tutsis, and so he had paid his own way to the competition.
The 5,000 meters is twelve and a half laps around the track, so it takes about thirteen minutes to run. The two Kenyans ran their usual mind-bending race, taking the lead, giving it back up, passing each other, but Niyongabo didn”t take the bait, staying well back in the middle of the pack. With about five laps left he moved up to fourth, but he stopped behind the Kenyans and the Moroccan. That’s when Bob Kennedy, the American, decided to make his move. He passed the Kenyans. He passed Niyongabo. He looked to be opening up a lead of about ten to fifteen meters, and it probably helped his adrenaline when a cheer went up from the partisan Olympic Stadium crowd. Niyongabo didn”t try to catch him”he stayed in his steady lope”but he moved a little closer, meter by meter, as Kennedy inevitably had to settle back into a rhythm.
And then, when he got even with Kennedy’s right shoulder, Niyongabo stopped. It had to be disheartening to make the big move and then know that someone was staying right with you, close enough to whisper in your ear, but content to stay there.
And then Niyongabo decided it was time. With a lap to go, he passed Kennedy and he kept sprinting. He opened up a lead of ten meters, twenty, thirty, knowing that he would soon start to fade”he had only run this distance twice before”and that he had to make sure the lead was as large as possible before that happened. He was right. The other runners started to close on him in the last sixty to seventy meters, but he held on and continued to churn and won the race. It was the first gold medal for Burundi ever”in fact, the first medal of any kind for Burundi.
It was a great race, and a great story, but that’s not why I”m telling it here. At the post-race press conference, Niyongabo was asked whether he was a Hutu or a Tutsi, since 150,000 people had already died in the civil war there”and he refused to answer. “I run for Burundi,” he said. “I run for peace in my country.”
What an Olympic moment. What a moment to sum up what the Olympics are all about. A man refusing to speak about his own heritage because he wants to include all heritages. Unfortunately you didn”t see it on NBC, because NBC doesn”t understand moments like that. It hadn”t been drawn up in the pre-Olympic template and so they didn”t know what to do with it. NBC had an interview with the sixth-place-finishing Bob Kennedy.
And now NBC strikes again. Of course they don”t understand Kimberly Rhode. And if she goes on to medal in a seventh Olympics”a very real possibility, since at this point in her life she’s never even had her eyes tested”they still won”t understand her, or the heritage she comes from. But maybe if enough of us make enough noise about it, one of these days somebody will let her carry the flag. That would be the multicultural flag of the San Gabriel Valley, born with a Spanish musket, homeland of the American cowboy and the Asian immigrant. Because it’s all of those things and more. It’s even the skater dudes in board shorts. It’s even people who own shotguns.