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The Games were once cozy, quaint and snowy; what happened to Winter Olympics?

by | Feb 6, 2022 | Comment, Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

I attended my first Winter Olympics nearly 40 years ago in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, a city about the size of Wichita. I drove a rental car and parked it outside the journalists’ village.

I never used that car during the Games. There were buses to take you everywhere. Or you could walk. It was a cheery town, where athletes, officials and journalists mixed with the locals every night in small bars and restaurants. 

The mood was festive those two weeks. And the atmosphere was what Winter Olympics used to be, the cozy feeling of a snowed-in village, where people skied, skated, bobsledded and luged, because, well, that’s what you do in a winter sports zone.

When the Games finished, I packed my bag and went to find my car, only to discover it had disappeared under a mountain of snow from daily street plowings. That snow was at least 8 feet high and just as thick. With no good ideas, I began to claw away with my gloves. A couple locals saw me, they came over, yelled out for friends, and pretty soon I had half a dozen strangers with shovels, digging me out.

We laughed as we went along, even though I didn’t understand a word they spoke. When the car was finally freed, I offered my new friends money, but none of them would take it. They shook my hand and waved as I drove away.

Winter wonderland?

There’s more to that car story, which I will get to. But I find myself comparing that affirming 1984 experience to the current locked-down, fan-less, controversial Winter Games in Beijing, a city that actually hosted the Summer Olympics 14 years ago. If Beijing is a cozy winter village, then O’Hare Airport is a landing strip.

The days of coziness are gone from the Winter Games. Heck. So is snow. China is busing people over 100 miles to get to skiing competitions. It has manufactured over a million cubic meters of artificial snow just to stage the events, leaving environmentalists incensed.

So why on earth is Beijing, a city with more people (21 million) than New York, Los Angeles and Chicago combined, even hosting a tradition that used to go to quaint places like Innsbruck, Lake Placid, and Lillehammer?

What do you think?

If you said anything other than “money” and “image,” you haven’t been paying much attention to the Olympics.

Athletes didn’t ask for this

China is paying $4 billion to put on these Games. Sarajevo budgeted $55 million, or about 1/80th that amount. TV rights, facility construction, marketing, and of course the greasing of International Olympic Committee officials (which is about the worst kept secret in sports) all add up to a hefty price tag these days.

But money is hardly the biggest issue people have with Beijing’s Games. America, Great Britain, Canada and numerous other nations didn’t send their diplomatic staffs in protest of what the U.S. called China’s “human rights abuses and atrocities.” Other nations pulled their people due to COVID-19.

Meanwhile, many nations (including America) warned their athletes to leave their cellphones and computers at home, lest they be hacked and spied on. Journalists were warned that any sort of criticism of China might have them whisked away, and as if on cue, a Dutch TV reporter was yanked off camera Friday night by Chinese security forces before the opening ceremonies were done. (He was later returned and allowed to finish his broadcast, with no explanation as to why.)

When the Games finished, I packed my bag and went to find my car, only to discover it had disappeared under a mountain of snow from daily street plowings. That snow was at least 8 feet high and just as thick. With no good ideas, I began to claw away with my gloves. A couple locals saw me, they came over, yelled out for friends, and pretty soon I had half a dozen strangers with shovels, digging me out.

China is using these Games to fend off this kind of criticism and paint itself in glowing colors to whatever gullible part of the world will swallow it.

Because of all this, the athletes themselves, most of whom just want to skate, ski, jump, or go down a track, are feeling pressure to speak out, or not speak out, or to feel shame in even attending the Games, as if they and not the sleazy, money-grubbing IOC were the ones making the decisions where to stage them.

I feel sorry for the competitors. Telling a ski jumper or a bobsledder to skip the Olympics is like telling a pilot to stay behind a simulator. In many cases, their careers are made by how they perform at the Games. It’s the pinnacle of most winter sports. Athletes didn’t ask to be in the middle of political controversy, government misdeeds or some nation’s attempt to whitewash its image in high-tech opening ceremony spectacles.

But they are.

The spirit of the Games

Which brings me back to those 1984 Games in Sarajevo. I wish the athletes and journalists today could experience the camaraderie of those two weeks. It felt like that small city was introducing itself to the world. People were gracious. Drinks were hoisted. There were laughs. They even raised the Olympic flag upside down by mistake during the opening ceremonies.

I said there was more to that car story. Here it is. I left Sarajevo late, after all that time spent digging the vehicle out. Hours later, I was driving in northern Yugoslavia. It was past midnight and I was exhausted. Going through a small town, I fell asleep at the wheel, smacked into a guard rail, and blew out my axle. Thankfully, I was OK, but my car was now sitting useless in the middle of an empty road. It was freezing. I let the engine run for an hour to keep the heat going, but I was low on gas.

Finally, I ventured out, seeing a lamplight a few blocks away. It turned out to be a small market, and while it wasn’t open, I spotted someone inside. Shivering, I knocked on the door.

An older woman answered. She took one look at me, rushed me in, sat me on a radiator, ran into the back and came out with a cup of brandy. Ten minutes later she had made me soup.

I stayed there for hours, until the sun rose and the woman’s daughter (who spoke a little English) helped me make a phone call to the rental car company. A representative drove from the Zagreb Airport, picked me up, and drove me back with him to get another car.

I felt so grateful for the old woman’s kindness that I purchased a large Vucko doll (the mascot for the Sarajevo Olympics) and drove all the way back to that village, entered the market, gave it to her with a smile and a hug, and drove away, happy to be alive and back on my journey.

Four weeks later, I received a letter at my home in Michigan.

It was written in garbled English by the old woman’s daughter, on behalf of her mother. She said they got my address by calling the man from the rental car company. The mother wanted to thank me so much for the Vucko doll. And she invited me to come stay with her family any time I found myself back in their town.

That story seems a long way from what’s going on in Beijing today. Perhaps, somewhere beneath the controversy and political overtones, that heartbeat of the Olympics bringing the world together still exists. But it feels more buried than my car was 38 years ago, with fewer hands willing to dig it out.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.

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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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