SOCHI, Russia – Twenty-two years ago this week – a few days after the Bills lost the second Super Bowl in Minneapolis – I flew to France to cover an Olympics for the first time.
The memory seems distant and ancient, like one of those old sepia-toned photographs of your grandparents. The world was a much simpler and safer place back then. During three weeks of the Winter Games in tiny Albertville, I did not once type the word “security.”
There was no Internet at the time. I didn’t have a cell phone. I wrote on one of those old Radio Shack computers, which had about as much storage as a shaving kit. You didn’t play cards on it, or exchange emails or listen to music. You wrote stories and sent them through a telephone line.
Everything is bigger today and more complex, from the sports to the politics to the media coverage. In ’92, there were 1,801 athletes from 64 nations competing in France. There will be roughly 2,900 athletes in Sochi. In Friday evening’s Opening Ceremony, an estimated 88 nations will be represented.
Back in ’92, there were 57 events and 171 total medals. This year, 294 medals will be handed out in 98 events. I’ve been boning up on the X Games, but some of these sports will be barely recognizable to me. It’s hard enough to identify a triple axel. Now I have to worry about the triple cork.
There was no snowboarding in ’92, no skeleton, no women’s giant slalom, no women’s hockey, no NHL players in men’s hockey. There will be another dozen new events in Sochi, including luge relay, figure skating team competitions and women’s ski jumping. (They sued to get in.)
Yeah, the world spins a lot faster nowadays, like the ice skaters. The IOC wants to enhance its appeal with women and young people, giving the Games a more hip, egalitarian edge. It’s a good thing; as the years go by, I’m increasingly aware that being around sports keeps me young at heart.
Sadly, it’s a more dangerous place, too. They’re calling this “The Security Games,” as Sochi has been turned into a virtual armed camp due to fear of terrorism. Friends and family aren’t asking me which sports I plan to cover.
They joke about the Black Widow and urge me to stay safe.
The Olympics have lost much of their innocence over the years. To some extent, the Games have always been a slave to politics. But the sports aren’t the only thing that have grown more extreme. The dissidents are more extreme, too, reflecting the heightened tensions and hostilities around the globe.
Security is tight at all major sporting events nowadays. There were major concerns in London. Security at the Super Bowl was tighter than ever. But the threat seems especially real in Sochi, which is just a few hundred miles from a steaming Islamic insurgency in the North Caucasus.
When I told Ryan Miller I would be in Sochi, the first thing he said was, “I think we’re in for one, huh? Bring a security team.”
This will be my eighth Olympics, my first Winter Games since 1994. That was the year the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan soap opera dominated the news. It drove up interest in figure skating. Looking back, it seems like a turning point, a moment when the Olympic ideal began to develop cracks.
The Olympics have become an increasingly commercial vessel, with the cost of holding and televising the Games soaring. It’s a vehicle for TV, featuring elite competitors who can earn the money to compete into their prime.
That’s a good thing. I was slow to come around on the professionals. But if the Olympics were still restricted to true amateurs, many of the world’s finest winter athletes couldn’t afford to train and compete into their absolute physical prime.
There’s a price, of course. When the rewards are greater, so is the urge to cheat. So we have to deal with the lingering suspicions about performance-enhancing drugs, and the fact that much of the money flows to a small percentage of elite athletes who become marketable stars.
But despite all the flaws, I still believe in the essential power of the Games. It’s still one of the best assignments you’ll ever have. The closer it gets, the more excited I feel. That never changes. I can only hope Sochi will be as consistently compelling – and free of terrorism – as London.
That flame still stands for something. The ’92 Olympics (the last time they held both in the same year) were the first after the fall of the Iron Curtain and breakup of the Soviet Union. I remember how moving it was to see the newly independent countries marching in the Opening Ceremonies for the first time.
This is the new Russia, with all its corruption and ethnic strife, attempting to show a new face to the world, the way the Chinese did in Beijing. Whatever your feelings about Vladimir Putin and his nation’s stumble into democracy, it would be sad if his Olympics were remembered for catastrophe.
Once you see the athletes in the pure heat of competition, you remember that the Games reflect what’s good in people. They have the power to unite young people from different cultures. Maybe I’m naive, but I always go to an Olympics with a fresh outlook, ready to celebrate the good.
So I’ll look forward to seeing Shaun White on the halfpipe; Gracie Gold’s triple loop; the women flying off the ski jump for the first time; Ryan Miller trying to recapture the magic of Vancouver; the arrival of a new ski sensation, Mikaela Shiffrin, and the last fling for another, Bode Miller.
Maybe I’ll knock back a few vodkas with the Russians, hopeful that Sochi really will be the safest place in Russia for the next two and a half weeks.
Actually, what I’m hoping for most is reliable Internet.