London may be better, not bigger

August 31, 2008 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Olympic Games 

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 31, 2008 – After the enormity that was the Games of the XXIX Olympiad in Beijing, a clear call for sanity is being sounded in London, host of the next Olympic Games, in 2012.

“The International Olympic Committee themselves,” said London 2012 chair Sebastian Coe in an interview with BBC Sport, “recognize that this is the last edition of a Games which is going to look and feel like this.”

And London is putting its money where its mouth is.

The government’s Olympic Games Minister, Tessa Jowell, told the Evening Standard newspaper that “We have commissioned KPMG to do a report on the equestrian, shooting and basketball venues, looking at whether the Olympic experience and the legacy they will provide represents value for money. When you take the costs for these venues, it seems like a lot of money to a lot of people. It is a sort of testing-to-destruction to see whether the spending can be justified.”

The idea that Olympic sites should actually be worth building is a stunning return to sanity, voiced just days after the Closing Ceremony of the Beijing Games. If the IOC actually believes in its stated value of “sustainability,” it must be against construction wherever possible and in favor of temporary facilities for the Games unless a permanent facility will have long-term use for sport and/or for the community.

To be candid, the inside talk in equestrian circles is that the sport may not even be renewed for 2012 (although that’s unlikely), shooting is something which is generally discouraged in urban settings and London already has places to play basketball, although they are being used for other sports for 2012. Why do these sites have to be built out of bricks and mortar instead of canvas and rented bleachers?

If London will follow Jowell’s concept and push it to the limit, building as little as possible, it may not have the biggest Games of the 21st Century, but it will have the smartest.

U.S. tracksters better at the Trials than at the Games

August 29, 2008 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Olympic Games, Track & Field 

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 29, 2008 – The Olympic Games are over and for the world’s top track & field athletes, it’s back to business as usual.

The highlight will be Jamaican world-record holder Usain Bolt in the 100 meters, who is probably taking an accountant with him to carry all the checks and arrange all the bank transfers he is collecting in his post-Olympic tour. Not counting bonuses for new world records, Bolt could be $300,000 richer in the next couple of weeks. He’s riding the crest of one of the great runs in the history of track & field.

The American contingent is not doing as well. Although the U.S. easily led the medal count in Beijing once again and had the best team in eight-place scoring (eight points for first, down to one point for eighth, generally the best measure of team strength), there were notable trouble spots:

• The U.S. qualified only one male athlete – pole vaulter Derek Miles – for the Olympic final out of 12 entries in the high jump, vault, long jump and triple jump and won no medals, a collapse of historic proportions.

• The U.S. was 0-7 in qualification for the final in the discus, hammer and javelin, so in the eight field events, only four of the 22 American entries (18.2%) made the final and three of those were the shot putters. The U.S. men won a total of one medal in these eight events: Christian Cantwell’s silver in the shot.

• American women weren’t quite as bad, qualifying five entrants out of 11 in the four jumping events and four out of 11 in the throws for a field total of nine out of 22 (40.9%). The U.S. women won two medals in the field: Stephanie Brown Trafton’s surprise gold in the discus and Jenn Stuczynski’s silver in the vault.

Even more of a problem was the stark reality that the best performances by American athletes came at the Olympic Trials in Eugene than in the Olympic Games in Beijing:

• Of the 55 American men who competed in Beijing, only 13 posted better marks in the Games than in the Trials, a miserable 23.6%.

• Of the 55 American women who competed in the Games, only nine did better in Beijing, an even worse mark of 16.4%.

• Overall, 22 out of 110 Americans – 20% – did better in the Games than at the Trials.

In the sprints, especially, American performances suffered at the Games. In the 100 and 200-meter events, all 12 entrants were worse in August than in June, although the men’s 100 and women’s 200 in Eugene were wind-aided.

What’s the solution?

Perhaps the U.S. national team coordinator for women’s gymnastics, Marta Karolyi, might have it right. She kept the “trials” portion of the gymnastics competition rolling until nearly the last moment so that she could pick the athletes who were fittest closest to the competition dates.

If that had been done for track & field, the U.S. Trials would not have been held from June 27-July 6, but two weeks later from July 12-20, just ahead of the final IAAF entry deadline of July 23. The Olympic track competition was three weeks later, beginning on August 15.

It’s a concept worth considering, especially as London’s dates are earlier for 2012, with the Games scheduled for July 27-August 12 with the track events likely to be held from August 4-12.

American athletes just weren’t as fit in Beijing as they were for the Trials. That’s what has to change; the USA Track & Field high-performance staff should be taking a close look at how the fitness levels of American athletes increase or decrease at the end of this season for a clue about how long it takes to regain top form after a layoff.

Usain Bolt figured it out. Now the Americans need to, too.

That Legacy Thing

May 1, 2008 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Olympic Games 

LOS ANGELES, May 1, 2008 – “It’s the first city ever in the world that managed to turn Olympic Games into a downturn in tourism, which is incredible,” wailed Chris Brown, the managing director of Tourism and Transport Forum Australia in the Sydney Morning Herald last month.

He was speaking of the drop in tourism and visitor interest in Sydney, the host of the 2000 Olympic Games, widely considered to be the best-staged Games so far. Sydney’s problems, however, aren’t limited to tourism.

“We went from having a deficit of sporting facilities to have an excess in some areas,” said then-New South Wales Premier Bob Carr in 2004, “but that was always going to be the case when you offer yourself for a world sporting festival and make the decision that you will not live with mediocrity or compromise.”

The financial hangover from the Games is illustrated by the Sydney Olympic Park Authority’s Annual Report for 2006-07. Although the Park attracts more than 8 million visitors a year and has vibrant venues for sport – Stadium Australia, now known as Telstra Stadium – and for concerts and smaller events – The Sydney SuperDome, now known as Acer Arena – the New South Wales state government still has to pitch in more than $30 million (Australian; about $28.2 million U.S. at current exchange rates) a year to keep the Olympic Park operations going. And that doesn’t count the challenges for other Sydney facilities that aren’t part of the Olympic Park. The venues for equestrian, shooting and rowing have all received, or continue to receive government subsidies.

The situation in Athens is also bad, but different. The financial burden of the 2004 Games was widely reported and although many of its lesser-used sporting venues are being converted into other uses – university buildings, theaters and leisure centers for example – the government’s budget deficit doubled in 2004 to more than 6.1% of its gross domestic product and Greeks will be paying off the 7.2 billion Euro cost (about $11.2 billion U.S.) for years to come.

What does this say about the real impact of the Olympic Games?

The superficial answer is that the Games don’t pay for themselves in almost every instance and create venues and infrastructure that end up rotting after the party is over. That’s true; if the figures are analyzed coldly and include governmental expenditures for infrastructure directly related to the Games such as building stadia and the Olympic Village, only Los Angeles in 1984 had a surplus when the accounting was completed.

But there are other, more insidious, games going on that have very little to do with the pomp and circumstance of the Opening Ceremony.

“I didn’t bid for the Olympics because I wanted three weeks of sport,” said up-for-reelection London Mayor Ken Livingstone in The Daily Mail last week. “I bid for the Olympics because it’s the only way to get the billions of pounds out of the Government to develop the East End. It’s exactly how I played it to ensnare the Government to put money into an area it has neglected for 30 years.”

And Christos Hadjiemmanuil, the chief executive of the Hellenic Olympic Properties company told reporters last year that “It took the city four years to build a new railway system and airports, as it would take 15 years without the Games. Athens is a much better city after the Games.”

So while the critics focus on the actions of the Chinese government in Tibet and Sudan and financial conservatives scream about the 300% rise in the cost of the 2012 London Games to the British taxpayers, the dreamers bidding for the 2016 Olympic Games are hard at work. In Baku, Chicago, Doha, Madrid, Prague, Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo, the politicians and civic boosters are brainstorming of how they can offer the International Olympic Committee the most dramatic, sympathy-inducing case for giving a country, state or city the impetus to spend billions of dollars, Euro or some other currency to make their lives better.

That’s what sells many of the IOC members, and without their votes, the only legacy – for all of the bidders except one – is disappointment.

Race for the Rings: What did Paris do wrong?

July 11, 2005 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Olympic Games 

LOS ANGELES, Jul. 11, 2005 – In the aftermath of London’s upset of Paris in the race to host the Games of the XXX Olympiad in 2012, the hand-wringing in France and the sharp comments of observers point to the question: What did Paris do wrong?

The answer?

Nothing.

Paris didn’t lose as much as London won. And here’s how:

>> Paris’s bid was near-perfect and won near-unanimous praise from the Evaluation Commission. But London was close and the Evaluation Commission’s view of its bid left it only slightly behind the French. So there wasn’t much ground to make up on the technical end.

>> Both cities were competing to host the Games for the third time, and with a comfortable distance between their bids and the remaining three from Madrid, Moscow and New York according to the Evaluation Commission, the race became focused.

>> Members of the International Olympic Committee are world travelers in sport and for many of them, Paris was already familiar. The French hosted – with considerable distinction – the FIFA World Cup in soccer in 1998 and the IAAF World Championships in Athletics in 2003 in the same stadium that was proposed for 2012. London, on the other hand, hadn’t hosted a major international sporting competition since the 1966 FIFA World Cup, so it was due.

>> The British bid was led by a magical personality in Sebastian Coe, the two-time Olympic gold medalist in 1980 (800 m) and 1974 (1500 m). Although the London bid had been considered in a shambles in 2003, Coe’s leadership not only brought the bid together, but made him the face of the bid to the IOC, a group which revered him not only as a great athlete, but as a great sportsman. None of the other bids had an equivalent star who shined as brightly in front of the IOC at the very center of their bid, rather than as a member of the supporting cast.

>> Finally, the British showed that they – as a country – wanted the Games more. This was evident from their approach to the IOC Session in Singapore, as they were the first to arrive, nearly a week before the first meetings began. Moreover, the lobbying effort by Prime Minster Tony Blair for a full three days prior to the vote, in the midst of his hosting duties for the annual Summit of Industrialized Nations (the G-8), on a one-on-one basis with nearly three dozen IOC members was likely decisive.

Blair and French President Jacques Chirac, as leaders of G-8 nations, are major world leaders. In an IOC which is now made up primarily of sports figures and business personalities, rather than royalty and heads of government, such visits from leading governmental figures are impressive and important.

London won by just four votes out of 104 cast on the final ballot, so it was hardly a rout. And while Chirac’s dismissal of London because British food is the worst in Europe other than Finland was silly, it was probably not a factor. But shaking Blair’s hand and listening to his level of commitment on behalf of the government was undoubtedly memorable.

It’s a great lesson for bid cities. In the race to host the Olympic Winter Games in 2010, Vancouver was considered troubled, having been ranked (more or less) third in the Evaluation Commission’s technical analysis. But they persevered, lobbied enthusiastically and ended up winning on the second ballot over Pyeongchang, South Korea. Same for London.

Now the hard work begins. After the vote, the IOC and London are partners and after seven years together in 2012, the IOC will know if British food is good or bad. More importantly, they will know if they made the right choice.