Ah, the glory of the Winter Olympics: A chance for ordinary people to sip cocoa while watching sports far too expensive and daredevilish for them ever to play. A chance for the Swedes to finally show those smug Norwegians whose is the greatest country on earth. A chance for America's men to reconnect with their forgotten love of figure skating . . . if their women have anything to say about it.
No longer merely the Summer Games' anemic, parka-clad little sibling, the Winter Olympics have grown up. Athletes from over 80 countries will gather in Vancouver, British Columbia, to battle for coveted gold medals and McDonald's commercials. But as always when athletics, international politics, and big money meet, there are stories within the stories, some that NBC would rather you didn't know.
So while skier Bode Miller and snowboarder Shaun White will once again test America's saturation point, let's look beyond the obvious and find some hidden gems among the news.
It takes a village . . . to bankrupt a city
Vancouver city officials planned to convert unused land left over from Expo '86, their 1986 World's Fair, into an Olympic Village for the game's athletes. They signed up a private sector developer who would create a green, mixed-use community financed by a U.S.-based hedge fund. For a while everything looked grand. Then came delays, cost overruns, the recession, and a real estate market plunge. The hedge fund backed out and the city stepped in, leaving Vancouver taxpayers on the hook for over $1 billion.
Vancouver's housing market has begun to rebound, so all is not lost financially at the Olympic Village, but the city and British Columbia will still need to swallow a $6 billion bill for Olympic venues and infrastructure updates. Just the improvements to a highway that links Vancouver with Whistler, host for the mountain events, have cost taxpayers almost $800 million. With sponsorship in a recession sluggish, those taxpayers may be enjoying the Olympics for years to come-through debt repayments.
Pity the Peacock
NBC recently announced that, for the first time in its history, it expects to lose money broadcasting an Olympics. The venerable broadcaster paid $2 billion for the rights to broadcast the Vancouver games and the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, but advertising sales amid recession have been slow.
The news couldn't come at a worse time for NBC, which is mired in last place among the four major networks. NBC execs have recently been in the headlines for mishandling the network's late night lineup: They have now pushed Jay Leno back to the Tonight Show and dismissed Conan O'Brien. With their schedule faltering across the board, the failure of the Olympics to generate much-needed revenue may come as the death blow for network head Jeff Zucker, a man whose first name might as well be "embattled."
But it's not all bad news, because Vancouver will welcome . . .
Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong, aka "The Snow Leopard"
The Snow Leopard, Ghana's first ever Winter Olympian, is poised to take the mantle of glorious, tropical futility away from The Jamaican Bobsled Team. Glasgow-born Nkrumah-Acheampong learned to ski as a receptionist at a British indoor slope. He narrowly missed out on the 2006 Turin games but kept his dream alive and will compete in the giant slalom. He's not just skiing for himself. The Snow Leopard has reached a preliminary agreement with the Ghanaian government to build an artificial slope in Ghana so that future generations of Ghanaian skiers will have a place to train.
Canadians have not won a single gold medal in two previous Olympics staged on Canadian soil. That may change in Vancouver, as Team Canada has spent $110 million on an "Own the Podium" program designed to give gold medal hopefuls all the training and support they need. But what about welcoming neighbors? Before the 2002 games in Utah, Team Canada had ample time to train on all Olympic venues, such as the bobsled and luge runs. Team Canada has not given the U.S. team the same consideration.
The Canadian men's and women's hockey and curling teams are favored for gold, but their skiing, bobsled, luge, and speed skating teams will need all the home support they can get to beat the United States as kings of North American winter sports. Still, honestly, we are all wasting our time because . . .
The Norwegians are coming
Winter Olympics champions seem to rise fully formed out of the fjords: Norwegians have won 280 medals at the Winter Olympics, including 98 gold medals. They are particularly strong in cross country skiing, speed skating, and the biathlon. Americans have won fewer medals: 216 total, including 78 gold. To compare: If the populations of the two countries were switched, Norway would have won nearly 17,000 medals, while the United States would be staring glumly at three.
And that's the key to understanding the Winter Olympics. Don't become distracted by the bombast of the opening ceremony or NBC's hype about Team USA. Recognize that this is a two-week-long exercise in giving Norway its due and encouraging our dreams. Because while we know we will never be Olympic-class sprinters, or swimmers, or wrestlers . . . couldn't any of us, with a little money and training, become a curler?
Kelly Clark at age 18 won a snowboarding gold medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics. She went on to more athletic success-but she lacked contentment.
"I thought if you're successful you would be happy and all of the sudden I had all this success and realized I wasn't truly happy," said Clark. "It left me trying to figure it out."
At the start of the 2004 snowboarding season she overheard a conversation at a competition: "Someone came down who was upset and her friend was trying to get her to laugh, and she's like, 'Hey, God still loves you.'"
Clark went back to her hotel room and thought about the statement: "That one comment kind of stirred something in me. . . . Something was buried in me." She found a Bible in the room, but didn't know where to start, "so I ended up going to that girl's door and said, 'My name is Kelly, I think you might be a Christian and I think you need to tell me about a God.'"
Clark learned that her identity was no longer rooted in being a top-notch snowboarder, but in God: "That kind of freed up my snowboarding. All of a sudden I was enjoying myself and having more fun than I had before. I was free to do it apart from having to do it."
She placed fourth at the 2006 Olympics and was No. 1 on the Swatch TTR 2008-2009 World Snowboard Tour. She now rides with a sticker on her board proclaiming, "Jesus, I can not hide my love."
Another 2006 Olympian, Brock Kreitzburg, had to work exceptionally hard for another shot this year. He was a "push athlete" on the U.S. four-man bobsled team that finished seventh four years ago, but he's had two operations in the past 17 months to repair his hip. He now has two screws in it and went through a challenging rehab that he called "one of the toughest, but one of the best times of my life, just because of my faith walk with the Lord."
Kreitzburg, 33, graduated in 2003 from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He said he began coming to Christ after his dad died of cancer 20 years ago. He had "an emptiness" that he tried to fill "with so many different things in high school and even in the beginning of college. Putting your success in athletics or friends or girls-whatever I was trying to do, I was trying to fill that void."
He said that void is now filled with "joy, happiness, and peace"-but he'll have to watch the 2010 Olympics on television. This time he didn't make the final cut.