2014 Sochi Olympic Journal #13: The Greatest Innovation at the Olympics

The greatest innovation in U.S. Olympic History (for Olympians):

No, it is not the BMW designed USA bobsled, the Lockheed Martin designed Mach 39 speedskating suits, instantaneous video replays on iPads, or Shawn White’s new frontside double-cork 1440 in half pipe.

No, perhaps the single greatest innovation for the athletes heading to Sochi is “Crowdfunding”. In case you are not familiar with the concept, here’s a definition, “crowdfunding is the practice of funding a project or venture by raising many small amounts of money from a large number of people, typically via the Internet.” There is now a suite of relatively new online social media tools that allow athletes, Olympians and potential Olympians to cash in on the largesse provided by the intersection of goodwill and need. By using the power of social media to gather a large number of small donations, athletes are able to find financial support to cover their expenses. Some examples of these sites include GoFundMe.com, IndieGoGo.com, Dreamfuel.com, Rallyme.com

Except for a small handful of  “A-list” athletes like Shawn White, Apolo Ohno or Bode Miller, most Olympic athletes toil in anonymity for more than a decade in order to make an Olympics and scrape by through a combination of parental support, off-season jobs, and small stipends from their sports federations.

For well-to-do athletes or those in high profile sports (snow-boarding, figure skating, skiing) where ample funding is available a single-minded focus on training and preparation is all that is required. This is also the case for many athletes from nations that fully fund their athletes, think Russia or South Korea.

For the rest, a constant ever-present worry is “how will I pay for this?” -be it new equipment, travel, lodging or even food. At its extreme it reaches the levels that Emily Scott, newly minted Olympian in short track speedskating, has faced. With a mother and a sister behind bars and raised by a single father with a blue collar income, Emily, at one point, was forced to rely on foodstamps to feed herself.

One might think that making the Olympic team would finally put these fears to rest, but in reality that success breeds a whole new brand of financial worry. Sure, now their travel and food and lodging are covered to travel to the games, but just as abruptly parents and others who have played significant support roles are faced with massive expenses to try and get to the games.

Olympic qualifying trials are often held close to the date of the Games themselves to ensure the very best team is selected, but this then creates the situation of the parents and supporters of the Olympian having only weeks to find flights and lodging in cities that have been booked solid for months and with flights subject to the supply and demand algorithms of Sabre (the airline yield management software) and hotel pricing often reaching $1000/day or more at the Olympic site.

Even a weeklong trip to a place like Sochi can involve multi-leg flights to save money and then incredibly steep prices to find a place to stay anywhere remotely close to the venues. Craig Scott, Emily’s father IS coming to the Olympics, thanks in large part to crowdfunding, but here’s his flight plan: Kansas City to Chicago, Chicago to Washington DC. Washington DC to Istanbul, Istanbul to Germany, Germany to Sochi. Here’s how Craig Scott will get to Sochi. He will board a plane in Kansas City and go to Chicago. From Chicago he will go to Washington. From Washington he flies to Turkey. From Turkey he flies to Germany.

For middle class parents there is always credit cards, but what about young spouses, fiancés or boyfriends/girlfriends? Often those that participated or sacrificed the most are forced to watch and cheer from afar.

Enter Crowdfunding.

Crowdfunding has existed for years in various forms – be it innovations looking for startup money, patients needing medical treatment seeking support, or artists with a new idea, but this emergent social media platform is potentially at its best in supporting potential Olympians. Finally there exists a way to tap into the general support of the USA! USA! Spirit and collect large numbers of small sums to support the real needs of an athlete and their family.

Emily Scott is perhaps the most direct example. After applying for foodstamps she decided to create a GoFundMe page and at the same time had the luck of a USA Today article to lend visibility to her plight. In particular, other than feeding herself, she was most anxious that her father Craig would join her in Sochi. 24 hours later she had $30,000 in donations – most of them small, but in quantity, and by late January she had $49,000 from more than 650 donors – more than enough to ensure that her father could join her at the games.

Emily's gofundme page

Emily’s gofundme page

The list of athletes receiving significant support is substantial – from Emily Scott raising over $50K to fellow short track speedskater Kyle Carr raising $14,000 to bring his mother to the games. Lindsey Van, part of the new retinue of women’s ski jumpers, raised $20,000, Sugar Todd a long track speedskater raised almost $6000 to bring her parents to the games, while teen brothers and Danny and Drew Duffy raised over $50,000 on RallyMe to cover their expenses.

Others, though have struggled with getting visibility in order to generate support. Bobsledder Elana Meyers has only raised $738 to date proving that just having a campaign is no silver bullet.

Through Crowdfunding, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been raised to ensure that those that compete, and those that sacrificed for their success have the support required to share in the experience. This is particularly important given the relatively new tradition of the “Order of the Ikkos” award where each medaling Olympian gives a medal to the one person who supported them the most. Hard to give a medal to someone thousands of miles away because they couldn’t afford to come….

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Epilogue: The Post Olympic Hangover

I am particularly envious of this emergent source of funding. After graduating college I trained full time for eight years and made one Olympic team where I earned a silver medal. Along the way I used credit cards to fund my dream. As a recent college graduate I was able to apply for an receive over 50 credit cards which I used to pick up and rotate $87,000 in debt to by the time I retired from the sport. My parents also spent years paying off their visit to Lillehammer, Norway. Here’s a REAL picture of the 50+ credit cards I used to fund my dream. I eventually paid them off…

50 credit cards - to a guy with no job

50 credit cards – to a guy with no job

For olympian Alex Izykowski, the burden fell to his parents, who are still filling in the financial hole they dug to ensure his success and bronze medal in the 2006 Torino games. “My hometown community really pulled together to help fund my family’s expenses to travel to Torino, but the 10 years of debt we accrued leading up to my Olympics is an ever-present burden they are still paying off.” Alex’s dad agreed, saying, “Its like a post-olympic hangover you can’t shake.”

Sadly it is hard to ask for crowdfunding support in retrospect so Alex and his parents have little to no opportunity to tap into this emergent funding source. However, for new athletic hopefuls, crowdfunding fuels an olympic dream while reducing the post-apocolyptic olympic hangover.

2014 Sochi Olympic Journal #12: The Media Caste System

There is a very interesting dynamic with regards to media personnel here at the Olympics (and probably other large events.) There is an unwritten caste system that informs all aspects of life, travel, work and access that governs behavior. For the most part it appears to be unwritten and you figure it out as you go. Bumping up against the next level up runs the risk of the equivalent of a hand-slap. Each level within the hierarchy has an escalating level of perks and power, starting w/ volunteers and interns, all the way up to “super talent.”  There are roughly 5 levels or castes and I’m a “level 3″ within the system which has an unusual benefit in that the level 1’s and 5’s work some of the worst / longest hours.  Here are the levels and their benefits / drawbacks and then details below:

Level 1: Volunteers, Interns, PA’s
Level 2: Production, camera, truck
Level 3: Experts, Analysts, researchers
Level 4: “Talent” and Producers/Directors
Level 5: “Super-Talent”

Level 1: Volunteers, Interns, PA’s – these are mostly very young and have jobs like “runner” or “spotter” or many of the volunteers merely stand in the venue to tell you if you can, or can’t enter an area. They live in the “volunteer village” or “media village” – huge complexes with bare bones accommodations usually a good distance from the venues and for the most part the level 1 folks do not have access to any of the venues unless they work in one, and some will spend the entire games in the IBC (International Broadcast Center) and possibly not even see an event (unlikely here in Russia due to the proximity of all the venues). They take public transport and buses or walk to get around. It is a rare treat when they get to tag along in a private car w/ the talent

Level 2: production and camera, truck crews  – these are the crusty veterans that make it all happen. They have credentials for key events and the commissary (food) and tend to be older and full of stories. They stay in 3 star hotels and some of them get on the “charter” – the direct flight to the games vs. the regular airline flights. They can often be found in circles outside the event smoking and telling stories. They work long hours, but sometimes get breaks.  Predominantly male, they also sometimes have transport due to their equipment.

Level 3: Experts, Analysts, researchers. Neither “talent” nor production, there is a few of us that enjoy some of the benefits of talent without the drawbacks of the Level 1 and 2 folks. We tend to have credentials with “ALL” on them so we can go to all the venues and see all the events. We get to fly on the charter and stay in a 4 star hotel. We often get to tag along with “talent” and ride in the private cars, but only when invited. If the car is full with talent, it would be a breach of protocol to ask to join. We are often in the meetings with talent / producers, but play a marginal role. We do some camera work, but not the main event. Because of specialized knowledge that is applicable before and during the event, but not so much after, we are often set free just as talent and production and directors/producers get busy. In Torino, races finished at 10pm, I was set free at 10:30pm and the producers, directors and talent stayed until 5am doing voiceovers and fixes. Level 3 jobs in my opinion are the best jobs at the games because on off days we have an all access pass to go watch any event and after the first event are mostly left to do what we want. Being a level 3 former olympian (many of us are) has double privileges as we are also invited to events, parties, and many of the “houses” with receptions etc. There is never a lack for things to do, people to meet, food to eat, or wine to drink.  Other “level 3″ players in Sochi – Mark Greenwald (long track) Kristi Yamaguchi and Katerina Witt (figure skating), Picabo Street and Jeremy Bloom (skiing), and Summer Sanders.

Level 4: “Talent” and Producers/Directors. There are some distinctions between “talent” and the producers/directors, but for the most part they have the same perks. They fly business class to the event, they have a private car and driver ready at a moments notice to take them anywhere, they stay in 5 star hotels and have the same all access credential Level 3 gets. The levels below them treat them with deference and both “talent” and producers/directors can be demanding. One distinction is that producers and directors tend to mock the talent a bit as “talent” tends to be less organized/timely/responsible than the hardcore “we have a show to put on” mindset of the producers and directors. At its simplest, “talent” has trouble being on time and following directions and the producers and directors want everything done yesterday and “better.” Both of them work long hours – particularly in situations like Sochi where it is not “live.” Live action results in no ability to “fix”. Taped means that producers and directors can exercise their desire for perfection and often results in very late nights doing “throws” and “lobs” and fixes.

Level 5: “Super-Talent”. Costas, Matt Lauer, Al Roker and the most senior executive producers are a whole other level of “talent”. Apolo is also mostly in this caste. They fly first class, get the suites in the 5 star hotels, and have “handlers” there to answer their every beck and call. Their credentials have special tags to get them into every room and they can go to the “NBC house” attached to the USA house. However, they also work crazy hours and end up working most of the games.

So, to conclude, I have the best job at the Olympics.

Photo: Sochi here I come! "ALL" is the best part: it means access to ANY event, on the field of play.

The all access credential – the single greatest perk of level 3 and above

IMG_2672The Media Village (above)

IMG_2673The “talent” hotel – Radisson Blu

IMG_2674My Hotel – not too shabby

2014 Sochi Olympic Journal #10: How To Watch Short Track – Part 2

Tonight, the first set of short track races will be aired on NBC. The men’s 1500m Gold medal race is tonight as well as the women’s 500m heats and relay heats. Since it is tape delayed, here’s a picture of us calling the races.  IMG_2635

So, what can you expect tonight? Here’s a summary:

SHORT TRACK SPEEDSKATING – a primer

 Basics:

The logistics of the sport of short track speedskating are easy to comprehend. A simple visual will suffice: inside the nicked and gauged plastic walls surrounding hockey rinks the world over an oval track is laid out using black plastic lane markers: 111.12 meters in length.

The short track rink

Add a half dozen speedskaters in their skin tight multi-colored suits racing for the finish line – like track and field or horse racing – and the simple format is complete.

The logistics of short track speedskating are also straightforward – a fixed number of laps (or half laps) comprising an even distance in meters (500, 1000, 1500, 3000 or 5000 meters), with the first skater across the line being first.

Time on the stopwatch, while an interesting anecdote, does not factor into the results except for the honor of holding a record.

Racing

Yet, like many things in life that seem straightforward, the actual play by play of the sport tends to defy the simplicity of its rules. Crashes, interference, and disqualifications factor into the results at levels unprecedented in any other sport, and even in “clean” races, the dynamics involved with multiple competitors lined up on a tight, short, narrow track of ice going 35 mph on 1mm wide, 17 1/2 inch blades means that the “fastest” skater quite often does not win.

One need only to remember watching the Australian Stephen Bradbury in the 2002 Olympics, who advanced by luck of disqualification in the 1000 meter heats to the semi finals. Self admittedly the slowest skater in those semi-finals, he proceeded to win that race – after all the other skaters crashed, placing him in the finals and into the medal round. Then again in the finals, while pacing off the back of a pack of top ranked USA, Korean, and Canadian skaters, Bradbury managed to avoid disaster and come across the line first – again not through his own merits – rather through the misfortune of the leading skaters. The gold medal was his – even though his efforts in all the preceding rounds suggested those of a non-contender.

Given the seeming randomness of the results, one might be inclined to shake ones head and put the whole thing down as a bit of a lottery. One thing is for sure, in any given race, luck will play a part. It is this unpredictability that makes it the crowd favorite for all the other athletes at the Olympics

Analogies

Short track tends to draw two analogies in sports – first, Nascar – due to the importance of drafting and the critical path skaters must follow to maximize their speed, and second, horseracing, for the relative importance of the track conditions and race length in the final result.

Who will win on any given day? It depends….

  • Is the ice soft or hard?
  • How long is the race?
  • What combination of skaters are are racing? How will it play out?
  • What unforeseen events will occur?

What does it feel like?

Think back to certain winter moments – those times of walking on slick, wet ice – to your car across frozen puddles, or down the sidewalk after a freezing rain.

Then remember that moment when your shoes first touched dry asphalt after sliding across the icy puddle, or the instant when you regained traction after passing back underneath the porch roof. To a speedskater, that is exactly what it feels like to be on ice with our long blades – it is feeling of traction and grip, stability and power.

An 17.5” speedskating blade on perfectly smooth ice is grippier than rubber on asphalt and more stable than a ski on snow. A Nascar can only pull 1 G-force on dry pavement, the space shuttle hits 3 G-Forces in launch, and a short track speedskater hits 2.7 G’s at the apex of the corner.

The blade, its sharp edge, and its tracking ability while in motion, are able to smoothly receive every ounce of energy provided by powerful leg muscles to propel the skater forward.

Granted, the motion is sideways – like tacking in the wind with a sailboat – but the 17 inch blade is like yards of canvas gathering wind: the lateral forces are released in a tangential motion and converted to forward speed smoothly yet powerfully. Each stroke on the ice is a combination squat thrust (sheer power) and ballet (no wasted motion, fluid extension to the very tips of the range).

Now imagine that ultimate grip – no amount of effort will result in a slip – and a slow concentrated thrust  through with the legs: massive force passing in liquid slow motion through the blade to the ice.  The strength of the contracted leg is absolute, and the hold of the blade provides a supreme feeling of power. The controlled release of the piston-like skating stroke brings to mind the action of a hydraulic cylinder – a fluid, consistent, and powerful.

If you have ever had the ill-fortune to push a stalled car, and were lucky enough to have a curb or wall as a backstop for your feet, then that incredible slow thrust you were able to deliver to the car to get it moving is the closest thing in life to the feeling of a speedskating stroke: a 1000lb squat thrust.

Now, add to this motion the g-force dynamics and angles of a jet fighter and you have the right combination.

As a skater moves towards the corner, there is a momentary feeling of weightlessness as the body lifts with the final skate stroke, and then falls as the body and center of gravity compresses downward and sideways to enter the corner.

As the direction of the skater changes, centripetal forces cause a 2.7G acceleration to crush the body lower. In order to stay aligned over the center of the 1mm blades, the skater rolls inward, and the upper body leans way out over the blocks at an angle of 65 degrees+.

The powerful motion of the crossovers (corner strokes) then take over and compel the preservation of the momentum carried into the corner. Timed right, you’ll see the powerful transition of the full extension of the left leg underneath the right leg, both blades carving firmly just prior to the apex of the corner (the center-most block).

A smooth transition of the force between the two legs at that precarious moment preserves the integrity of the corner and allows the skater to enter a “pivot” – a one footed change of direction back toward the far end of the rink, and then relax the arc of the corner a bit through the latter half – reducing the G forces and allowing multiple crossover strokes of acceleration into the straightaway. The apex block is also the focal point of most crashes and many disqualifications. At the point of the turn the muscles of the body are stressed to the max – imagine squatting down to a 90 degree bend on one leg… holding it, and then putting on 2 of yourself on your back: the additional pressure provided by the almost 3G acceleration of the turn). Then balance all of that on a 1mm blade, headed toward the wall, on ICE.

As the skater exits the corner, the body decompresses and lifts with the center of gravity returning to vertical. A pair of straightway strokes later, and it starts again.

Is it hard?

This extremely controlled and concise motion is difficult. However – the motions are repetitive – unlike ballet the number of required motions is drastically reduced. The real difficulty of the sport lies in the compression of the body required to form the aerodynamic shape. Wind resistance, ultimately, is the primary obstacle to speed.

If speedskating races were held a vacuum, a skater could stand nearly upright and kick out a series of highly powerful shallow strides in rapid sequence to attain maximum speed. However, with the friction of wind the comes with speeds approaching 30 mph, the skater is required to try and form a teardrop shape, with arms and legs bent in a greater than 90 degree angle. The loss of muscular leverage at these compressed angles is severe – I won’t try to describe the physics, but just imagine these two examples:

1) Imagine if you had someone sitting on your shoulders. Now, in a fully upright standing position, imagine bending your knees slightly and then straightening them again. If you can imagine that situation, you probably can imagine that performing that minor knee bend and subsequent straightening would be very easy. The human body’s power output from near-full extension of the muscles involved is tremendous. Most of us could imagine even jumping a little with that weight on our back. However, this position is ineffective due to the constraints of wind resistance. Instead…

2) Imagine squatting down – all the way down, sitting on your heels. Then extend one leg straight out – kind of a Russian dancer stance. Now, balanced on that one foot try to stand up using only the completely bent leg’s power: nearly impossible for anyone other than an acrobat, Russian dancer, or speedskater. Do that with the weight of another person resting on your shoulders (from the centrifugal force) while traveling 30mph, tilting sideways at a crazy angle balanced on a 1m blade and you have the essence of the sport. (Here’s a rough diagram I put together for NBC with estimates of the forces:)

Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 5.13.21 PM

The compressed body position required by the aerodynamics of the sport demands high power from the legs in a full range of motion, with an extreme amount of coordination of balance, timing, alignment of weight and effort, and subtle coordination of a series of heretofore unused muscles in the abdomen, hip, knee, and ankle to ensure that the powerful compressed stroke passes evenly sideways without interruption or slippage.

This is why few that have started the sport after age 13 succeed, and how a 25 year old skater with 5 years of experience will look like an awkward novice compared to a 10 year old with the same experience. After some point, the synapses required for this kind of exquisite control wither away and cannot be trained.

The only exception to this hard and fast rule is the relatively recent crossover of in-line speedskating athletes. Not surprising considering the similarities of the two sports.

Why all the disqualifications?

In the relatively recent years since short track speedskating has entered the mainstream consciousness, it has brought along with it the expected perceptions of speed and danger and unpredictability. In addition, there also exists an ongoing element of controversy with regards to the judging system and the calls for disqualification (or lack thereof) that have occurred in many of Olympic races.

As an example we can remember back to 2002, where in the1500m mens final, a disqualification of Korean skater Kim Dong Song led to a gold medal – a first for American men – being awarded to Apolo Ohno who crossed the line second. However, the controversial nature of the call, and the dearth of medals for the strong team of Korean men led to highly publicized death threats from the Korean public. When Apolo returned to Korea for the first time since the 2002 Olympics for the 2005 world championships, he was met at the airport by 100 policemen in full riot regalia – just in case.

Then, of course there was the 1000 meter incident with Bradbury…

One unexpected outcome of all the uncertainty in the sport of short track is cultural in nature. One might expect that with all of the clashes and crashes, disqualifications and controversy that the tensions between rival teams and competitors might be very high: that the close proximity in the races might result in a natural distancing factor between athletes off ice and outside the venue.

Surprisingly, this couldn’t be further from the truth. A look at the sister sport of long track speedskating, a sport with no physical contact, few to no disqualifications, and racers competing almost clinically against the clock (in separate lanes and only two at a time) finds a culture where competitive tensions are at their highest. Long Track speedskaters are, more often than not, solitary, taciturn creatures, with serious countenances betraying the competitive tension embodied in every activity.

Short track skaters, in contrast tend to convivial, open and playful, with the occasional prank between and within teams a long standing tradition – a culture where each emotional explosion at the referees for a disqualifaction (or lack thereof) is equally matched by the off ice hijinks, stories and accompanying laughter between the skaters in their locker rooms, in the shared spaces playing hackysack, and back at the hotel over dinner. It as if the vagaries of the sport, the unpredictability of the results, and the shared suffering of uncertainty over the whims of lady luck has created a common culture of tolerance, humility and respect between athletes of different cultures, languages and perspectives.

There is an oft repeated, little understood phrase repeated consistently by the competitors that ultimately reflects this shared understanding. Apolo Ohno was interviewed on camera after the 2002 Olympic 1000 meter gold medal race where he crossed the line sprawled across the ice belly up in second place after being taken down from behind by a chain reaction four skater crash in the final corner. He had just lost certain gold to the unlikely Australian Steven Bradbury who glided in on the wings of lady luck – well out of contention – yet the winner of the coveted gold medal.

Asked for his views on the events that had unfolded, it would have been understandable if Apolo has been less than charitable: he could have said things such as “it was unfair, I had it in the bag, the Korean skater grabbed my leg, Steven wasn’t even a contender…” but true to the culture of the sport, and out of respect for the dozens, if not hundreds of races that Steven didn’t win under similar circumstances, Apolo merely shrugged, smiled, and uttered those those seemingly innocuous yet significant words repeated over and over in this turbulent and exciting world: “That’s Short Track.”

It sure is.

 

2014 Sochi Olympic Journal #9: How To Watch Short Track – Part 1

How to Watch a Short Track Race:

  1. Recognize that time doesn’t matter – so in the longer races, the pace may be slow in the early goings
  2. Know that drafting is a factor and that taking the lead with more than 4 or 5 laps to go probably means you’ll get passed by the skaters getting a 20% increase in efficiency by following in your wake
  3. Know that because of 1 & 2, the laps between 7 to go and 5 to go are where a great proportion of passing and maneuvering happen. Each skater HOPES that with 5 to go they find themselves in second or third place with a skater up front who has the pace high and will fade at the end.
  4. Know that passing on the outside is less likely to lead to a penalty for contact, but a LOT harder – only the best can do it at speed.
  5. Know that passing on the inside is easier, but runs the real risk of contact and if the skater doesn’t get 1/2 body length lead will be called for a penalty and be given last place points
  6. Know that passing on the inside and having contact around block 3 in the corner often leads to falls and if so, runs the risk of also causing a yellow card to be issued which means that skater penalized will get no points.
  7. Lap times above 11 seconds are SLOW, lap times of 10 seconds or so are medium. Lap times of 9 seconds are fast, and lap times in the low 8′s are ALL OUT – 35mph plus.

Here’s a preview for the physics of part 2:

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http://www.nbcolympics.com/video/figure-skating-short-track-ice-differences

Tomorrow we will dig farther into the physics

2014 Sochi Olympic Journal #8: The Metal Barrier Habitrail

Most of my fellow journalists as well as the athletes are mystified by all the questions and press about poor accomodations, no running water, and hotel rooms without doors. Yes, everything is brand new and there are kinks to be worked out, but from one person’s limited purview, for the most part everything is up and running.

Here’s the rub though – this incredible Olympic Park, with 8 massive venues all in close proximity, suggests that everything is a few minutes walk away – in fact no venue in the coastal cluster is farther than 400m from the other. Incredible! Amazing! All built from scratch on the beautiful Black Sea, except…

Yesterday it took me 2 hours to transit the 400 meters from my hotel to the Iceberg venue. There are 2 hurdles to go to a venue:

1) To pass security – yesterday due to opening ceremonies the line was an hour long and…

2) The Metal Barrier Habitrail – each day they arbitrarily create barriers in and around all the venues and if you don’t know the few slots through them, you can find yourself walking fruitlessly toward and away from your destination, hemmed in by a silver wall of bars. Yesterday I walked within paces of the Iceberg only to find myself following the grid of steel bars farther and farther away and ultimately circling the entire compound, a full hour’s walk

Still, you have to hand it to the security teams – there’s just no way to know the way into the “bubble” because they change the patterns of the iron grid every few hours, so even though it is a pain to see my hotel yards away yet 1/2 mile or more, it does make us feel safe.

2014 Sochi Olympic Journal #7: What an Accomplishment – Sochi 2014

Sure not everything is complete, sure not every “t” is crossed or “i” dotted, but for sure tonight was an amazing accomplishment – for the first time in olympic history against a backdrop of security threats in an unknown region of the world, a ceremony par excellence was held.

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Security was tight and 5 major venues within walking distance were built and fully operational along with hotels, buses, streets, water, stores, supplies, electricity, gasoline, propane, natural gas, coal, sanitation and everything else required to move heaven and earth for an event like this.

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Was it perfectly orchestrated like the opening ceremonies like Beijing? No, but for myself I found a new-found sense of humility and humor in the occasional faux pas of the ceremony, and an incredible sense of accomplishment for what they have created – out of nothing – in one of the world’s most remote but interesting areas. 

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As for my hotel – the Azimut Hotel and spa on the Black Sea, it is fantastic. Perfect? No, but the setting is gorgeous and the facilities include features like an “ice-fall” as well as herb infused steam rooms, sauna, massage, and a huge pool. All in all, the fact that my door doesn’t quite close without an extra shove, and the phone in my room doesn’t seem to reach anyone is a minor nuisance compared to the safe and comfortable environment they have created.

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Can’t wait for what tomorrow brings.

2014 Sochi Olympic Journal #6: To Walk (in Opening Ceremonies) or Not To Walk

Years, even decades of training go into an Olympic bid, and most of the millions that attempt this feat fail to join the few thousand that do. Morning, afternoon and evening they suffer, sweating and straining in pursuit of a distant dream – a few remembered snapshots from childhood serving as the glowing grail for this quest.

For most, those images can be distilled down to two mental pictures that have kept them motivated all these years. First and foremost is the vision of climbing the podium, bending down to receive an Olympic medal to the roar of the crowd and the tears of joy and relief from friends and family.

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There is another dream though, one that is far more realistic for the thousands of Olympians here chasing dozens of medals, and that dream is to march in the opening ceremonies and witness the pageantry surrounding the lighting of the Olympic cauldron. But this dream is fading: more and more athletes are skipping the opening ceremonies and the parade of nations has become a gentrified walk of coaches and staff.

Why? You might ask.

In pursuit of the primary dream, everything becomes secondary – the vision of that ephemeral medal becomes ever more singular and lesser, more realistic dreams fall away. To walk in opening ceremonies is to be on your feet for 2 – 3 hours – certainly not on anyone’s list of “best preparation” techniques for an athletic competition. Many simply choose not to attend – which is certainly their right.

However, some are just banned from participating by coaches and staff. At least one team I’m aware of was banned by their NGB (national governing body) to walk in the opening ceremonies – and there are probably dozens more. Then there is the middle ground, some are “guilted” out of going. For the U.S. Short Track team in 2010, they were told it would be “selfish” to walk.

Wait, you say, “that’s terrible!”

Well, perhaps it is not so simple. As a skater in the relay, three other people who have dedicated their life to this sport are relying on YOU to put in the performance of a lifetime – just to make it to the medal round. If a skater were to walk in the opening ceremony and fail to pull his or her weight during the race – and the team were to lose as a result, then yes, perhaps that would be selfish.

Further, there is the mental aspect – everyone is always trying to find that edge, a refrain in the brain saying “I’ll bet the Koreans are not walking,” starts to further frame the issue.

I’m very happy to have the memories of walking in the Lillehammer opening ceremonies and witnessing the spectacle of a ski jumper flying 100 meters through the air while carrying a flaming torch in his grasp…

But, I have to admit I would trade that memory in a second for the silver medal those games also provided.

Is there a solution to this quandary? One solution would be to require every competing athlete to walk in the opening ceremonies in order to even the playing field. This seems unlikely, but the second solution is potentially more realistic – what if they planned the opening ceremonies two days before the first event?

I’m reminded that the Olympic motto is “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle.”

2014 Sochi Olympic Journal #5: Why the Winter Olympics are the Greatest Party on Earth

The Winter Olympics are the single best party on earth.

For 17 days, in the cold and in the dark of early winter nights, in white breaths and bright lights an environment is transformed. In this moment, anything feels possible and everyone is in a good mood. In the burgeoning crowds on the busy streets, each fragile contact with fellow humans that used to result in the withdrawal of hands and eyes instead leads to a brightening curiosity, a hand on the shoulder and the immediate question, “What are you going to watch? Who are you here for?”

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There is a sanctity in the space and in the cold. In that moment a temporary alignment of values between people of every country, politic and religion is created and held sacred. Some of the spectators are Olympic fans there for the general fanfare and love of sport, but more often there is a closer tie, a sometimes invisible thread woven deep into the fabric that enabled an athlete to be there in the first place. Parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, first coaches and one-time competitors – these cold crusaders have traipsed the globe and borne the cold in part to watch and cheer, but in truth they desire, more than anything, to share in the spirit of the competition, to feel and be seen as a part of it.

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Every where you go are people smiling, spilling out of cafes in the morning, events in the afternoon, and bars and restaurants in the evening, often until the sun comes up. No one, it seems, gets any sleep but when asked about this common topic of conversation, the answer is always the same, “just a few hours” because “I didn’t want to miss anything.” For 17 days you have permission, palapable transmitted permission, to speak to anyone and everyone does just that. This is particularly true of the athletes themselves. Using preconceived notions of the antics of professional athletes sparring with paparazzi you might expect for it to be a rare sight to see the athletes and even harder to know who they are. The reality is 99% of these athletes have toiled for a decade in complete anonymity and this is their one moment to be recognized by the world as someone special, so all throughout town you’ll see them, full team colors flying, in clusters with fans and spectators taking picture after picture – and swapping cameras each time because they too want to remember the moment.

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Each evening, in the center of all the activity, a huge pavilion and stage is lit up and the party re-starts. In a brilliant switch from tradition, awards are no longer given out in the minutes after the event as half the crowd files out and still-panting athletes bend their necks to receive their medals. Instead, the athletes are given 24 hours to ponder, to let it all sink it, to hear from friends and family, schoolmates and coaches from around the world before they step on stage to stand on the podium. Instead of an echoing half filled arena, there are now tens of thousands of fans. It is like a rock concert. It IS a rock concert – immediately on the heels of the awards presentation big name bands begin to play and the party goes on until the wee hours. Not for the medalists though, they still have one more job to do.

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Perhaps the greatest moments of the games are held behind closed doors and reserved for a select few to witness. No media, no throngs of fans, only Olympic athletes – current and past, coaches and close family are allowed in the hallowed cloisters of the USA house (or representative country house) to witness the presentation of the “Order of Ikkos.”

The athletes arrive late, flushed from all the excitement, medals still around their necks. But their miens are serious. In the past 24 hours they have been given the chance to let their success sink in. They have also been granted that same amount of time to think about all the people that helped them get there – all the sacrifices of others in order for them to have this moment. This elegant transposition takes the form of granting a medal themselves, the “Order of Ikkos” award to the one person that helped them the most. The thundering drumbeat of pride is set against the shattering humility of gratitude creating an emotional crescendo like no other. As they begin to speak, the gravity of the moment hangs thick in the air. Voices husky with emotion the halting inadequate words come and inevitably bring a waterfall of tears – from the athlete, the Ikos recipient, and every eye in the house. This is perhaps the most hallowed moment in all of sport.

Ryan Shimabakuro with his Ikos award

Ryan Shimabakuro with his Ikos award

Outside though, the concert is booming, the torch is burning and throngs of fans and family await. Sleep it seems, will have to wait.

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2014 Sochi Olympic Journal #4: Flashback 20 years – My Time With Tania Harding

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I read that 20 years ago today, Jeff Gilooly and his sidekick whacked Nancy Kerrigan on the knee as she screamed, “why me!?”

A couple of months later I was at the Olympic village in Lillehammer and new stories were breaking daily including more and greater suspicion that Tania may have had a role in the affair. I had met Nancy on a few occasions and was on friendly terms with her, but it seemed impolite to even inquire about the matter. 

The Olympic village is a safe haven with TV’s, lounges, food, and even massage and physical therapy available 24/7. After a tough workout I decided to take advantage of the massage and entered the physical therapy area which featured dozens of massage tables in pairs each set facing one TV on a cart. I stripped down into just a towel and laid face down as the therapist began working on my calves and hamstrings. I watched Eurosport coverage of skiing with a bit of glazed indifference and tried to relax. At some pont as I turned my head to the right, I noticed someone had joined me on the second table. I knew it was a girl because of two towels and a pony tail, but had no idea who it was. 

Just then two things happened. First the girl on the table next to me turned her head and I recognized the visage of none other than Tania Harding. Just as that was sinking in another thing happened – on the TV, louder commentary intruded overtop the skiing that caused a flush of embarrassment to course through my veins, “Breaking news on the Nancy Kerrigan – Tonia Harding affair – new evidence that suggests possible knowledge or even tacit approval by Tania Harding for the attack on Nancy Kerrigan.” I was mortified. For some reason I felt like a voyeur – like I had intruded into someone else’s private and embarrassing affair that had made its way into the light of day and I began to subtly turn my head the other direction. 

The movement of my head along with the announcement caught Tonia’s attention. She caught my eye and I wanted to melt into the massage table I was so embarrassed. But what she said next I’ll never forget. Even as she began to speak her eyes moved over to the right side of the TV where the remote control was – just inches from my right hand. Her eyes returned to mine with excitement and not even the remotest hint of embarrassment. She then says to me, “Turn it up!  Turn it up! – I want to hear this!”

And THAT was my time with Tania. 

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