Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Vancouver 2010: Where I rank it, and why

I get asked a lot which were my favorite Olympics and why.  Its not an easy question to answer, because so many things go into it.  Professionally, my favorite Olympics was the 1980 Games in Lake Placid, which were an organizational nightmare.  The buses went on strike, so spectators had to trudge to an from the opening ceremonies, which were held a mile outside of town.  Since it was snowing, it looked like the retreat of Napoleon's army in the Russian winter.  Hotel and restaurant owners price-gouged to such an extent that it was easy to find a table at any restaurant in tiny Lake Placid.  People left as quickly as they could after an event to friendlier environs.  But I covered all six of the U.S. gold medals--five by Eric Heiden, and that very special one by the U.S. Olympic hockey team--so it was a wonderful Olympics for me, personally.  But I still rank Lake Placid at the bottom of my list.
       So, Vancouver.
      First, the competition.
       It couldn't have ended better, with the overtime goal by Sidney Crosby, Canada's biggest active sports star, putting an exclamation point on the Games, as if it had all been scripted.  The men's hockey gold was Canada's 14th, the most by any country.  The U.S. had the most medals, 37, and Germany was next with 30.  But Canada was able to trumpet that they had "owned the podium" after all, by virtue of winning the most gold medals of any country in any Winter Olympics.  Though by the formula that I suggested in my last post, awarding 3 pts for a gold, 2 for a silver, 1 for bronze, the U.S. still finished on top:
              United States       9 gold     15 silver    13 bronze =  70 pts.
               Germany           10 gold     13 silver      7 bronze =  63 pts.
               Canada              14 gold       7 silver      5 bronze =  61 pts.
       So both North American countries had a great Games.  But I would submit that as the nationalistic fervor gripped Canada in the final week, as the gold medals started to accumulate, the tenor of the cheering changed from enthusiastic and supportive to rabid and edgy.  Many, many Canadians have told me that if the U.S. had scored the overtime goal, instead of Canada, it would have ruined the Olympics for the host nation and left a bitter taste in their mouths.  That is not the Olympic spirit.  Nor is the goal of "owning the podium" and resorting to restricting access to facilities by foreign teams who wanted to train on the new bobsled, luge, skeleton and speedskating tracks.
        Let me add the nationalistic chest thumping did not start with Canada.  But we're not used to seeing it from our neighbors to the north.  The Americans are the very worst perpetrators (U!S!A! U!S!A! U!S!A!) and I'm certain that four years from now, Mother Russia will also want to prove its greatness by piggybacking on its athletes, as the Soviet Union used to.  And who was the first to use the Olympics, founded as a "friendly competition between nations", for propaganda purposes?  Nazi Germany, which hosted both the Summer and Winter Games in 1936.
        Look, I'm not comparing Canada (or the U.S. or Russia) with Nazi Germany.  The Canadian athletes who finished off the podium did so with grace.  But for a nation that likes to consider itself humble and understated, the Vancouver Games took them into uncharted territory.   It's why I've always loved the Sarajevo Olympics.  I believe Yugoslavia won one silver medal in those1984 Games.  They had been isolated behind the Iron Curtain for so long, they were just thrilled to be host to the sporting world, and they cheered every medal as their own.  They were the best hosts ever.

The Stars Were the Stars
      From Lindsey Vonn, shown here with some random old fart who is way too pleased with himself, to Shawn White, to Bode Miller, to Apollo Ono, to Sid Crosby, to Kim Yu-Na, the athletes we were familiar with rose to the occasion.  That's a good thing.  Upsets are fine in football, but in the Olympics, where for four years most of these athletes toil in obscurity, we need the Michael Phelps' of the world to perform up to the hype.  Or it's just hype.  They did that here.

The Organizing Committee Got Its Act Together 
      My colleague, S.L. Price, called it the greatest comeback in Olympic history.  And it was done by Vanoc, the Vancouver Organizing committee.  The first week was beset with problems, great and small.  The death of the Georgian luger.  The breakdown of ice cleaning machines at the speedskating oval.  Street protests.  Anger that the Olympic torch was behind a cyclone fence.  Grandstand tickets that were sold and then invalidated.  Fans injured at an outdoor concert when a barrier collapsed.
       The last two weeks were rife with solutions.  Those things that could be fixed, were fixed, and new problems didn't arise.  There were no lapses in security.  Buses ran on time.  Police controlled crowds without dampening enthusiasm.  Vancouver was a fun, safe place to be.

The Weather--yuck
      The weather wasn't just an aesthetic problem.  It severely affected the alpine competition, especially the slalom and the ski cross events, which were held in pea soup fog and driving rain.  About half the slalom racers skied off the course.   Four years, and then your fate is determined by whether you ski during a break in the fog or not.  As for the city, where I was the entire time, except for four or five days in the middle, which were lovely, it rained every day.  Not driving rainstorms.  Just a steady, spitting drizzle.  Bad luck?  Maybe.  But it all goes into the mix when it comes to ranking your favorite Olympics.

The Crowds--Unreal
       They just kept showing up, milling around the streets, clogging the sidewalks, wearing their Team Canada jerseys (they're called sweaters here), their funny hats, their facepaint.  Cheering Ca-na-da! till they were hoarse.  Watching the hockey games through tavern windows while standing in the rain.  It was all about being there, sharing the experience.  They didn't need tickets to feel part of these Olympics.  Walking to the press center Sunday morning, where I would catch a bus to the gold medal hockey game, I passed three bars that had lines to get in that stretched around the corner.  It was 9:20 a.m., and, since it was Sunday, the bars didn't open till 11 am.  They waited without complaint, surrounded by like-minded Canadians who would remember Sidney Crosby's goal the rest of their lives.  I'm glad I didn't have to see how they'd have behaved if the U.S. had won that game, but as it was, they were just giddy, proud, happy, thrilled fans who brought an energy to these Games the likes of which I had never seen.

So here it is: My Favorite Winter Olympics

1) Sarajevo, 1984--  Heavy snow.  Heavy smoke in loud, hot bars filled with burly locals who tried to make you understand their native tongue.  A population so appreciative to have contact with the outside world, you had the feeling they'd have done anything for you.  

2) Lillehammer, 1994--Cold, clear air.  Fresh white powder.  Grandmothers who did their shopping from sleds.  Small.  Old fashioned.  The only taint?  Tonya Harding was there, too.

3) Vancouver, 2010

4) Calgary, 1988--What I remember best is the figure skating.  Brian Boitano, Katarina Witt, and Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov all won gold medals; I wrote about them all; and I was hooked.  Snow early, then a warm snap as a chinook blew in.  Canadian friendly.

5) Albertville, 1992--A wonderful opening ceremonies, very French.  Wonderful food, of course.  Managed to get a couple of days of skiing in Meribel during the Games.  Kristi Yamaguchi won the gold medal; and Paul Wylie won his silver.  Both great stories to tell, especially Wylie's.  (He was 27).  Too spread out, however.  Which is now the trend.

6) Salt Lake City, 2002-- They did a great job, after a very rough start. (Remember the scandal about bribing IOC officials).  As good a combination of mountains and proximity to a city as any Winter Games site ever, and the weather was perfect.  Only problem was, well, it was Salt Lake City.

7) Torino, 2006--Another site where the city and the mountains were just too far apart, a couple of hours by bus.  Rain in the city, snow in the mountains.  The food was, again, fantastic--it was Italy, right?  But the Italians didn't embrace the Games as the Vancouverites did.

8) Nagano, 1998--This is mostly a personal thing that I can't even explain.  The Japanese did a great job with these Games, and the people could not have been more hospitable.  But there was no place I found to gather with my colleagues at night, and the hotel room was small and the bed hard.  The hotel elevator gave me a chuckle, though.  The floors were inscribed in the brass plate as follows: 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Robby.     I swear.

9)  Lake Placid, 1980.  My first.  I shared a bedroom in our condo with SI Editor Bob Ottum, who became a great friend and mentor.   He and Willaim Oscar Johnson, our skiing writer, would write at the kitchen table with their manual typewriters, Ottum with a bottle of vodka in front of him, Johnson with a bottle of bourbon.  It was an eyeopener for me, I'll tell you.  And a good one.  Real pros.  I miss them.  I miss the camaraderie we shared in that small condo.  It gave me my love of the Olympic Games, which has yet to diminish.

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