I was watching the Closing Ceremonies the other night from the Salt Lake Olympic Winter Games, trying to figure out why I like the games so much. The XIX Winter Games had special appeal because they were held in the United States. It was a chance to wave the flag and host people from all over the world, from countries that are our allies, and from countries that hate us. It was seventeen days when we saw competition at it’s highest level. Yes, there is a payoff for Olympic Gold, Silver or Bronze, but only if you actually win a medal. And winning a medal takes an all-out performance. Nobody gets paid in advance.
The Olympic culture of competition only allows for each athlete giving his or her best. Anything less gets you beat, leaves you off the podium, and out of the potential payoff. We don’t always see that in the highest profile competitions we see everyday in professional sports.
There’s no such thing as “tanking” in the Olympics. This is the one chance every four years to get the job done, so nobody mails it in. That’s why the highs are so high, and the lows are devastating. But through it all, the athletes were as amazing outside of the competition as they were in it. They were humble in victory and gracious in defeat. They cried when the flag was raised and the National Anthem played. They took their hats off in honor of other countries’ anthems and reveled in each other’s success.
I guess that’s why I like the games so much; they’re real.
Jacques Rogge will be the man who saves the Olympic movement. The current President of the International Olympic Committee, a former Olympian himself, understands many things his predecessor didn’t have a clue about. Rogge is media savvy and handles himself like a polished politician. He understands how the U.S. fits in to the Olympic movement. Americans will always be a big presence in both the Winter and Summer Games, and the USOC hopes to win the bid for the 2012 games, possibly in New York City.
Rogge doesn’t dismiss the US as a splinter under his finger, but rather embraces American wealth as an aspect that can promote the games. At the same time, he hopes to move the Games around the world, to South America and Africa incorporating new venues into the regular rotation between Europe, Asia and North America.
The IOC President has to know how the games affect the athletes as well as the economies of the host cities. Rogge has his finger in both pots. “Light the fire within,” was the theme of the Salt Lake Games but Rogge’s comments at the opening ceremonies perhaps summed up the Games’ spirit. “When you finish first you are the winner,” Rogge said, “but to understand the principles of fair play and competition makes you a champion.” Rogge later repeated that statement when he was asked to comment on the doping allegations in cross-country skiing.
It’s not old school to think playing within the rules is OK. I’ve never seen two games played with more grit and passion than the two final games of the hockey tournament where the Americans were involved. The US/Russia game and the US/Canada game involved three teams of big-time professional hockey players with nothing on the line but national pride. Have you ever seen guys play harder? Every minute was like the last seconds of a tied overtime in game seven in the Stanley Cup playoffs. That’s what fans are looking for, that’s what people will buy tickets to see. If the NHL can capture that, they’ll explode much like the NBA and the NFL have in the last twenty years. If the NBA, Major League Baseball and the NFL don’t pay attention to it, the public will look elsewhere.