The flip side of the Games: behind-the-scenes players

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As the 2000 Olympics burst upon the world stage in Sydney (Sept. 15-Oct. 1), there will be huge pomp and much circumstance with some 10,200 athletes from about 200 countries competing in 28 sports.

But the Olympics are about much more than sports. The US Olympic Committee understands this - which is why, unknown to most people, it devotes so much attention to goings on of major significance behind the scenes, removed from the bright lights.

For examples, see below. The Artist, The Speakers, and The Wannabes are joined at the hip because each contributes - obscurely but enormously - to the fabric of the Games and the mosaic of the Olympics experience, though in vastly different ways.

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THE ARTIST

John Haertling is having a hot dog for lunch at Mustard's Last Stand, near his art studio in Boulder, Colo. He is discussing the 24 elegant, free-standing commemorative sculptures - each unique - he has produced for the United States Olympic Committee to give to VIPs - presidents, mayors - in Sydney.

These definitely are not in the same category as tasteless bowling trophies. These are stylish gifts, and they are fine art. Says Toni Sparks of the USOC, "They're gorgeous."

Asked how much he was paid, artist Haertling brushes the query aside: "I don't say, 'How much do I get?' Instead, I say, 'Let's do it.' This is my opportunity to participate in the Olympics."

Indeed, Haertling, a 1983 graduate of California State University at Long Beach, evidences as much Olympic spirit as any athlete. Of his sculptures, he says, "I've given them my all. Success is if you meet or exceed expectations.... My expectations are never financial."

The sculptures - eight inches high and crafted from brass, Lucite, slate, and cherry - are designed to "focus on spirit and integrity."

And that's how he sees the Olympics: "They give everybody a chance. They involve the beauty of human achievement. And I will keep reaching as high as I can, just like the athletes."

Haertling says he was hooked on sculpture after his mother enrolled him in his first pottery class when he was five years old. He got started with the USOC about five years ago when he was mentioned in a magazine that somehow made its way to the lobby of the USOC's protocol office. Haertling estimates he has produced about 15 different sculptures for the Olympic committee.

Says the USOC's Sparks, "He can put very rough elements together and make them look beautiful."

The 1996 Olympic VIP gift Haertling created is a Greek discus thrower made of bronze, nickel, marble, and flagstone. For 1998 in Nagano, he produced an Olympic torch that relies heavily on granite, turned aluminum, and brass.

Five pieces of Haertling's work are on display in the White House.

What appeals to him is "I make awards for people who really deserve something." Therefore, the artist says, his art must be worthy. "It's sad," he says, "when somebody gets something unattractive." When the subject of money is broached again, Haertling once again finds it unattractive. Reluctantly, he says that the works he produces for numerous clients range in price from $50 to $2,500.

Like the athletes, Haertling can't help aspiring to more. He says he would love to be chosen to make the gold, silver, and bronze medals awarded to Olympic winners. "I have ideas in my head," he says, "and I'm driven to get them out and have influence."

THE SPEAKERS

For Olympic athletes, performing at peak level can be a difficult challenge. Talking about it can be worse.

That's where the husband-and-wife team of Sue Castorino and Randy Minkoff, creators and owners of The Speaking Specialists, comes in. The Chicago-based company has been hired by the US Olympic Committee to train its athletes and coaches in the sometimes Byzantine art of dealing with the media.

What the couple, both with media experience in the Midwest, tries to put across is that facing the media can be a joy to be experienced, not a mystery to be solved. Or put it another way: relax.

This is far easier said than done. And that's why Castorino and Minkoff boast a lengthy and starry client list, including the likes of Harvard, Notre Dame, MIT, the NCAA, ESPN, NBA star Scottie Pippen, the Atlanta Braves, golf pro Nancy Lopez, and on and on.

"We never tell them what to say," Castorino says. Rather, the emphasis is on how to say it. Her No. 1 teaching point: Stay focused. "I tell them not to ramble. A lot of them tend to think more is better. I tell them no, that more is just more." People who are interviewed routinely say their thoughts were taken out of context. Being brief, Castorino says, reduces that possibility.

Learning to emphasize brevity normally requires a session of between 90 minutes and two hours.

While the message of The Speaking Specialists is basic - answer the question, make your basic point, don't lie, don't dodge, be yourself, don't say "you know" or "no comment" - they know that the psychology of speaking and the art of speaking can be hard to merge.

"We just try to get [athletes] to be comfortable with who they are talking to," Castorino explained during a recent break in Los Angeles, where she was dealing with Olympic swimmers. "A lot of them learn to like it."

Much of the focus is on television interviews because, Castorino says, "the camera part is always daunting."

The key to the success of Castorino and Minkoff is their enthusiasm. Example: Castorino, who worked on TV in Cleveland and radio in Chicago, says, "I left the job of my dreams for the job of my life."

THE WANNABES

A little-known side of the Olympics, according to Prof. Tom Bowers of Indiana University in Bloomington, is "ambush marketing." There will be plenty, he figures, in Sydney because there always is at every Olympics. Basically it involves companies, Bowers says, "creating false appearances that there is a connection" between them and the Olympics when there is not.

Official sponsors, including IBM, General Motors, and UPS, invest extravagant amounts in time, money, goods, and services in order to reap the benefits - translation: sales - of being associated with a huge event watched with interest and affection by consumers.

Understandably, those who own the cows don't like anyone getting the milk for free through the fence. And they particularly don't want to pay for exclusivity only to find competitors trafficking in the shadows.

The USOC confirms that Nike was not an Olympic sponsor in 1996 at Atlanta, but it had a huge presence close to official sponsors in Centennial Park.

"This," says business-school professor Bowers, "created the impression it was a sponsor."

Already this Olympics, Nabisco has been hauled into court by the USOC. In an ad promoting Fig Newtons, Nabisco uses the phrase "The ancient Olympians worshiped the fig and used it for energy during training." The problem: Fig Newtons, which is not an Olympics sponsor, competes with Power Bar, which is.

Companies that are not official sponsors, Bowers contends, "will find ways to live in this gray area, which is legal but probably unethical. What ambush marketing amounts to is theft of Olympic property." Sydney officials promise continuing watchful vigilance so that firms don't 'Just do it,' as Nike might phrase it, without paying first.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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