Why the Olympics still matter

Vancouver opens a quadrennial rite that, with its daring triple axels, suborbital ski jumps, and inspiring teamwork, can uplift a world weary of conflict and recession.

By , / Correspondent

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    Team USA skeleton slider Noelle Pikus-Pace.
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    American freestyle skier Shannon Bahrke will be competing in her third Olympics at Vancouver.
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    Lindsey Vonn will lead US alpine skiers
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    A ski jumper glides like a condor at Whistler, British Columbia, one of the Olympic venues.
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    Opening ceremonies, such as the one held in Beijing in 2008, remain a signature of the Games. The image of all those athletes in one place, carrying flags that in other venues might be waved in anger but here are hoisted in jubilation, is a powerful symbol of world unity, however momentary.
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    Members of the Canadian women’s speedskating team practice on the refrigerated track at the Richmond Oval in Richmond, British Columbia, venue for the Olympic speedskating events. The building features a signature ‘wood wave’ roof constructed of one million board feet of pine-beetle-killed timber.
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If you want to know why the Olympics still matter, meet a guy named Tony Benshoof. He's 34, an Olympic Everyman who slides feet first down mountains made of ice, seeking perfection during every lonely day of training.

His sport is luge. He fell in love with the terrifying discipline when he was just a kid sitting in front of a television set at his home in White Bear Lake, Minn., watching the spectacle of the 1988 Winter Olympics.

He could do that, hop a sled and race down ice at 80 miles an hour. He sacrificed school – it took him 10 years to graduate from college. He put his work career on hold – tended bar, worked construction, and stocked shelves. And he taxed his body, injuring his back three times since 2006.

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But every four years, for a few brief seconds, the world pays attention to Benshoof and all those like him.

"You can take the Olympics in any way you want," says Benshoof, a three-time Olympian. "At its core, it's a group of athletes who are competing to win for their country. At the purest level, the Olympics are still a great thing."

Amid war in Iraq and Afghanistan, heart-wrenching earthquake relief in Haiti, and economies struggling to recover everywhere, here come the 2010 Vancouver Olympics to offer a quadrennial antidote to a world weary of headlines bleating infidelity, despair, and deterioration.

There will be stars like South Korea's Kim Yu-Na, a figure skater who combines elegant jumps and steel-like nerves, and Lindsey Vonn, an American ski racer who conquers mountains with courage and a smile.

Shani Davis, the first African-American to claim speed skating gold, will be back for more. And so, too, will American snowboarder Shaun White, the shaggy-haired Millennial with competitive mettle and acrobatic artistry.

With the addition of big-money sponsors, sports that are more edgy than elegant, and the inevitable scandals, the Games may no longer feel as innocent as they did in 1924 when only 16 nations competed and athletes had to wait two years to get their medals. The modern Olympic movement is a struggle to balance its soul with survival – trying to preserve tradition while holding the attention of a generation raised on video games and iEverything.

Yet there is truly nothing like them in the world, a 17-day party of athleticism that can inspire and unite. And even though professional sports are now present everywhere, the Olympics maintain a certain moral stature and significance.

"The Olympic dream is if you go there, and [if] on the day you get everything right, you could be the Olympic champion. It's a goal and dream that everybody has," says Richard (Dick) Pound, a Canadian attorney and member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

At their most basic, the Olympics are about dreams – lost, found, and, yes, shattered. "Take a doping case in the Olympics, it's a huge deal," Mr. Pound says. "A doping case in a professional entertainment sport is nothing. [But] people believe if the Olympics can work for all these 205 countries around the world, maybe the world can work. I always thought if things go wrong with the Olympics, there is this inordinate disappointment shared by practically everybody."

The Olympics have come a long way since their modern founding, the first Summer Games in 1896 in Athens, and the first Winter Games in 1924 in Chamonix, France.

There has been disgrace – Adolf Hitler's 1936 Nazi Olympics in Berlin; death – the murder of 11 Israelis at Munich in 1972; drugs – Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson cheated to become the world's fastest man in Seoul, South Korea, in 1988.

The cold war turned hot on ice and hardwood, the United States and the Soviet Union competing for sports supremacy. The fall of the Berlin Wall turbocharged the Olympics, which became a high-priced carnival for the emerging global economy, commanding high entry fees for corporations that lined up to become sponsors.

Here, all people are created equal, as long as they bring along the credit card of the official Olympic sponsor.

Commerce counts. And politics are also part of the great Olympic chase. World leaders lobby the IOC, diplomatic pitchmen on behalf of cities bidding to host the Games. Some, like Britain's Tony Blair and Russia's Vladimir Putin, emerge as winners when their cities, London in 2012 and Sochi in 2014, claim the Games.

Most leave empty-handed. President Obama traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark, to make a personal appeal for Chicago's 2016 bid. Chicago was dismissed on the first ballot as the "Lords of the Rings" chose Rio de Janeiro.

And yet, in spite of it all, there are moments of Olympic grace and beauty.

Here's why they matter:

1. The Opening Ceremony

They may be three hours of prerecorded music and national schmaltz, a made-for-television spectacle that verges on becoming a religious rite instead of a mere celebration of sports. But unless you've actually seen one in person or marched in one, you can't really grasp the enormity of what is happening during the opening ceremonies when the world gathers for the Games.

It's fun, dramatic, and inspiring. Half the time you're simply trying to figure out what is happening when the big show opens with songs, dances, and some sort of symbolic re-creation of national myths, depending on what country you're in. In South Korea, they smashed thousands of wooden boards with swift martial arts moves. In Los Angeles, they brought out the Elvis Presley impersonators.

And yet, when all the mythmaking is set aside, those really are young athletes massed on a playing field. Those national flags, often waved in anger in other venues, are waved in jubilation here. And the lighting of the Olympic flame usually produces a lump-in-the-throat moment.

"All the nations of the world march out as one and practically everyone in the world is watching," says Angela Ruggiero, who will make her fourth Olympic appearance for the US women's ice hockey team. "Sports can be that vehicle to bring the world into one spot on one evening, and we're all on the same level."

2. The struggle

For every Olympian who comes armed with a professional contract or a slew of endorsements, there are dozens of others who have to scrape together the funds for training and live a threadbare existence for years.

But there's another kind of struggle that is even more important. Simply to do your best, even if there is no way you can win a medal. That means training, sweating, perfecting, all in pursuit of shaving maybe 1/100th of a second off your best time.

Nancy Swider-Peltz Jr. is a long-track speed skater for the US. She's following in the footsteps of her mom, Nancy Sr., a four-time Olympian who coaches her every day.

Together, mother and daughter worked 10 years for this moment, this appearance at Vancouver, British Columbia. Nancy Swider-Peltz Jr. has few illusions that she can win an individual medal in the 3,000 meters.

"I'm going out there to do my best, possibly finish in the top six," she says. "I've never gotten top six in the world yet. But anything can happen. I've had a technical turnaround, trying to change what I'm doing. Who knows, this could be the one thing or it might not help me. I'm going into it more as an experience. I'd say my medal potential would be the next one [Olympics] or the one after. Right now I want to enjoy my first one."

3. The legacy

Let's face it: These are the world's most disposable sporting events, here today, gone tomorrow. At least, that's what it can seem like for the host cities, where years of hard work and billions of dollars are poured in for less than three weeks of Olympic glory.

Here's the trick: Do it right and your city reaps huge rewards. Barcelona, Spain, in 1992 raised its international profile and improved its infrastructure. But for every Barcelona, there is a Montreal, the 1976 Summer Games host, a city that was left heavily in debt.

Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., says for the most part, the Olympics leave cities "fiscally in the red, with white elephants that occupy urban land that is increasingly scarce."

"The long-term economic benefits that are supposed to come from more recognition, more tourism, don't generally materialize," he says.

Mr. Zimbalist suggests that future host cities try to minimize new construction, while the IOC should "scale back the grandiosity of their vision" and not worry about putting up so many facilities with bells and whistles. "Too many facilities are built that don't get used or don't get used in an effective way after the Games are over," he says.

It appears that Vancouver will get the mix about right. The city will end up with new facilities that will be used after the Games. Potential tourists will be enthralled by the pictures of museum-quality landscapes. And there is now an improved road to speed those tourists from Vancouver to the mountains at Whistler.

4. Amazing competition

OK, we'll admit that a lot of the newer Winter Olympic sports aren't exactly classics. Snowboard halfpipe? It's fun and loud, a little bit of Venice Beach on snow. But it's not exactly what you would consider to be Olympic, you know, the traditional stuff of bearded men on skis slogging through snowy woods.

But the new sports are necessary to bring in a new generation of competitors and television viewers.

"You need to reach out to the younger generation but not be taken hostage by it," says the IOC's Pound. "There are a lot of these with-it sports, starting with snowboarding, that appeal to a different crowd as opposed to the cross-country skiers or alpine skiing. If you can reach out to them and get the bigger buy-in, then, sure, let's do it. It's not as if these sports don't require you to be a fabulous athlete, even if they're not classical."

The newer sports added since 1992 have favored the Americans and Canadians, says Olympic historian David Wallechinsky.

The two countries won 26 of their 49 medals at Turin, Italy, in 2006 in those new sports, such as snowboarding, freestyle skiing, curling, and women's ice hockey. Traditional Winter Olympic powers Germany, Austria, Russia, and Norway won only five of their 93 medals in the newer events.

Spreading the wealth helps broaden the appeal of the Games.

"You're going to see 86 world championships, the best athletes in 86 different events," says Mr. Wallechinsky, coauthor of "The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics." "You may not like all the sports, but anytime you have the best gathering in anything, that is worth noting. And here you have it in 86 different events."

5. History

The Olympics are a long-running story, the tales passed down through generations. They tell us about the world that was, the world that could be.

Hitler's Nazi Olympics produced Jesse Owens.

Montreal's "Deficit Games" introduced the world to a magnificent tumbler named Olga Korbut.

The cold war set the stage for an unparalleled sporting moment, the Americans stunning the Soviets in ice hockey at 1980 in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Short-track speed skater Apolo Ohno of the US is riveted by the Games, "mysterious in nature, yet very intense," and their history, "where the world's best come together to play."

Ohno writes in an e-mail that he hopes the Games "stay true to the past" while continuing to grow.

The Games have showcased the rise of women athletes, figure skaters such as Peggy Fleming and Katarina Witt, speed skater Bonnie Blair and skier Picabo Street.

There are more male competitors than female competitors, and the IOC's bureaucratic power players remain predominantly male. But the Games provide women athletes with their biggest platform, their greatest chance for world achievement and stardom.

Many of today's American Olympians took heart from the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, when US women's teams dominated many of the events.

"I remember 1996, watching those Games, and being inspired by that," says Ruggiero, the hockey player. "To see so many American women's teams winning, the soccer team, the basketball team, the volleyball team, the gymnastics team, that was really cool."

This is what the Olympics are about. They're about sports, about competing, about dreams.

"On a day to day, there is a lot of blood, sweat, and tears at the Olympics," says American cross- country skier Kikkan Randall. "They're playing the Olympic theme song and you see banners flying in the wind. The whole thing feels like you're living in a movie."

Sometimes, maybe, it even has a Hollywood ending. In 2005, skeleton racer Noelle Pikus-Pace was ranked No. 1 in the world and careening toward gold at the 2006 Olympics in Turin. Then, just months before the Games, she broke her leg in a training accident. Now she's back, sliding among the best, with a husband and 2-year-old daughter cheering her on from Utah.

She has persevered, buoyed by faith, the support of her mother who drive her to and from practice, and fans who wrote letters telling her what a role model she was. Yet her comeback, she is quick to point out, isn't about her.

"The Olympics are all about being a better society, a better world, and bringing the best together to compete," she says. "And what could be better than that – representing your country, and those who have stood by you."

Yes, the Olympics still matter. •

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