Ciao to the Winter Games

Officials Defend U.S. Results, Look Ahead to China

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 27, 2006; Page E01

TURIN, Italy, Feb. 26 -- After a stirring 2002 Winter Games on home soil just months after the Sept. 11 attacks, the 2006 Olympics have suffered in the United States from a dearth of inspirational moments and a lack of interest among television viewers.

But with the 2008 Summer Games in China next on the Olympic horizon, there was no sense of panic as the Turin Olympics concluded with Sunday night's Closing Ceremonies.

A man swings around in a symbolic Olympic ring during the Closing Ceremonies in Turin, Italy. (Mike Blake - Reuters)

Olympic officials and marketing experts dismiss the notion that the product in which NBC has invested billions can no longer compete in the modern American entertainment market or that the U.S. Olympic team had a disappointing Games when, in fact, it collected 25 medals -- a U.S. record for a Winter Olympics not contested on American soil.

Though U.S. television ratings plunged at least in part because of the competition on other networks and cable channels, media experts say that could turn around in Beijing, which in 2001 was a controversial choice to hold the Olympics because of China's communist government and checkered human rights record.

Draped in mystique, China will open its doors in a way it never has before. Eager to make a global splash, organizers of the Beijing Games figure to counter the glut of programming options and the 13-hour time difference with rich story lines, a stunning Chinese team and, of course, a Games of historical significance. The fact that the Olympics will take place in August, a dead time for U.S. television programming, doesn't hurt.

"The good news for NBC is that China is a bigger story than any athlete," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "The significance of those Games will draw the casual viewer because it's China. . . . You are talking about 1.3 billion people and a country that is using the Games as a statement of its place in the global economy."

U.S. Olympic Committee officials, meantime, vow to more vigorously promote the Beijing Olympics and the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, B.C., while avoiding the trap of pre-selling a handful of stars who might not pan out.

"These Games went largely unnoticed by the American public" in the weeks before they began, USOC chief executive Jim Scherr said. He said the goal is to "build greater interest. . . . Even just the nature of those two Games will make that job easier for us. There is tremendous interest in China, in the Chinese people and government, and the growing rivalry between the U.S. and China, and that really will drive that interest."

Olympic historian David Wallechinsky said the decision of NBC and Olympic sponsors to single out a few big names -- namely, Michelle Kwan, who left the Games with an injury, and Bode Miller, who didn't win a single medal in five events -- in their run-up to these Games ultimately resulted in a suppression of interest when their stories flopped. NBC had much better luck at the 2004 Athens Games with swimmer Michael Phelps, whose multi-medal quest held interest from the beginning to the end.

"The lesson learned heading into Beijing and on to Vancouver is you have to strike a balance such that you are not too reliant on the personalities of these people or on their athletic performances," said David Carter, a professor at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business.

Though frustrated at what they consider an erroneous notion that U.S. athletes have underperformed here, U.S. Olympic officials consider the Summer Olympics the United States' athletic domain and look forward to escaping the snares of ice and snow sports, even while wary of China as a growing sports rival. Of course, there also is a significant benefit of facing a loaded Chinese team: The competition should provide great daily drama -- something lacking at these Olympics.

"While it won't be an 'us-versus-them' story line like the Cold War Olympics, there will be an America-China competition for the medal count," Swangard said. "The Chinese have said they want to win the medal count in Beijing. That will tap the national pride in America to cheer for the home team and as a result, marketers will find a passionate consumer base."

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