A Fiat Caveat: Don't Urbanize the Olympics

By Sally Jenkins
Monday, February 27, 2006

TURIN, Italy The Fiat Games are now officially over, leaving a trail of smoggy exhaust fumes, and many lessons have been absorbed, as we deeply inhale. Here's lesson number one: Next time, maybe the Winter Olympics should be awarded to a city that has fewer factories, and more mountains. With snow.

There were so many instructive experiences during the 2006 Winter Games that it is hard to know where to start -- and I admit I'm still trying to draw the lesson from the Closing Ceremonies. What exactly was the meaning of all those Mermaids and Fishdancers and Brides, and why were the antipodists there, positioned around the giant fan? Why did the Carnevale Band need 182 Guggenmusik instruments? Presumably because 181 Guggenmusiks were not enough, and 183 Guggenmusiks were too many. The same might be said for the Explorers, hoop dancers, stilt walkers, Fellini clowns, fire jugglers, and Rola Rolas. The dances were weird, and strange and wonderful. Unless they were just weird and strange.

You got the feeling from the antic excesses of the Closing Ceremonies that the Turin organizers were trying hard to make up for a lack of something. That something, for lack of a better term, might be called the Olympic Spirit. Perhaps the International Olympic Committee has learned that selling the Winter Games to an industrial automotive hub with illegal air quality, and no Alps within view, was the wrong thing to do.

Sadly, there was no core to these Games. The skiing and sledding events were held two hours from Turin, in a series of scattered and overdeveloped mountainside villages, many of which were closer to France. The Turin Olympic motto was, "Passion Lives Here." It should have been "Passion Lives Here -- But It Has a Time Share."

The only things that occurred in the grand centro of Turin were the "Today" show and the medal ceremonies, and both were surrounded by so much scaffolding and security that it was jarring to the architecture and landscape.

Also, while the Italians were lovely hosts, with their rich coffees and chocolates and cheeses, the residents were less than enthused about attending the Games. Within the first week, tickets for the Closing Ceremonies were being sold for 40 percent off. Even IOC President Jacques Rogge, normally so happy with everything around him, said: "The general public was a little bit absent in providing atmosphere. There are events where attendance has not been maximum."

The spectator lassitude here seemed to translate through the television. Winter Games prime-time viewership on NBC was down by about 19 percent from the 1998 Nagano Games and down 33 percent from Salt Lake City in 2002.

The low ratings were no doubt a result of the fact that Americans, especially, learned some hard lessons during these Games. As a whole, the U.S. Olympic Committee learned that its athletes need some lessons in comportment and team play. Jeret Peterson punched a guy in the mouth in a fight, and Chad Hedrick and Shani Davis acted like they wanted to do the same. The U.S. ski team learned from Bode Miller that it shouldn't put a guy on the roster if he doesn't actually want to be there. As for Miller himself, perhaps he learned that the only thing left for him to do is open a microbrewery. Bode Beer. Who would buy his skis? But they might buy his amber crybaby beer.

So many American athletes seemed consumed with their own self-fulfillment here that it was tempting to blame the video montage quality of sports telecasts for giving them the wrong impression about life. Everything is a highlight. Nothing is an honest and lonely slog.

It was probably no accident, then, that some of the most successful and popular American athletes in these Olympics were the ones who were least advertised: snowboarder Shaun White, speedskater Joey Cheek, 21-year-old skiers Ted Ligety and Julia Mancuso and ice dancers Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto.

A handful of stories like theirs enlivened what will otherwise be remembered as a dreary and dingy urban Olympics. The days when a Winter Games could be held in one intimate place, a village like Lillehammer, appear to be long over, unless the IOC makes the principled decision to downsize them commercially. Which hardly seems likely. There were just 2,500 athletes here compared to 10,000 guests of the 11 top Olympic sponsors -- including Visa, Coca-Cola and McDonald's -- which pay about $50 million each for sponsorship rights. Nobody from the IOC is going to suggest cutting sponsorship guest lists unless they want to shortly be unemployed. Which leaves cities the size of Vancouver as the only realistic candidates. The bidders for the 2014 Games include scenic destinations such as Salzburg, Austria, bidding against the likes of Almaty, the biggest city in Kazakhstan, and Sofia, Bulgaria. Who do you think will win?

The bulk and heft of the Games make them so forbiddingly expensive to host that most villages aren't even capable, or interested. Unfortunately, the Winter Games from now on seem likely to be very much for sale, and to suffer badly from urban sprawl.

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