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Archive for October, 2014

What Are The Olympics?

Friday, October 3rd, 2014
Watching freestyle skiing at the Olympics: with my family in Tignes, France, 1992 (l), ad with FasterSkier family Alex Kochon in Sochi, 2014.

Watching freestyle skiing at the Olympics: with my family in Tignes, France, 1992 (l), and with FasterSkier family Alex Kochon in Sochi, 2014.

When Norway withdrew its bid to host the 2022 Olympics in Oslo on Wednesday, there was widespread dismay in the sports world.

For us as nordic skiers, it felt like a particularly harsh blow. Oslo is a nice place for everyone, but for cross-country skiers, jumpers, and biathletes, it is heaven. Holmenkollen is already one of the most storied venues in the world, a favorite World Cup stop in each nordic discipline.

Norway has famously good governance. They have money, but they get things done. An Oslo Games would have been well-organized and efficient. And existing infrastructure could have been used to a great extent, to reduce the ballooning cost of hosting a Games.

Outside the athletes village with aunt Liz, Lillehammer, 1994.

Outside the athletes village with aunt Liz, Lillehammer, 1994.

To begin to answer why Norway turned down this opportunity to play host, it might help to ask ourselves what the Olympics are really about.

When I think about the Olympics, I think back to the early 1990’s when my family traveled first to Albertville, France, and then to Lillehammer, Norway, to watch my aunt compete in freestyle skiing.

I was only five years old in Albertville, and sometimes I struggle to tell whether my memories are really my own. But this I know: we ate a pizza that had an egg on it, in the French style; and for my grandfather’s birthday, he got a flaming dessert from a restaurant.

The Tignes ski area extended from the freestyle venues up and over the mountains – nestled up against Mont Blanc, it is possible to ski into Switzerland. I remember that I became a much, much better alpine skier on that trip, as did my father, who grew up in Atlanta. And I remember the sting when my parents, uncle, and aunt took the gondola up the mountain to ski real trails, and I was left at home with my then-two-year-old cousin. That sucked.

As a comparison: did anyone go to Sochi to ski? What sucked there was that I brought my skis, and never got to use them.

In Tignes, my extended family rented rooms directly across from the competition slopes, so that we could stand on the balcony and look out at the moguls field and the aerials jumps.

I can tell you right now that that will never happen at another Olympics, ever again. The line between athletes and everyone else did not used to be such a clear divide, and the separation of spectators from both the sport itself and the culture of the host city was historically not so stark. In Sochi 22 years later, buildings and stadiums lacked any local character. Not even athletes, generally, could live in a spot that looked out on their competition trails. And the only way to tell you were in Russia was the Cyrillic on the signs, and the militarized security force.

Lillehammer, 1994.

Lillehammer, 1994.

In Lillehammer, the family rented an apartment in town. One of my strongest memories from that trip is of my uncle and aunt buying reindeer burgers and that same younger cousin getting to eat one. My own parents, former vegetarians, were definitely not going to buy reindeer. Much like the missed gondola ski trip, that sucked.

I remember visiting Maihaugen, the museum village of old Norwegian farm buildings. I remember cross-country skiing on the trails out of town, and falling down, and seeing so many other people on skis – more skiers than I had ever seen in my life, more skiers than I could have imagined before traveling to Norway.

I remember my aunt joining us in the stands to watch. In the photos, her credential is hidden underneath a heavy jacket; unlike the Sochi credentials that every spectator wore around their neck like a chain, our family had paper tickets tucked away in our pockets. Everything was relaxed. She also came to our apartment for a joint birthday party for my father, grandfather, and uncle. There were costumes and the adults drank wine.

Maybe this is one of the biggest things that stands out between my experience at the Olympics as a kid, and my experience in Russia last year: athletes weren’t separated from the public as they are now. I visited the Endurance Village in Sochi. That required applying for a special visitor’s pass in addition to my media credentials, days in advance. Transport there was crazy, and it wasn’t in a place that was on the way to anything. Conversely, if athletes wanted to leave to see their families, they couldn’t just walk across town – it was a day-long commitment.

Skiing in Norway, 1994.

Skiing in Norway, 1994.

One of our favorite family photos from Lillehammer is me, outside the Olympic village, jumping in the air with my aunt in front of the flags from every participating country. She could come and go as she pleased (I think), to her family birthday parties or just for a walk. And we could go see her. Our main concern was whether we would be distracting.

Much has been made of the IOC’s list of demands for a host city, which reads like a tour rider for a rock star. But while that is the root of the money problems, perhaps another part of the problem is that the Olympic spirit has simply changed since the last time the Games visited Norway. The Scandinavian sports powerhouse may be wealthy, but they have got to be one of the least ostentatious rich countries in the world.

The oil boom only happened in the 1970’s. Today, Norway has the highest per-capita Gross National Income (GNI) in the world, ahead of Qatar, Switzerland, and everyone else. In 1960, its GDP was smaller than the Bahamas. Norway’s oil riches are new enough that the country remembers what it’s like to be poor. The IOC’s current attitude is the antithesis of how Norwegians treat their wealth, and the Games might no longer fully represent how they like their sport, either.

The IOC reportedly demanded that its members be introduced to the King before an Oslo opening ceremony, and have a cocktail party paid for by the Royal Palace.

Do you know who gets to meet the King in Norway? The skier who wins a Holmenkollen World Cup, that’s who. And usually, they’re so awed that they don’t know what to say. The first words out of their mouths are never, “Balvenie on the rocks”.

Perhaps the IOC should try learning something from Norway, instead of insisting that it be the other way around.

—Chelsea Little, editor-at-large

Family ski trip on one of Liz's off days from competition, Tignes, 1992.

Family ski trip on one of Liz’s off days from competition, Tignes, 1992.