Olympic Analysis: This witness to history is settling in on his couch

Veteran Olympics reporter Jay Weiner
I was witness to the corporate and political evolution of the post-modern Olympics. From the primitive Winter Games of 1984, which were scantily staged in a crumbling Communist nation, to the hyper-sponsored Beijing Olympics, gaudily presented in the world’s richest Communist nation, I was there.

When the ’84 Winter Olympics were held in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, there was too much snow, too little electric power, hundreds of ticky-tacky local Yugoslav “sponsors,” and nary a hint that, years later, the figure skating and hockey venue would become a morgue for victims of a brutal, ethnic war.

Next came Los Angeles. In the bidding, the only cities that wanted those 1984 Summer Games — after a cycle of Olympic terrorism and boycotts — were Tehran, Iran, and Los Angeles. Somehow, Los Angeles won the burden, and a fellow named Peter Ueberroth changed the face of Olympic and sports marketing forever. He gave birth to exclusive product categories for sponsors, a true Games changer. He played potential sponsors off against each other. He laid the groundwork for the International Olympic Committee’s now flourishing billion-plus-dollar TOP marketing infrastructure.

Now, come this past weekend, for the first time in three decades, I wasn’t sitting in the best free seats in the house, watching another opening ceremony in person behind a laptop, breathlessly detailing for readers the outfits of the team from Uzbekistan. A cast of thousands, children’s high-pitched voices, trumpets, doves and a parade of native-garbed athletes — with the Americans always underdressed — were expected. Or, as one sportswriter pal dubbed the 1988 Seoul opening, “Hare Krishnas from hell.” That’s how it often looks and sounds — and it seems to never end. Been there, done that.

Still, I miss the excitement and the diversity — of tall basketball players and short wrestlers, of philosophical fencers and post-pubescent gymnasts with nothing to say, of Kenyans and Kazakhstanis. I miss being in the middle of the top news story in the world for 17 days.

I was there when the shaken IOC told us that Carl Lewis was right and Ben Johnson had cheated. I was there when the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain — still never topped for fun, food and drama — hinted at the excesses of an impending Olympic commercialism. (Never before had I seen life-sized and multicolored M&Ms walking around a European city, and I hope never again.)

I was there in 1996, for Atlanta’s Olympics, which stained the Games. It turned an elegant, worldwide sports property into what seemed like an Alabama-Auburn football game on steroids. Shady street vendors with knockoff apparel abounded. Ambush marketing was the norm. The bombing in Olympic Park didn’t help, either.

I was there as forgettable Albertville, France, fizzled and as Salt Lake City — in the aftermath of Sept. 11 — calmed a nation’s nerves behind rows of cyclone fences. I was romanced by Sydney and Athens, Greece, as those cities threw great parties and great Games.

The revival in Los Angeles (below) paved the way for 2008's historic Games in Beijing.
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Traditional sports journalists and talk-radio kooks love to trash the Olympics. The five rings are a curse to them for many reasons: Olympic leadership and culture is full of itself, the way polo players at country clubs are (I agree); and the Games are filled with seemingly silly, trashy sports that disrupt the baseball pennant races and interrupt their fantasy football drafts (I don’t care). Other pundits will point to the politics: Once filled with good-old-fashioned, good-guy-bad-guy hatred and fear because of the tensions of the Cold War, the Games are now simply nationalistic or touted as some sort of touchy-feely war-without-weapons. And, of course, far from an homage to humanism, the Games are deeply dipped in dollars, the naysayers continue.

Let’s stipulate: The Olympics are sappy and corporate, tree-hugging and political, nail-biting and joyous, and that’s why I loved them all these years. The Olympics reflect and reinforce the diverse values and rainbow complexions that keep our planet spinning. The Summer Olympics are the great sports crossroads. The world actually does gather, mostly in peace, to play all sorts of games, and how can that be bad?

When you’re there on the ground, these events are like pingpong (sorry, table tennis): balls zipping from one arena to another stadium, dozens of disparate events linked only by five rings. When you’re on site, there seems to be no center to the event, no core to the corpus.

Television, particularly prime-time television, changes that. Flash back to Calgary, 1988, and the first days of the first truly big-city Winter Olympics. Midwest newspaper deadlines had been met, and so, it was relatively early in Alberta when I sat down with my colleague, Bill Glauber of The Baltimore Sun, to watch TV in the Media Village. There on the screen sat the legendary Jim McKay, the voice and face of the Games.

McKay and ABC aggregated the competition news of the day.

As McKay spoke, at once Bill and I turned to each other — after three or four days of working constantly covering a variety of competitions here and there — and we said, “Hey, the Olympics must have started!” TV does that for its audience. It takes all the moving parts and creates a watchable whole, a unified message of victory and defeat, or anxiety and elation.

So, I’m curious to see how this year’s Web-based, everything-live coverage will affect the habits of viewers, especially young viewers, who don’t need a living room at an assigned time to watch anything these days. Can the Web frame the themes of these London Games? Or will they devolve online to a bundle of those pingpong balls zipping to and fro with nary a context?

I’m curious, too, to see the politics unfold. As always with the Summer Games, this is a U.S. presidential election year. Ronald Reagan leveraged his “California Olympics” to wrap himself in red, white and blue, solidifying his 1984 landslide. GOP candidate Mitt Romney is sure to remind us how well he did in running the Salt Lake City Games. President Barack Obama won’t miss any chances to be photographed with fresh-faced American athletes. I’m curious, too, about what world crisis will raise its head around London’s Olympic venues? One always does, and every four years I cross my fingers.

After witnessing 15 renditions of Olympics up close and personal, I will watch this London version with the curiosity of a first-time TV viewer. I will do so thankful that my first Summer Games were not in Tehran, and grateful that my last were in Beijing. The 2008 Games were a historic punctuation mark to my Summer Olympics experiences. That’s when the world tuned in with real anticipation. It’s where sponsors saw a real return on their investment in a growing economy. It’s where a nation of a billion-plus people proudly rallied as one. It’s when it felt that sports truly and profoundly mattered.

Jay Weiner covered most of his Olympic Games for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. In 2008, he reported from Beijing for SportsBusiness Journal. He is now the speechwriter for University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler.

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