The Vancouver Legacy? Death and Debt
By Evan Weiner
February 27, 2010
(New York, N. Y.) -- The Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver was the fortnight it was, it’s over and it is time to let it go. The Olympic experience should be a study in marvelous athletic achievement but that is rarely the case. There is the Olympics hangover reality and the Vancouver legacy (sports journalists always buy into the “legacy” aspect as if the Olympics provide a legacy) is simple. The death of a luge participant because a course was unsafe although International Olympic Committee members quickly absolved themselves of any culpability in the death of the Georgian luge performer Nodar Kumaritashvilli and the death was quickly forgotten after the opening ceremonies just like the deaths of 11 Israelis during a terrorist attack in the Olympic Village in Munich, Germany during the 1972 Summer Games and a pile of debt.
The Games must go on.
At some point after the television world and media leaves Vancouver, some sports historians will begin assessing the legacy of the Vancouver Games. The real legacy will not be pretty but that “real” legacy will be whitewashed and swept under the rug. That is the way it is when dealing with the Olympics and the International Olympics Committee. The golden girl of these Olympics was supposed to be the American skier Lindsay Vonn, but she did not live up to the hype that the American broadcast rights holder General Electric’s NBCUniversal built.
In a sense Vonn and NBCUniversal end the Olympics in the same boat, Vonn probably missed out on numerous marketing dollars in the US and NBCUniversal lost a lot of money on televising the event.
(There is still Olympic style competition that will take place in Vancouver with the Paralympic Games scheduled to start after the Olympics circus leaves Vancouver. That competition will largely be ignored in the United States as the sports media shifts their limited attention to college basketball and the aptly named March Madness, an event that is truly madness as the performers, college basketball players, somehow get left out of being compensated for an event that puts hundreds of millions of dollars into the pockets of a myriad of people ranging from network executives to arena operators, to marketers to college coaches and a slew of others. Yet sports scribes overlook the money aspect of March Madness and how the performers are severely shortchanged.)
The Vancouver legacy will be the death of an athlete and lots of red ink. There was always some censorship as the people who run the Vancouver Public Libraries were told not to schedule events and go out and get sponsors that are competitors of Olympics partners. The IOC and the Canadian and local government apparent did not remember libraries are a product of local taxes and the libraries are used by members of the community who may not give a hoot about the Olympics.
The final bill for the Vancouver Winter Olympics will not come in for a while but Vancouver organizers know that they will be losing money and that British Columbia taxpayers will be paying off the debt for years and years just like Montreal and Quebec residents did after the financially bruising 1976 Summer Olympics.
It took 30 years to pay off the debt there and the Montreal legacy is two fold. The Olympic Stadium was a money losing lemon from the day it opened and the politicizing of the event as African countries didn’t show up because New Zealand was not kicked out because a New Zealand rugby team played in the apartheid country of South Africa.
So what is the Olympics legacy?
The IOC tries to sell great performances but that is just a smokescreen. In 1936, Jeremiah Mahoney knew that sending an American team to the Berlin Games was a bad move because that Olympics was designed to legitimize Adolf Hitler. Mahoney, who was the President of the American Athletic Union, saw what was going on in Germany and knew that African Americans and American Jews would have a tough time in Germany and urged an American boycott of the Games.
The AAU voted in December 1935 to not send a team to Berlin but Avery Brundage, the President of the American Olympic Committee overruled Mahoney and the Games went on. Brundage was a central figure in the Olympics movement. He presided over the 1972 Games in Munich and made the decision or at least announced the decision that “The Games Must Go On” after the Munich Massacre.
Brundage was appalled in 1968 when American athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith were on the podium giving a black power salute. Smith won the gold, Carlos the bronze in the 200-meter race. Brundage threw the pair out of the Olympic Village because Brundage thought it was a travesty for the pair to protest black poverty in the United States.
Brundage thought the Olympics was an apolitical forum.
Brundage was far from apolitical. If he had dictator powers, he would have barred women from competing in the Games. He also covered up the fact that he had two sons born to a woman who was not his wife.
He called the 1936 Berlin Games the finest ever held and apparently overlooked the Nazi salutes that took place in Berlin. He had no problems with the inclusion of Rhodesian in the Games despite that country’s racial policies in the 1970s.
Eight years after Munich, the IOC elected Juan Antonio Samaranch to run the organization. The politicizing of the Olympics, which had always been there, reached a new height when United States President Jimmy Carter ordered an Olympic boycott by the American team of the 1980 Moscow Games because the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. In retaliation, the Soviet Union and Iron Curtain countries didn’t show up at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
Samaranch, who was apparently as corrupt as they came, ushered in a new era of the Olympics as well. IOC delegates took bribes from cities that wanted the Olympics during his reign.
The financial wreckage of Samaranch’s tenure will be felt in Sydney and in Athens for generations. The IOC began demanding that if cities wanted the Olympics, they better be prepared to pay and pay and pay and even though American broadcast rights escalated, the American TV dollars were no match for the expense of hosting an Olympics.
Vancouver is finding that out first hand. Sydney is paying to maintain buildings that have not been used after the 2000 Games. The 2004 Athens’ experience didn’t bankrupt Greece but it is a part of the debt that Greece cannot pay. The Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing was mostly unused.
The Olympics legacy works two ways. In the disposable for the minute journalism world of the 21st century, Olympics success is judged by how many endorsements a Gold Medallist can garner following the Games. But the for the minute journalists and more importantly the guardians at the gate, their editors, should be paying much closer attention to the International Olympic Committee and how that group seems to be an entity with more power than local elected officials.
The IOC has saddled countries with unnecessary debt, however they have been welcomed by politicians and business leaders who throw themselves at IOC officials like groupies throw themselves at baseball players in hotel lobbies or outside stadiums.
There is one Vancouver Games athlete who perished because the IOC wanted thrills and spills in a quest for faster competition during the luge and that we be addressed no doubt in some court proceeding somewhere in British Columbia and a pile of debt.
That is the real legacy of the Vancouver Games.