on to Our Olympic Ideals
Tom Jordan 67
Amidst scandal and billion-dollar contracts, its still the
athletes that matter.
was skiing at a resort north of Salt Lake City just days before
the Winter Games began when I had my Olympic moment. During my afternoon
drive home, I came across Beethovens Fifth on the radio.
As I passed downtown Salt Lake, the sun entered what movie makers
call the golden hour. The citys 13 tallest buildings
were wrapped with pictures 150 feet high of athletes representing
each of the winter sports. The combination of golden sunlight, banners,
snow-covered mountains, and an orchestra sawing away for all it
was worth choked me up. I literally found myself saying, Wow,
its the Olympics, and theyre here.
I know had a similar moment, an instant in which they realized that
the Olympics were no longer an abstraction, but a whirlwind of athletes,
spectators, sponsors, and journalists from 78 countries that was
about to consume our lives. I am a radio wire service reporter and
had been covering preparations for the Salt Lake Games for nearly
five years. Journalists who had covered previous Olympics agreed
on one thing: there was no way to describe how big and exciting
and complicated the Games would be. They were right.
been a fan of the Olympics since childhood. My cousins skated at
the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs in the 1950s, and I watched them
perform in ice shows with medallist Hayes Allen Jenkins. But the
Games have changed enormously since then. Many people consider Lake
Placids 1980 Games to be the last simple Olympicsevents
that could be held in a ski village and whose athletes knew each
other. In Los Angeles four years later, the power of the Olympic
brand was unleashed. By 2002, the Olympics were fueled
by 60 sponsor corporations and countless licensees selling everything
from zipper-pulls to SUVs. We had official Olympic refrigerators
and toilet paper; even now, Olympic manhole covers top the sewers
of Salt Lake City.
Salt Lake Games, which racked up $1.3 billion in expenses, actually
made do with the smallest per-capita operating budget since 1980.
Sponsors of information technology companies laid 31,000 miles of
fiber optic cable between the athletic venuesallowing for
instant competition results anywhere in the world. Nearly 80,000
volunteers and employees underwent federal background checks. And
roughly 14,000 journalists covered the feats of 3,500 athletes for
a worldwide TV audience of 2 or 3 billion.
years ago, when it became apparent that the city of Athens was in
hot ouzo for its lack of preparation for the massive 2004 Summer
Games, I asked Marc Hodler, founder of the International Ski Federation,
if the modern Games were too big and if they would survive. He replied
simply, We have $6 billion in signed contracts. We will honor
those contracts. That statement sums up the future of the
So is it worth it? The answer depends on your degree of cynicism.
The billion-and-some bucks spent in Salt Lake could have relieved
a lot of misery for many people, but unfortunately, the money wasnt
used for those who needed help. NBC spent $400 million for television
rights; no network would dream of dropping that amount of cash without
some killer TV opportunities. NBC apparently profited more than
$80 million from the event, so as a business plan, it was a success.
Theres no money in misery.
Unless, of course, the misery is the pain of a French pairs
figure skating judge proclaiming that she was pressured on how to
vote, or not, or maybe. The main press room in Salt Lake, which
normally held 200 people, was opened up to full ballroom size for
the media shindig surrounding the pairs controversy, and possibly
a half-million reporters wedged in. The already hot ratings blazed
for the rest of the Games. Why? Because we cared about Canadian
pairs skaters Jamie and David, and about third-generation
Olympian Jim Shea, and about Vonetta Flowers, the first African
American ever to win a winter gold medal, who cried on the podium.
17 days, billions of us watched a sharply defined set of black-and-white
issues. In a world slogging through political and ethical fog, the
Olympics are the bright sunshine of simplicity. They have rules
and a beginning and ending. The 2002 controversies were fun because
we could all hold an opinion: viewers around the globe became instant
experts on how ice skater Sarah Hughes landed the gold.
Games ended this year with International Olympic Committee President
Jacques Rogge pronouncing some of the best-known lines in recent
sports history: I call upon the youth of the world to assemble
in Torino, Italy, in four years for the Games of the 20th Winter
have been recent scandals involving bribery, doping, and judging,
but the youth of the world dont care. They dont care
about the billion-dollar contracts or whos running the show.
As Salt Lake Organizing Committee President Mitt Romney was fond
of saying, the Games are about athletes, not suits.
all over the world will still imagine themselves as future Olympians.
Some of them will make it to Italy to give us another marvelous
show. They need to assemble to find out whos best. We need
them to assemble because we want to cheer for them. The Olympic
Games renew our hope of making the planet a better place if we can
just hold on to the ideals we praise every two years. l
Jordan is the news bureau chief for Metro Networks in Salt
Lake City and claims to throw down the best big air tricks of any
Utah bureau chief.