The 19th Winter Olympic Games have taken on special meaning not only for Americans, but also for people across the world. Many have opined that the staging of the games symbolizes renewed strength and unity in the wake of adversity and disaster.
I had the fortune to attend 14 events (on no class days…of course), including such coveted performances as the Opening Ceremonies, short track speed skating (I witnessed Apolo Anton Ohno’s notorious tumble), women’s figure skating, free style aerials, free style moguls, men’s ice hockey (USA vs. Finland, Russia and Canada), and the Closing Ceremonies. I would find it impossible to adequately convey the emotion, camaraderie, and spirit that accompanied many of these memorable moments. But for all of the thrills and highlights the individual Olympic venues have offered spectators around the world, they pale in comparison to the feeling of harmony and accomplishment that the successful staging of the Games have collectively afforded.
Why do these Olympic Games evoke such a reaction? To understand, one must recognize the obstacles that threatened to halt the Olympics. Of course, the first major threat came in December of 1998 when allegations broke that Olympic bid organizers had bribed International Olympic Committee members to secure Salt Lake as the location for the 2002 Games. The public cried foul, no doubt reflecting frustration over a practice that appears to have been integral for other host cities in securing their own winning bids. Potential and committed sponsors cowered away from the five rings. Sources reveal, in fact, that government officials, organizers and bid committee members seriously considered canceling the Games at one point. Rather, the Salt Lake Organizing Committee (SLOC) underwent a comprehensive reorganization and committed itself to cleaning up the mess.
It wasn’t long until new leadership discovered the second major threat to the Games: a severely mismanaged budget had spawned a daunting $390 million deficit. SLOC had not signed on a new sponsor for the $1.2 billion Games in more than a year. With would-be sponsors running scared, SLOC got out the hack saw and began to cut $200 million in expenses. With an all-out sales effort and PR campaign to restore confidence, SLOC began attracting more sponsorships to close the gap.
SLOC delivered on its commitment to break even and spare Utah residents a heavy tax burden. With the cauldron housing the Olympic flame still smoldering, it handed the state two checks: one for $59 million for constructing Olympic venues, the other for $40 million to pay for venue upkeep.
Despite several other impediments that jeopardized the Winter Olympics, the tragedy of September 11th stands out as the most poignant and perhaps the most significant. Olympic organizers contemplated the effect that 9/11 could have on the Games. Could security be assured? Would tragedy strike again? Would war erupt and how damaging would it be to the tone and logistics of the events? Though risks abounded, the American people and US government prodded organizers to again confront and overcome this challenge. Federal and State Governments agreed to cover the lion’s share of an enhanced security budget of $310 million.
When the NYPD unfurled the World Trade Center flag at the Opening Ceremonies, 4 billion viewers around the world remembered the tragedy and joined in honoring those who had died. The presentation stirred feelings of pride and respect and set the tone for 17 days of safe and successful events.
With a couple of exceptions, namely the judging controversies, Salt Lake City can revel from hosting nearly flawless Games. A record 34 US medals at the Winter Olympics was icing on the cake. Jacques Rogge, IOC President, summarizes the success: “The food was excellent. The athletes were happy…it was the best Olympic village in history.” Choosing his words carefully, he continues, “The IOC was very pleased (with the Games). The transportation was excellent, the technology was flawless, security was OK. The weather was fine. The venues were great. The crowds warm and appreciative. There were thrilling athletic performances. All athletes said it was fantastic-2,700 athletes and maybe 10 were not happy.”
What makes the completion of these Winter Olympics even sweeter than the logistical feats is having conquered overwhelming tribulation to provide a harmonious forum for the world’s best athletes to inspire us with their courage and determination.
Disclaimer: I wrote this article from a rather biased perspective – my Dad has been helping organize the Salt Lake Olympics since February 1999, shortly after the bribery scandal surfaced.