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The Games Behind the Games

February 5, 2010

Goldstream News Gazette

Royal Roads professor of communications Michael Real says the 2010 Olympics are primed for success, as long as the weather holds up.

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Edward Hill/News staff

By Edward Hill – Goldstream News GazettePublished: January 22, 2010 5:00 PM

Updated: January 25, 2010 6:54 AM

RRU media professor offers insights on the 2010 Winter Games

Three short weeks and all eyes will be on Vancouver.

Hundreds of thousands of spectators will funnel through nine Winter Olympic competition venues, watching 5,000 athletes amid the largest security operation in Canadian history – and under the glare of 10,000 members of the international media.

What could possibly go wrong? Terrorism? Ski hill foreclosure? Transportation gridlock? How about rain.

“The crazy thing about the Winter Olympics is that one component you have no control over – the weather,” says Michael Real, a professor of communications at Royal Roads University. “Its amazing to have an astounding accumulation of resources, financial investment and people in one place, and be beholden in scary ways to simple weather.”

Real, an expert on media influence on sports, says the games behind the Games and how the region is broadcast to the world will be as almost as interesting to watch as, for instance, the men’s gold medal hockey game.

Compared to the construction panic in Turin 2006 or the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Real says, Vancouver’s Olympic infrastructure is in place and venues are built and working.

“Everything seems to be running smoothly. They’ve actually held competitions at the venues,” he says. “It’s not like Turin or Athens were they threw things up at the last second. Athens was really bad. Two months before the Games they weren’t even near completion.”

A real stress-test of the Vancouver Organizing Committee (Vanoc) could be transportation between venues in Whistler, Vancouver and Richmond and how the local population adjusts to road closures and inconvenience. Hopefully Vanoc took notes on what not to do from the 1996 Atlanta Games, Real says.

“Atlanta was a disaster transportation-wise. They had situations where athletes hijacked buses to get to events,” Real says. “But the outlook for Vancouver and Whistler is very positive in those terms.”

Real predicts the host population of Vancouverites and British Columbians will step up and be helpful to masses of tourists. He doesn’t expect anti-Olympic activists to dominate foreign or local news coverage, but notes that protests are part of any healthy democratic society.

But social issues such as homelessness could certainly make Olympic media coverage more complicated for Vanoc. The city and security forces can’t take a heavy handed approach getting homeless people indoors, Real says, but can’t remain idle either.

“Vancouver certainly has got its fair share of problems such as homelessness,” he says. “If you don’t do enough to help, you get the public focusing on those problems. But if you spend billions to impress the world, you don’t want people to say Vancouver is just a place with homeless people.”

Real is more worried about security foul-ups, particularly the RCMP becoming embroiled in controversy. Vancouver still has a lingering black eye from the death of Robert Dziekanski, who was stunned by RCMP officers with a Taser in October 2007 at Vancouver International Airport.

“That got such press all over the world. TV, newspapers, websites carried it around the world,” he says. “In that sense it dug a hole for Vancouver. The Olympics will help get it out of that hole.”

Whether Vancouver will see its reputation rehabilitated and reap economic rewards in tourism and trade due to the Olympics is a hard question, Real says. The 1988 Summer Olympics genuinely landed Seoul, South Korea, on the world’s radar, he says. Cities such as Nagano, Japan, or Lillehammer, Norway, not so much. Real points out that Vancouver is the largest host city of a Winter Olympic Games and has broken new ground on including partners such as First Nations groups.

Vanoc estimates 3 billion people will watch the Vancouver Games, but long gone are the days when the Olympics would monopolize the airwaves. NBC paid $2 billion for U.S. coverage of the 2010 and 2012 Games, and already expects to lose money.

A large chuck of the world doesn’t have an interest or climate for winter sports and in big markets such as the U.S., competition for viewers is fierce. Vancouver, at least, is in a nearby time zone as much of the U.S.

“U.S. ratings for the Turin Olympics lost out to reality TV shows,” Real says. “There is the Internet, hundreds of cable channels. One event doesn’t draw people like it did before. The Olympics used to be the only game in town.”

But sponsorship is still the name of the game these days to get the Games off the ground. Corporations pour in hundred so of millions for exclusive marketing rights, which Vanoc vigorously guards. There’s rumours some athletes in Vancouver will need to cover logos on their running shoes for non-sponsor brands.

Real plans to attend a few Olympic events with his family, and says the Games are a net positive for the region and for the world.

“The Games provide an opportunity for people of different cultures and nations to get together and share and celebrate without war and violence,” he says. “Canada has a good track record in the world as an Olympics country. Canada is trusted that the Games will be a success and well received. We’ll just have to see if it overcomes TV competition.”

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