Olympic Torch

After The Cauldron

I’ve asked the same thing of people from Los Angeles, St. Louis and Atlanta.  Amsterdam, Rome, Paris, Stockholm, Tokyo and Mexico City.  I’ve asked them what it means to come from an Olympic city.  The answer is usually, “Oh yeah…that’s right…” or “Wait, when were the Olympics in St. Louis?”

You get a different answer when it’s the Winter Olympics.  It takes an altogether unique place to host the Winter Games.  It requires a place with at least a burgeoning if not venerated history at previous Olympiads, an infrastructure developed enough to support media centers, transportation, accommodation and security concerns, a proximity to world class mountain terrain, a citizenry willing to risk financial struggle for the mercurial possibility of global prestige and reinvestment, and a commitment to an uncertain future of figuring out what to do with these bobsled tracks and ski jumps.  To meet the increasingly ridiculous needs of the Winter Olympics requires a distinct kind of place and people.

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I grew up in Salt Lake City during the decade-long campaign to secure the Games.  At the time, it seemed inevitable, almost a birthright, even arrogantly so.  The campaign chewed up much of the discourse on the Wasatch Front in the early 90’s on every level, from the capitol building to the ski lodge, from the nightly news to the church parking lot.  The purpose, the very identity of the city changed entirely once the IOC announced our name in 1995.

Once the 2-week bender is over, and after the 2-year hangover (hopefully) abates, that identity defines any Winter Games city, for good, bad or indifferent.

As unthinkable as it sounds today, when Squaw Valley was awarded the 1960 games, it had one chairlift, one full-time resident and one fairly indelicate name.  Its owner Alex Cushing placed his bid as something of a publicity stunt for his new resort, which had only been open for 6 years.  Almost single-handedly, he wrangled the games away from Europe’s pet choice Innsbruck with snake oil, chutzpah and a purportedly awesome scale model.  Those 1960 Games performed something of a miracle.  They opened up Lake Tahoe, the Sierra Nevadas, California and, to a degree, the western United States to the world of winter sports.  50 years later, Lake Tahoe has the highest concentration of ski resorts in North America, and mulling another bid for the Games.

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Fun fact: because so few nations fielded a bobsled team, Squaw Valley didn’t even bother building a track.  It was the only Winter Olympics without a bobsled competition.

After famously hosting two Olympics without winning a single gold medal at either of them, Canada won a record 14 golds in 2010 in Vancouver, largely due to the winter sport facilities built and maintained because of the ’88 Games in Calgary.  Previously considered by many to be the cowtown capital of Alberta oil country, Calgary parlayed shrewd promotional and broadcast deals into a post-Games surplus that allowed the region to reinvent itself as a nexus of winter sports dedicated to the training and development of Canadian athletes, who’ve increased their medal count in each successive Olympics.

It’s a bit soon to consider Vancouver itself, but the immediate legacy is mixed.  While the slopes of Whistler-Blackcomb are packed and suburban Richmond has seen its fortunes improve, the Vancouver games had the bad luck of landing in the middle of a recession.  The lux Olympic Village became the Village at False Creek condo boondoggle, where hundreds of millions in real estate debt landed in taxpayers’ laps.  Even Pixar couldn’t make a go of it.

Before 2006, Turin was a city known primarily for the waning fortunes of its imploding Fiat auto industry and its debunked town shroud.  Like Vancouver, Turin’s legacy is also in flux.  The Olympics boosted tourism and slowed its economic decline, and Juventus sits atop Serie A, but cost overruns left the city with millions in debt.

Fun fact: ice hockey made its Olympic debut in the 1920 Summer Olympics.  (The Winter Olympics didn’t begin until 1924.)

When the ’92 Games were awarded to Albertville, they weren’t really awarded to Albertville, but to the nearby Savoie Alps, to the alpine meccas of Courchevel, Méribel and Val d’Isere.  While these areas boomed with the added Olympic development, Albertville (which only hosted a third of the events) was mired in over $60 million in net loss and exists now as a slightly smudgy industrial city sitting in the shadow of its tonier neighbors in the surrounding mountains.

An hour southwest of Albertville is the 1968 host city Grenoble.  It’s grown into a city with a strong economy, encompassing a thriving academic population and tech quarter.  The ’68 Games provided the needed infrastructure to kickstart this, but like Albertville, Grenoble has little collective Olympic nostalgia.  Like Albertville, many of its Olympic facilities have been replaced or repurposed.  There are even rumors that its cauldron was missing for years.

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Then there’s Nagano.  No one will ever know how much Nagano spent simply on bidding for the ’98 Games, because all the financial records and accounting files were deliberately burned.  You heard me: deliberately burned.  Under the direct order of Sumikazu Yamaguchi, a senior committee member.  Nagano quickly descended into recession after the Games, with infrastructure and maintenance costs sorely underestimated.  The Nagano Shinkansen bullet train was built to shuttle people from Tokyo to Nagano in as few as 80 minutes.  Unfortunately, this allows skiers to head right back home after the last run instead of staying in Nagano, further sapping its local economy.

The most emotionally resonant Winter Olympic city for many Americans has to be Lake Placid.  When we think of Lake Placid, we think of the Miracle on Ice and Eric Heiden, a crucible where the U.S. symbolically won the Cold War.  In truth, the 1980 Games were a nightmare of logistical problems on almost every front: transportation shortfalls, accommodation shortages, ticketing kerfuffles.  This village of some 2,000 people was saddled with millions of dollars of deficit and needed a bailout from the state of New York to avoid bankruptcy.

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Yet the Olympics are an intractable part of the town’s DNA.  Many people don’t even realize that Lake Placid’s hosted the Games twice.  While most of its tourists arrive in the summer, it’s an epicenter of winter sports training and competition with unparalleled facilities and a populace determined to maintain its history.

Fun fact: the Olympic Village from the 1980 Games is now FCI Ray Brook, a medium-security prison.

And it’s not a little sad to realize that Lake Placid will never host the Winter Olympics again (unless it’s somehow tossed into an unwieldy, multinational blanket bid with Ottawa or Montreal or something).  Nor will any of the sites of the Games’ first decades.  The logistical, technological and economic needs of the Winter Games have sprawled and trebled to such a scope that former Winter Games hosts St. Moritz, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Cortina d’Ampezzo, Squaw Valley and Albertville have been folded into larger Olympic bids of Graubünden, Munich, Venice, Reno/Tahoe and Annecy, respectively.

There is one Winter Olympic city whose legacy is surely the most poignant.

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A friend of mine recently visited Sarajevo.  She describes a rebuilding, religiously diverse city with a vibrant, friendly downtown quarter whose residents don’t want to fall victim to inertia, who don’t want to live in a mausoleum city.  Many of its people aren’t forthcoming with their memories of the 4-year Siege of Sarajevo, but the Olympics remain a source of pride, albeit a bittersweet pride.  The ’84 Games, which actually made some $10 million in revenue, afforded its citizens a glimpse of an economic, cultural and spiritual future that wouldn’t have existed without the Olympics.  Instead, just 8 years later, the city was a smoking ruin.

Today, there’s precious little money to redevelop the city’s core infrastructure, let alone the bullet-riddled husks of the Olympic monuments and venues.  A visit to Olympic Park is a sobering affair.  The Igman Olympic Jumps never hosted another World Cup ski jumping event before going to rot.  Serbian fighters literally drilled high-vantage artillery batteries and sniper nests into the bobsled track at Trebević.  Today the track is a weed-riven canvas for graffiti artists.

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Last summer, despite the fact that the U.S. soccer team was in town for friendly with Bosnia and Herzegovina, my friend was virtually the only tourist in the city.  Its people were visibly surprised to meet an American making the effort to travel there.  Almost 20 years have passed since the Bosnian War ended, yet Sarajevo is still wanting for visitors.  Those visitors Sarajevo does attract inexorably visit within the context of the suffering it endured during the war.  Yet when I asked her if she would go back, she said, “I would go back in a heartbeat. It’s utterly beautiful, despite its history.”

Which brings us to Sochi.

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As next month’s games approach, it’s remarkable how comparatively little ink has been spent on sport itself.  Instead, what we’ve heard is more troubling and alarmist than any Olympics in recent memory.  Sharing space with the fear-mongering tales of “black widows”, “Putin’s games” and the “Ring of Steel” are the ubiquitous reports that $50 billion will have been spent on it before it’s over, more than any Olympics, winter or summer, in history, more than the 2012 redevelopment of East London, more than the operatic pageantry of Beijing, more than all 21 previous Winter Olympics combined.

Russian coffers have been drained, its resources diverted and dissipated.  Two dozen men have died during the unprecedented construction.  Lifelong citizens have been forcibly evicted, relocated and deported.  This doesn’t even consider the widespread condemnation of Russia’s anti-LGBT legislation, the separatist insurgents in Dagestan, Abkhazia and Chechnya who have threatened direct terrorist action against the games themselves (who’ve already take credit for suicide bombings in nearby Volgograd that took 34 lives last month), or the palm trees growing outside Fisht Stadium.  It’s a popular parlor game to predict how the sky will fall on supposedly ill-prepared host cities, but the facts are there: the 2014 Winter Olympics are happening in a subtropical seaside city, in a country with an official policy of homophobia, on the rim of a conflict zone.

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What will happen during and/or after the Sochi Olympics is pure conjecture.  The depth of corruption and final tally of embezzlement may never be truly known.  It has the 2018 FIFA World Cup in its future, but that future is an uneasy one.  At the risk of being alarmist myself, it’s not difficult to draw a few parallels between Sochi and Sarajevo.

I’ll always feel hometown proud of the Salt Lake City Games, despite the infamous bidding scandal, the infamous pairs skating scandal, and even the inevitable stray Osmond or two.  Salt Lake City spent decades with a chip on its shoulder, smiling through its inferiority complex while laboring mightily to make the city something other than the butt of the nation’s polygamy jokes.  The city and its mountains have prospered.  Athletes and locals train in its white elephants (well played, $40 million legacy fund).  The Winter Olympics aren’t easy.  They’re bound fundamentally to a sense of place, of mountains and weather, in closer congress with nature than the Summer Games.  When you have that pride of place, you share it with Albertville and Grenoble, Sarajevo and Sochi.  And your hope is that it holds much longer than those two weeks in February.

Fun fact: the first Olympics held in the United States occurred in 1904.

In St. Louis.

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This post was written by Mark Larson of ScoreBig.com.

Tags olympics

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