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Grading the 2010 Winter Olympics

March 2, 2010

Grading the 2010 Winter Olympics
Vancouver-Whistler, Feb. 12 – 28

By Michael Real, Professor, Royal Roads University
Based on three decades of researching and writing on the Olympics.

How do these Games rate against previous Olympics?
It is impossible to compare Vancouver with Summer Games because the Summer Olympics have more competitions, countries, and athletes, plus better weather. Compared to other Winter Games, it appears safe to say that Vancouver rates in the top 30%, perhaps higher, for overall organization, quality, and atmosphere. Lillehammer, Norway, 1994, is often considered the best, earning an A grade, with Calgary 1988 also rated near the top. But the Winter Games have moved since then to larger cities. Salt Lake City (2002 = B+) was spared the weather problems of Nagano (1998 = B) and the empty seats of Torino (2006 = B-) but was marred by scandals over the bribing of officials and the judging of pairs skating. It is too soon to know what will dominate memories of Vancouver, but we can tentatively evaluate specific aspects of the Games while we await the longer judgments of history.

The indoor arenas proved functional, aesthetically pleasing, and friendly to both those attending and television coverage. The outdoor venues at Whistler and Cypress Mountain proved more problematic especially because of the wet and foggy weather on the first weekend and in the final days. The clear days during the first full week of competition provided excellent visitor experiences and great television shots, but the surfaces at Cypress and Whistler remained imperfect. The worst weather result was the cancellation of 28,000 standing room only tickets for the Cypress venue. In fact, persistent rain and fog make the very choice to host events at Cypress problematic.

Assignment of blame for the tragic death of the Georgian luger will continue to be debated in terms of the unprecedented speed of the sliding track, approved by both luge and Olympic officials, and questions of competitor error matched against unprotected corners and pillars.

The Opening and Closing Ceremonies accomplished their purposes, with a few glitches, and seemed to evoke a complete range of varied reactions, mostly positive, both within and outside Canada. Entertainment events, medal ceremonies, and public pavilions of all sorts proved very popular, but the chaining off of the Olympic Cauldron proved a major miscalculation eventually corrected.

Transportation = A-
Despite stories of a broken down team bus, the transportation experienced by the public worked very well with the Skytrain, Canada Line, and buses operating efficiently and pleasantly by most accounts. An operation so brief but massive as Olympic Games transportation can never be perfect and sometimes is terrible (Lake Placid 1980; Atlanta 1996), but Vancouver shifted a large population of visitors and residents onto public mass transit successfully and the experience suggests a new urban model for transportation systems.

Volunteers = A
The blue jacketed volunteers were numerous, informed, and helpful in ways that greatly enhanced the visitor experience. It is difficult to imagine a better performance by local volunteers. Volunteers seemed much less apparent in Whistler Village than in Vancouver; otherwise I would award volunteers an A+.

Security = B+
Security personnel were generally visible but positive and helpful rather than heavy-handed or threatening. Record crowds of 150,000 in downtown Vancouver on some evenings did not result in any major conflicts, and the cutting off of liquor store sales at 7 p.m. on the busiest nights and 2 p.m. on the final Sunday did not seem out of line. The early incident of “black-bloc” violence in protest against the Olympics was not escalated by heavy-handed responses. Overall, the mixing of officers on foot and on bicycles within crowds reduced tensions rather than escalating them and resulted in few arrests. The early violent protests seemed to work against the protest messages of “money spent for elites” for events “on stolen native ground” failed to resonate beyond the original anti-Olympic groupings and was quickly overwhelmed by the athletic competitions and public festivities.

Global Media Coverage = B- (collectively)
1. Within Canada = A

The availability of Olympic television on two and three channels at a time, plus web access to reruns, gave viewers the richest Olympic menu ever. All sports received coverage, not just the showcase Winter sports of figure skating and hockey, and victories by athletes from around the world were featured alongside the record number of Canadian medals. One did not need to be particularly attentive to notice how universally Canadians became engaged with the Games as they progressed. Even many pre-Olympics naysayers and skeptics admitted that the experience of the Games was compelling however much they might question the $6 billion expense of hosting the Games, the public priorities behind them, or environmental and First Nations issues. The Olympics provided a nation-binding celebration that was virtually inescapable.

Nothing else can mobilize the enthusiasm of the Canadian public like hosting the Olympics and performing well. Even a Stanley Cup run can pull in only one team’s supporters as totally as is humanly possible but not the whole nation. The Canadian men’s hockey games broke and then rebroke records for viewership of sporting events in Canada. CTV, TSN, Score, NBC, and other broadcasters, supplemented by extensive and colorful newspaper, magazine, radio, and online coverage, gave Canadians an Olympics they could thoroughly enjoy.

2. U.S. Television = B+
The most financially important audience, American television viewers, responded positively, enabling NBC to average 24.7 million viewers for the first 15 days, 4 million (19%) more than the Torino average in 2006. By attracting more than 184 million total viewers who watched some part of the Olympics, Vancouver surpassed all but Salt Lake City, the celebration of Americanism that occurred only five months after 9/11, and the tabloid-inflated Lillehammer Games, in which the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan match-up topped the ratings of every American sporting event except some Super Bowls. NBC claimed to lose $200 million on the 2010 Games, with advertising sales of $650-700 million and a rights payment of $820 million, but TV insiders speculate that NBC is stressing its losses to keep the amounts lower in the next Olympic bidding war. (NBC’s $2 billion bid for rights to the Vancouver and London Games is alleged to have been an extravagant miscalculation up against what is said to have been only a $1.3 billion bid by Fox.)

The Vancouver 2010 Olympics beat out American Idol twice during the Olympics, the first competing programming to accomplish that in six years. Although Idol won one night of the three-night head-to-head competition during the Olympics, its record is no longer perfect but stands at 224 to 2. The historic U.S. victory in total medal count (Germany had won the last three Winter Games medal counts) and performances by Shawn White, Lindsey Vonn, Bode Miller, Evan Lysacek, Shani Davis, and others maximized the appeal of NBC’s coverage.

Steven Colbert deserves an honorary Olympics medal for his powerful tongue-in-cheek support for not just American speed skaters but for the Vancouver Games as a whole.

3. The British Press. = D-
Lawrence Donegan’s critique of the first three days of the Vancouver Games, in the Guardian, warned in a sub-headline that these Games were “threatening to become the worst in Olympic history.” Other negative and dismissive comments in the British press created great resentment in Canada and were rebutted by the head of the London Olympic Organizing Committee, Sebastian Coe, by the manager of Olympic Games for the IOC, by the most prominent Olympic historian, David Wallechinsky, and, over time, by many others. Tony Eason, writing in the Times of London, admitted what many suspected: that London was concerned that the extravagant successes of Beijing put great pressure on London and it would be helpful to have a failed Vancouver Olympics as a buffer going into 2012.

After defensiveness in the opening weekend over the luge tragedy, the erectile dysfunction in the Opening Ceremony, the spectacle of black-covered protesters smashing the Bay Company windows, and weather problems, Vancouver officials and the public settled into a week of sunshine and successful operations that contradicted the dyspeptic British comments.

The British are hardly considered expert on the Winter Games with one medal in Torino in 2006 and one medal in Vancouver, both in women’s luge. As a result, in 2010, the British tied with Kazakhstan and Estonia in medals won and were behind Latvia, Croatia, Belarus, and 20 other countries, barely better than Jamaica and the tropical countries. Canadians need not agonize over British comments on 2010 anymore than London will worry about Canadian press comments in 2012.

4. Multi-Channel Access to the Games = A
In Canada, and to a lesser extent in the United States and elsewhere, viewing the Olympics offered multiple choices on television channels and online. No longer is the viewer held captive to the one choice of the major network broadcaster of the Games, although NBC offered far fewer multiple choices within the same timeslot than did Canadian broadcasters. New media options multiplied the opportunity for viewer-selectivity even more. Online and mobile access to Vancouver Olympic video in the U.S. more than tripled from Torino and Beijing. In the U.S., the Nielsen rating service reported that 13% of viewers of the Opening Ceremony were also surfing the web, at an average of 32 minutes of simultaneous activity per user.

Olympic Merchandising = B+
The red mittens were a great hit, and the other clothing, stuffed animals, and souvenirs from the Bay Co. were tasteful and popular. The IOC tries to resist over-commercialization of the Games by refusing to allow commercial names on venues or commercial signage within venues. But, like the official sponsorships that the IOC itself sells, the sale of Olympic merchandise and pins is very much a part of the Games and was well-received within the Vancouver 2010 Olympics.

Canadian Politeness and Multiculturalism = B-
Amid the clamor for Canadian victories and celebrations, some visitors came away with less enthusiasm for Canada’s traditional generosity and kindness, although it was the questionable British press that stressed this most.

In terms of diversity among athletes, Canadian competitors were whiter than the slopes of Cypress. Pete McMartin in the Vancouver Sun estimates there were perhaps a half-dozen non-Caucasians among the 206 Canadian Olympic Winter Game athletes.

In terms of gender, both male and female Canadian athletes were successful. Canada won 14 medals in women’s events, 11 in men’s events, and one in pair’s skating. Among Canada’s record 14 gold medals, 8 were in men’s events, 5 in women’s, and one in pair’s.

Canadian Athlete Performance = A+
The ambitiously named “Own the Podium” program was severely questioned during the first ten days of the Games for over-promising 30 to 34 medals and putting unfair pressure on Canadian athletes and public expectations. But the final week produced record-setting Canadian medal counts, specifically gold medals, and criticisms changed to enthusiastic applause as Olympic fever spread throughout Canada. The touching bronze medal performance of Joannie Rochette, only four days after her mother’s sudden death, won support all over the world, just as Alexandre Bilodeau’s first Canadian Gold won on Canadian soil unleashed a national catharsis early in the Games. So many Canadian athletes performed so well that it would be useless to try to list them here, but they deserve the A+.

Of course, failure in women’s and especially men’s hockey would have destroyed national pride in all the other Olympic achievements, but fortunately the Canadian public was spared that trauma with gold medal game defeats of their American rivals.

Final Grade on Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics = B+
Extra credit is available to raise this grade to an A- through the Paralympics. If Paralympic operations and the support from media and public are of sufficient quality and quantity, the B+ can be reconsidered.

The Impact of the Vancouver Games
The impact of Vancouver 2010 on Americans was positive especially because of the American medal count. The impact in other countries varied. For example, Russia and Germany were disappointed with their medal tallies. The image of Vancouver spread around the world, or at least in Northern countries (Winter Olympics have little impact in the tropics or the southern hemisphere), was that of a picturesque, urban centre filled with enthusiastic people and surrounded by mountains and often glowing in warm winter sunshine. The impact of Olympic expenditures on cash-strapped British Columbia and other levels of government was less positive, occurring as the Games did during a global economic downturn marked by cutbacks in medical services, education, and other public services.

The psychological impact on the Canadian public could not be greater or more positive. The victory in the gold medal hockey game on the final Sunday gave Canada its 14th gold medal, a record number for any Winter Game host country and a record for Canada. Moreover, the hockey victory over the United States came in the most dramatic fashion with Canadian icon Sidney Crosby’s winning goal in overtime. In every part of the second largest country geographically in the world, Canadians simultaneously exploded in joy, the “unanticipated delirium” that Nick Hornby claims only a sporting victory can deliver. The hockey victory and successful 2010 Olympic Games will remain a crucial moment in Canadian history forever. It was one of those “where were you when” peak moments for Canadians, never to be forgotten. The perfection of the hockey victory moment for Canada, in its own Olympics, created a once-in-a-lifetime magical experience, the kind sought and envied by people anywhere in the world.

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