Games stumble from the gate


Dark clouds that lingered over the city last week have finally lifted, brighter days dawning on a Winter Games that needed some cheering up.

“The morale is good,” said Renee Smith-Valade, an official with the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. “The sun is shining and the sports are going well.”

Big crowds and big performances, not to mention solid television ratings, come as a big relief after a succession of bumps, glitches and worse that had organizers wondering what might go wrong next.


It started with the death of a young luger, then too much rain and not enough snow. There was an embarrassing torch malfunction at the opening ceremony, protest marches and a skating oval that -- in the Great White North, of all places -- could not produce decent ice.

Blunders have affected athletes sent off the starting line at the wrong time and eager fans whose tickets were canceled for the popular halfpipe competition.

“I must say the venues are wonderful and the attendance is also very good,” said Luciano Barra, a top official at the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy.

“But some of these technical problems cannot happen at an Olympics.”

The British media have been particularly derisive, the Guardian calling these Games potentially the “worst in Olympic history.” In the U.S., a historian gives Vancouver a C grade, and a columnist wondered if the planning had been left to Bob and Doug McKenzie, the bumbling fictional Canadian brothers of TV and movie fame.

Though organizers seem increasingly confident they have turned a corner, one thing seems as clear as the sky above: The Winter Games have become a massive and costly undertaking that, with the added variable of weather, can be a logistical nightmare.

A common thread

Go all the way back to the first Winter Games at Chamonix, France, in 1924.

“Every single Winter Olympics has been fraught with problems,” said John Lucas, a Pennsylvania State University professor emeritus and Olympic scholar.


“So I am not even remotely surprised there are glitches in Vancouver.”

Snow, rain and fog disrupted the Games in Nagano, Japan, in 1998, and scandal marked the bidding process for the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. Distant venues and cumbersome transportation made for blocks of empty seats in Turin.

In addition to contending with the whims of weather, organizers have limited resources to throw at the problems they can control, because the Winter Games aren’t as popular or as lucrative as their summer counterpart.

The disparity is especially glaring in Vancouver, following on the heels of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, where the Chinese government devoted unprecedented money and manpower.

“If you want to take thousands of people from the countryside to build a beautiful facility, then ship them back out to the countryside, that’s not something we do in the United States and Canada,” said David Wallechinsky, coauthor of “The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics.” “The communist government, if they needed to spend more money, they spent more money.”

Compare the opening ceremonies. China spent an estimated $300 million; Canada’s $30-million version came to an awkward halt at the climactic moment when one of the four hydraulic torches lighting the Olympic caldron failed to rise from the arena floor.

Overall, Beijing’s $43-billion budget far surpassed Vancouver’s estimated $5.6-billion price tag. Even considering there are fewer events and athletes in winter sports, that’s a significant difference.


“They haven’t spent as much as Beijing, so some of the snafus you see are maybe what you would expect,” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.

But money does not explain every blunder.

The death of a Georgian competitor during a luge training run and subsequent crashes have raised questions about whether Vancouver and international luge officials signed off on a track that sacrificed safety for breathtaking speed around its twists and bends. Concerns also have been raised about the cross-country skiing course.

Organizers had to cancel 28,000 tickets at the Cypress Mountain venue when a lack of snow rendered one of the spectator areas unsafe. For Matt Alkerton, a 23-year-old fan from Hamilton, Ontario, that meant paying a scalper $500 for a ticket to the men’s halfpipe final to avoid coming all this way without attending an event.

“It’s just so disappointing,” he said.

And then there was the rough ice at the speedskating venue, the Richmond Olympic Oval. Trying to be environmentally conscious, organizers purchased electric resurfacers that later broke down. A traditional, propane-powered Zamboni had to be rushed in.

Ottavio Cinquanta, president of the International Skating Union, gives Vancouver credit for responding to problems, but adds: “Of course, I am not purchasing champagne to have a toast.”

Barra, the Turin Games official, sees a clear cause and effect -- North America doesn’t know winter sports like Europe, where the likes of biathlon and Nordic combined qualify as fan favorites.


“In Europe, the knowledge of winter sports is deep,” Barra said. “Whenever we go to North America, the knowledge of technical things is not there.”

At all venues, Vancouver organizers work jointly with the appropriate international sports federation, but even that backfired in biathlon when a mix-up in the starting sequence may have cost a Swedish athlete her chance at a medal.

And when the ice finally got smoothed at the skating oval, confusion caused Russian skater Dmitry Lobkov to sprint an entire lap before officials called for a restart in the men’s 1,000-meter race. Lobkov finished 21st.

“I guess it was a mistake on the judges’ side,” he said. “It’s very disappointing, as nobody explained the real reason for interrupting the race.”

For all the potential mistakes, there might be a simple solution to problems that make Olympic organizers’ blood run cold.

To ease the burden, the Games could be spread across neighboring cities, like soccer’s World Cup, Swangard said.


Lucas goes a step further. In a 40-page report, he suggested the International Olympic Committee create permanent summer and winter sites in central Europe.

“The staff would be well-paid professionals,” he said. “I have an educated guess there would be fewer mistakes.”

Not a single IOC member voted for his proposal, he said. The problem is, cities continue to bid for the Games despite the headaches and rising costs that have left Montreal, Athens and other hosts with staggering debt.

“There are cities in the world that are losing sleep because they don’t have the Olympic Games where they can spend several precious billion dollars for a three-week sporting event,” Lucas said. “It is total madness.”

The athletes’ show

Vancouver, like any Olympic Games, will ultimately be remembered for the stories its athletes tell.

So far, the big names for the U.S. -- snowboarder Shaun White, figure skater Evan Lysacek, skiers Lindsey Vonn and Bode Miller -- have come through with medal performances.


That, in turn, has boosted NBC’s ratings by 27% compared with those of four years ago.

A sense of optimism has been fueled by enthusiastic crowds on city streets, tourists and locals wandering out of figure-skating competitions, hockey games and free events.

Maybe these Olympics just need a few more mistake-free days to build on the momentum.

“I don’t think we have ever had a perfect Games,” said Scott Blackmun, chief executive of the U.S. Olympic Committee. “We have had maybe more [problems] than we are used to in these Games so far, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see it finish strong.”

That’s what organizers are hoping for.

Smith-Valade, who faces the media in sometimes contentious news conferences each morning, said problems are bound to arise with any event this large and complex.

What matters, she insists, is what officials do next.

“That’s the role of a good organizing committee,” she said. “You take the circumstances you find yourself in and you make the best of it and hopefully you shine.”

Like the sun that has finally broken through the clouds.



Philip Hersh of the Chicago Tribune contributed to this report.