Hot. Cool. Yours.

The start of the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi comes with an abundant supply of interesting trivia about the iconic event.  As with every Olympic Games, there are plenty of opportunities for countries and individuals to go down in history as the “first” of something and this year has already been a groundbreaking year. There are five countries you might have never thought would make it to the Winter Olympics, with East Timor, Paraguay, Togo, Tonga, and Zimbabwe sending winter athletes to represent their nation for the first time. Spectators will also have the chance to see twelve new winter sports this year, including team figure skating, luge team relay, and ski halfpipe. One sport that we won’t see this year, but might be considered four years from now, is bandy. Bandy looks like a mix of hockey and soccer, where players use crooked sticks (similar to those used in field hockey) to propel a ball toward the goal.  The game is played on a soccer-sized ice rink with limited contact and free-flowing play. Within the last few years, the IOC officially recognized the sport but did not approve it for this year’s games. The most fascinating (and sort of look-what-we-can-do-just-because-we-can) primer to this year’s Winter Olympics was the first passing of the Olympic torch on a spacewalk. The Olympic torch has been up in space before in 1996 and 2000, but this year the torch exchanged hands between Russian cosmonauts with the deep, dark cold of space as a backdrop. The torch was never lit since it wouldn’t be possible out on the spacewalk and would be extremely dangerous on the ISS, but there had been talk of plans to create a housed lantern – plans that were ultimately scrapped.

Olympic Forerunners

Olympic history is also a deep mine of facts and trivia. The first modern Olympics, defined here as those games under the authority of the IOC, was held in 1896, but there are arcane predecessors to these pioneering events in Olympic history. Between the time period of the ancient Olympics in Greece and the modern games, there were various athletic meets that used the descriptor “Olympic” to define an amalgam of events designed to test physical prowess. The “Cotswold Olimpick Games” was held as early as 1612 in England. The Wenlock Olympian Games, which was formed in 1850, is actually still held today and could rightfully claim its place as the longest running Olympics games. However, these events never garnered as much attention as the IOC Olympic Games, where meagerly paid athletes follow their passions to represent their country on an international stage.

Passion for Playing

The greatest moments in Olympic history can be attributed to the relentless can-do attitudes of passionate athletes. Although I was too young to remember, I have seen the iconic highlight reels of Kerri Strug landing an improbable vault after hurting her ankle, then immediately collapsing to the ground and crawling off the landing mat. Her efforts helped the US clinch the team gold in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. You can’t talk about legendary moments in Olympic history without mentioning the Miracle on Ice, which sounded like the storyline to a Disney movie even before it was made into one. A group of ragtag collegiate and amateur hockey players were rallied together by an amazing, motivating coach to beat the unstoppable Soviet Union and advance to win the gold medal. This improbable event goes down in history as one of the greatest Olympic achievements to date and could motivate any young athlete to pursue a chance to shine on the Olympic stage. The limelight is attractive for participants, but the hosting countries also seem to find value in inviting the public eye to marvel and behold the economic competence and prosperity required to put on the grand event.

Olympic Bids

Seven years before each games begins, prospective host cities must participate in an election held by the IOC to receive an Olympic bid. The election isn’t even the beginning, as cities must launch a bid two years before the election and must begin preparing even sooner if the bid should warrant IOC consideration. National Olympic Committees for their respective countries oversee this process, which involves bureaucratic procedures deemed “Candidature Phase”, “Applicant Phase”, and “Election of the Host City”. Each step requires massive resources, which must mean that countries have some incentive to host the Olympics, right?

There’s actually evidence to the contrary – hosting the Olympics can cause a city to lose money due to three primary reasons. First, the bidding process is skewed by private interests, as committee members and groups related to developing the facilities for the Olympics hope to promote their own ventures. Even if the city as a whole loses money, there are some groups and industries that will come out on top and support the bid for an Olympics. Second, hosting an Olympics creates massive over-building. I’ll touch more on this later. Finally, there’s very little evidence than a two week period of athletic grandiose can significantly boost tourism for a city. Still, there is the possibility of profit (which has happened, even in recent years) and many countries are motivated by the chance to demonstrate national pride as we saw with the enthralling opening ceremonies and extravagant venues in Beijing. We will likely see more gaudy displays of patriotism this year in Sochi and again in two years when Rio de Janeiro hosts the first Olympics games in a South American city.

What Happens Later?

As mentioned, over-building is one of the financial costs of hosting an Olympics. Cities need additional housing for athletes; facilities for Olympic swimming pools, racetracks, and courses; and stadiums to fit spectators and impress visitors. These buildings would require substantial upkeep and host countries must decide the feasibility of preservation. For some, like Atlanta, the buildings are put to good use. Dorms currently in use at Georgia Tech were originally built to house athletes for the Olympics. Beijing has transformed the massive Water Cube, which was used in the 2008 Summer Olympics for swimming events, into the Happy Magic Water Park – now the second most visited recreational spot in Beijing only behind the Great Wall. Other countries’ Olympic facilities were fated for much worse. A visit to the site of the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo will feel like walking under a dirty freeway overpass. Concrete bobsled courses are overrun with dry vegetation and covered in graffiti. The Athens’ Summer Olympics was only held 10 years ago; yet, visitors will find the Olympic structures desolate and abandoned. The Olympic Village was originally reused as a worker housing project, but austerity cuts and the nation’s fiscal troubles led to the current state of desecrated buildings and algae-filled Olympic pools (You can see pictures of the abandoned buildings on one of the links below). It’s an incredible perspective on the journey and aftermath an Olympic city endures to host this amazing event.

Want to know more about the Olympics? Follow these links. I highly recommend checking out the passionate moments in Olympic History and the pictures of the desolated Olympic venues.

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2 thoughts on “Hot. Cool. Yours.

  1. In the summers of 1974 and 1979, I would go to wrestling camp in Squaw Valley USA (north Lake Tahoe). The 1960 Winter Olympics were held there and when I was there many of the Olympic Buildings were still in use. In fact the first year I was there, we stayed in the Olympic housing. These were dorm style 3 or 4 story buildings with no elevators and communal baths in the middle of each floor. The rooms were small, one window with a bed or bunk on each side of the window. That’s It!
    Looking back it has become obvious that security was not a concern in 1960. Everything was open and easy to access. We also ate our meals in the lodge where the athletes ate 14 years earlier. Another facility that was still in use at the time was the ice rink. When we had down time, the camp counselors would take groups over to the rink and we got to skate on Olympic Ice. The next year(75), the camp moved across the valley floor to a newer, more modern facility. You could see that construction crews were working on the old dorms and converting them to condos. Our new digs were much more “plush”, more like motel rooms in size and layout. There were even some that had lofts and small kitchenettes. These rooms slept 6 and since we always came in a large group we got stay in these room ‘premium’ rooms. We would walk down to the small food store and buy Jello to make on our stove. Kind of look-what-we-can-do-just-because-we-can! It seemed like a big deal then and the kids in the other rooms without stoves and fridges seemed a little envious!
    The last year I was there(1979) we lucked out and got the loft room again! And this is where the Olympic Story gets good! The building we were in had two of these lofts on the second level side by side and right next to the Squaw Valley Tram Station. When the camp counselor checked us into our room, he told us that we needed to behave and keep the noise down at night since our neighbor in the loft the next door was not another wrestling group, he was Herb Brooks, Minnesota Gophers Hockey Coach and now US Olympic Hockey Coach. The USA Olympic Hockey team was practicing in Squaw Valley at the Ice Rink. We saw coach Brooks come and go and even saw some of the (soon to be, but not quite yet famous) players, including Mike Eruzione!
    It wasn’t until Lake Placcid Winter Games, that I realized who I had crossed paths with that summer. And it made watching the Hockey (something up to that point in my life I had never done) even more interesting and exciting!

    • I thought about mentioning Squaw Valley since we stayed in the media hostel when I was there. I couldn’t think of much else though that had remained since the 1960 games. I think there was less fanfare at that time and it was easy enough to renovate Squaw Valley into a nice ski resort. I never heard that story about Herb Brooks though!

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