CPD Blog: For the Fans

I wrote an essay for the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy blog for an in-depth look at my project.

via the New York Times

via the New York Times

The Olympics are never free of controversy. The competing agendas of Olympic stakeholders lead to clashes–tensions are born and re-awakened. Everything from the problematic omniscience of the International Olympic Committee and NBC’s intense focus on the United States  to the London Organizing Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games’ many bouts with disgruntled Britons  has contributed to an Olympic Games that is, per usual, a mixture of excitement and annoyance.

via ScreenRant.com

via ScreenRant.com

The most constant part of the Olympics is the fans. Not necessarily the intense sports fans; just the people who love the Olympics, who weave their enthusiasm into their everyday lives. The Games will just never want for fans because they appeal to everyone to some degree, whether casual or passionate. Even if you’re not a particular lover of sports, the opening ceremonies promise to entertain (thanks to Danny Boyle bringing in elements such as sheep and Daniel Craig as James Bond ). And perhaps a new sport will catch your eye; if not because of the novelty of a sport like synchronized swimming being showcased on an international scale, then perhaps because of spellbinding Olympic moments with athletes like Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt. Then there are the people who want to see the bliss of the Olympics in real time and come to the actual place – maybe for the first time or the fifth, but nevertheless with passion.

As a Master’s of Public Diplomacy student at the University of Southern California, these are the people that are of most interest to me. I want to see the people who want to be mired in the exhilaration of the Games. Before entering my degree program, I was already vaguely interested in the Olympics, but through my studies, specifically in cultural diplomacy, I focused my perspective on the Games as an international diplomatic event that has several combating schemas with everyone in the world potentially watching.

via the Economist

via the Economist

To take a closer look at the Olympics as a tool of cultural diplomacy, I am making a documentary focusing on the motivations and desires of these fans. I chose a documentary because of my past experience in production and to be able to tell these fans’ stories in their own words. Through them, I will also analyze the magnetic draw of the Olympics that entices broadcasterscorporate sponsors and host countries to pay billions of dollars merely to be associated with the Games, even if they do not gain from it monetarily. In terms of the visibility, the profit is enormous, even more so now that approximately one third of the world’s population is connected by the Internet; and, this Olympic Games is the most social-media fueled ever  thanks to the popularity of sites like Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.

This latter element is another part of my project – connecting with fans around the world as they gather either in London or in front of their screens through my blog and other social media. Fans connect in different ways through this media: Tumblr focuses on sharing photos (such as that of the Olympic Torch going through their respective towns); Facebook has a special page for fans to focus on athletes; national broadcasters host Q & A sessions with athletes on Twitter.

Before the Opening Ceremony, I am focusing on the various news stories surrounding the Games: the IOC’s gender regulation, ticket controversies, and the frustration of the fans at the policing of their entertainment, which can range from a restriction on using “London 2012” on anything to banning gifts to the athletes because “free” will compete with corporate sponsors. During the Games, I will go directly to London and meet with the fans – specifically at the London festival, fan-hosted events, and any areas where fans congregate, such as Olympic concerts.

For such a politicized, monetized, and overwrought event, it is inspiring to find sincere anticipation. Of course, every type of event where there are winners and losers has cynicism, but the problems feel more pronounced on an international scale. The fans may be the main audience for all these different agendas and the most irritated by the various mishaps and missteps, but they are also the ones who will be watching no matter what.

Guest Post: Can Sport Really Change The World? (Part II)

Here is Part II of Kelsey Suemnicht’s epic essay. Read Part I here.

The British band “Kinetika Bloco” performs on the Great Wall of China in 2007 to help promote the upcoming Games. / SOURCE: Apple Travel

The Arts / Cultural Diplomacy

My favorite part of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Charter is “to encourage and support initiatves blending sport with culture and education.” A slice of culture permeates through the television and into our living rooms during the opening and closing ceremonies, appointed times for the host country to display examples of its performing arts heritage. But the cultural programming surrounding any Olympics Games is best experienced in person.

There is a constant buzz of exhibits and performances that entertain fans of the Games outside of the competitions. In Salt Lake City, dance troupes from around the western United States were chosen to perform at street fairs and celebrations held in the evenings, after competitions had finished for the day. During its Games, Turin held one of Italy’s renowned White Nights or “Notte Bianca”, where a city offers free admission to all of its museums for 24 hours.

Fans walk the street during “La Notte Bianca” (or White Night) of the 2006 Turin Olympics / SOURCE: Sports Illustrated

The Olympic city showcases it’s own art but also plays host to visiting artists from around the world. The cultural diplomacy surrounding the games can be ad hoc, when visiting fans feel compelled to play their music on a street corner or it can also be organized based on significant partnerships. A connection is often forged between the current city and the next city that will host the Games. For example, the “Canada House” was given a prominent location along a main street at the Turin games, providing a forum for Canada to showcase it’s pride as the host of the 2010 Games. Some attendees wouldn’t have otherwise thought to attend the Vancouver Games if they hadn’t first experienced the preview of Canadian hospitality in Turin.

In many ways, the arts provide a stronger experience of a foreign culture in a way that is more potent than any sport could ever be. By incorporating cultural diplomacy within the games, the Olympics provides an excellent example of a well-rounded public diplomacy campaign.

Food / Culinary Diplomacy

Encompassed within the IOC’s mission is the goal of “[ensuring] the regular celebration of the Olympic Games;” this includes obtaining adequate sponsorship funds to keep the Games afloat. It’s convenient to find your favorite snack at a soccer game or to see a familiar bottle of water when you’ve hiked to your stadium seats. But, the local fare is not to be missed (and is often free, offered as a symbol of cultural exchange)!

Swiss Chef, Béda Zingg, served fondue, charcuterie and more at the Swiss House in 2010. SOURCE: Straight.com

Rumor has it, the Beijing Games ran out of refreshments to sell because they underestimated how many visiting fans would want to try their traditional foods. Wandering the streets of Salt Lake City were Hot Chocolate Ambassadors, sponsored by Nestlé, serving free cups of chocolate to fans. At the base of the mountain north of Turin, where all Ski events were held in 2006, the people of Sestriere would serve traditional dishes every evening. Sport unites fans because it’s a common experience publics can share, but what more common of an experience is there than eating?

Transaction

If the period of sustained interaction with foreign publics is only two weeks, it’s important to capitalize on opportunities for attendees to engage with each other. The element of transaction finds root in the IOC’s commitment to “take action in order to strengthen the unity and to protect the independence of the Olympic Movement.” The Olympics excels at providing forums, incentives, and methods for transaction, because it depends on appealing to the international nature and the willingness of the attendees to participate in communal events. My memory of this element occured in two forums at the Olympics I attended: the Pin Trade and “Hospitality Houses”.

The Olympic Pin Trade provide a connection between fans from around the world. Surrounding any Games, an attendee will notice fans trading different pins between each other. Some do it for fun but others come to each Olympics with serious goals to acquire pins new and old. This is an excellent forum in which transaction and exchange can occur, even without two fans needing to speak the same language.

Holland House Party, 2010 SOURCE: Vancouver Magazine

Hospitality Houses are another forum the Olympics provides for transaction between fans. Countries can set up a tent or take over a park for a chance to showcase their country’s hospitality customs. Inside each Hospitality House are many forums in which fans can interact with each other, country representatives, sponsors, and athletes. Above, the notorious Holland House is sponsored by Heineken and offered discounted drinks, lounge areas, and a live Dutch DJ mastering the ceremonies each night at the 2010 Vancouver Games. As was showcased earlier in culinary diplomacy, Switzerland used its House as a restaurant, offering gourmet traditional cuisine to any fan who could make a reservation. The next country to host the Games might offer a preview of what is to come in four years, as was the case for Canada. For the London 2012 Games, the African countries will unite to put on a Hospitality House representing an entire continent for the first time.

Transaction implemented for the goal of transformation is a useful public diplomacy tactic to create experiences that will enable more effective and thorough international relations. The foundation of effective public diplomacy is listening, the most basic transaction. All diplomacy should strive to be transactional in order to establish a trusting international relationship. Harvard University Professor Joeseph Nye discusses transactional and tranformational power in his book, The Powers To Lead:

 “Transformational leaders… use conflict and crisis to raise their followers’ consciousness and transform them. [They] mobilize power for change by appealing to their followers’ higher ideals and moral values…. Transactional leaders rely on various individual interests. [They] create concrete incentives to influence followers’ efforts and set out rules that relate work to rewards” (62-63).

When we view the Olympics as a public diplomacy event, transformation is the goal, similar to the principal goal for foreign exchange programs between universities of different countries. Transformational experiences in regards to a foreign public give citizens concrete experiences as evidence for changing their mind against conflicts with that foreign public. Critical transactions work towards achieving the goal of transformation.

With the Olympics offering an opportunity to employ such productive public diplomacy tactics, could this experience be replicated elsewhere? Or does it only work every two years, because it is such a rare experience? Do to the Olympics capitalize on the experience enough to reap the benefits of such a strong public diplomacy event?

The Olympics prove that publics are willing to interact and connect, but that they need to be provided with the forums in which to do so. I challenge you to seek out the Olympic Experience for yourself; to discover if it may change you or, better yet, inspire you to change the world.

Guest Post: Can Sport Really Change The World? (Part I)

Here is the latest guest post from my Master’s of Public Diplomacy peers — this time from Kelsey Suemnicht, whose in-depth analysis needed to be split in two for your reading pleasure!

The Olympics is an event that makes international relations feel easy and fun. Considering the Olympic Games as an example of a large-scale public diplomacy campaign, I highlight five themes that support its efforts as a catalyst in cross-cultural relations: individual empowerment, regionalism, art, food, and transaction. In the realm of diplomacy, the Olympic dream represents the hope that sport is truly capable of changing the world; the direct influence upon, engagement of, and interaction between fans surrounding the competitions is evidence that it can.

The Olympic rings lit up on the Tower Bridge

The Olympic rings lit up on the Tower Bridge (via Mirror UK)

As David Mandel explained in his post, “Pride and Prejudice 2012,” hosting an Olympic games signifies a proud moment for any city, region, country, population. The strength of any Games comes from the support of the local community and the experiences of attendees within those communities, which I feel is rarely captured on television. It is the experiences in forums on site that exemplify basic public diplomacy and where the cross-cultural relations that support the spirit of the Games most often occur.

My Olympic experience took place in two locations that are significant to my own narrative. My cousins’ hometown of Park City was headquarters for all ski and snowboard events for the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. It was an influential experience to act as the host country and to watch the best atheletes in the world ski the same runs on which I had learned how to crash and fly as a child. The 2006 Torino games coincided with my junior year of college when I chose to study political science and the Italian language abroad in Bologna and Rome. The opportunity to view the Olympics through the eyes of a new culture was a fundamental experience in my pursuit of public diplomacy as a career.

When we tune in to the Olympics on television, we’re privvy to exclusive interviews, sweeping photography of the host city, and the back-to-back coverage of fast-paced competitions. But the constantly-promoted “Olympic Spirit” can be accessed at its crux in the midst of the Games as an attendee. What happens off-camera, on your way to the stadium, as one leaves an arena, and in the outer-lying towns? The essence of public diplomacy.

Jesse Owens, 1935

Jesse Owens, 1935

Individual Empowerment / Citizen Diplomacy

Individual empowerment is a cornerstone of the Olympic Charter: ”The role of the International Olympic Committee is to act against any form of discrimination,…[implement] equality between women and men,…and to provide for the social and professional futures of athletes.” The Olympics provides citizens an opportunity to participate as diplomatic actors on behalf of their home countries. The most visible example of this theme is celebrity diplomats. A legendary athlete can change a sport simply by being themselves, exhibited by the examples of Jesse OwensBonnie Blair, and Wayne Gretzky. A famous athlete can also influence the image of their home country as do Usain BoltMario Balotelli, or Michelle Kwan.

My Mom and I experienced a more-nuanced form of citizen diplomacy at the first Ski Jumping competition in Park City, Utah. As citizens of the host country for the 2002 Games, we decided to take it upon ourselves to cheer for any international athletes that didn’t seem to have a fan base. Our favorite immediately became the least supported athlete, a Ski-Jumper from Kazakhstan. We yelled our hearts out to cheer him on, not wanting him to feel homesick or unsupported. I will always harbor good feelings for people from Kazakhstan because I recall the bravery that athlete embraced, to show up to compete even though Ski Jumping was a lesser-known sport and his family could not afford to accompany him. This was an athlete that would not be featured on television and would probably not even place within the top ten. His courage reminded me that sport transcends national identities and recalls the common bonds we share as humans.

In Turin, my Dad and I found ourselves with tickets to a Curling match. We had no idea how to cheer for the sport but we decided to attend in an effort to uphold the Olympic Spirit. I still do not know the rules of Curling but we departed with a wonderful notion of how to tell Nordic vs. Scandinavian flags from each other, given to us by acquaintances made in the stands. By the end of the event, we also had the Swedish national anthem, “Du gamla, Du fria”, memorized thanks to our new friends, seven of Sweden’s most passionate Curling fans. For fans of the Olympics, sometimes the Games don’t matter as much as the lasting friendships made and the new knowledge gained.

Flag Country Governance Capital Population
Official Scandinavian countries
demark flag Denmark Kingdom Copenhagen 5,519,287
norway flag Norway Independence 1905 Oslo 4,836,183
sweden flag Sweden Kingdom Stockholm 9,336,487
The additional Nordic nations
finland flag Finland Independence 1917 Helsinki 5,349,829
iceland flag Iceland Independence 1944* Reykjavík 319,756
Nordic autonomous regions
faroe islands flags Faroe Islands Self-governance 1948 Tórshavn 49,006
greenland flag Greenland Self-governance 1979 Nuuk 57,600
åland flag Åland Islands Autonomous province 1920* Mariehamn 27,456

(via Lost in Stockholm)

Regionalism

The Olympics is an event that inspires many individuals to unite in a common quest for excellence in sportmanship and teamwork. One fascinating concept I experienced as a fan and attendee of two games is the emergence of regional identities. The IOC seeks to upholds this element in its mission “to cooperate…in the endeavour to place sport at the service of humanity and thereby to promote peace.”

via BBC

I will never forget the friendly Canadian I asked for directions in Turin who, when I thanked him, he replied, “always happy to help a fellow North American!” When I would meet a fan from Mexico, I would exclaim, “oh! I’m from California,” because it felt as if I was meeting a long-lost cousin. When you’re across the world from home, at a global event, it’s not uncommon to strike up bonds with your neighbors that you wouldn’t have previously considered in a different context.  As American University Professor Robert Pastor promotes in his book The North American Idea, “transnational problems cannot be solved unilaterally… The opening of each country to each other and the world represents an enhancement of rights not their restriction. Sometimes sovereignty can be defended better by eliminating barriers and not raising them, by working closely with each other not by distancing ourselves” (6-14).

The opportunity that the Olympics presents for regionalism to influence global affairs, and for public diplomacy to promote it should not be taken lightly.

Read Part II of Kelsey’s piece here.

Guest Post: What’s More Important Than Olympic Gold?

This is another great guest post by another one of my sharp Master’s of Public Diplomacy peers, Denise Luu.

Let me start by saying that I am not much of a blogger, but my dear friend, Sulagna, insisted that I give it a try. To her, I give my sincerest thanks. I heart you, girl!

I came across this article one day when I should really be working. But, my excitement for the Olympics urged me to read on. (At the moment, anything that involves international sports makes me antsy.)

Li Pun Hui

AP Photo: North Korean Li Pun Hui speaks to media at the Taedonggong Cultural Center for the Disabled in Pyongyang, North Korea

The title of the article, “Ex-NKorean star recalls ‘ping pong diplomacy’”, immediately caught my attention. Not only because it had the word “diplomacy”, but because I hate ping-pong. That topic, however, is for another day. Today, I want to talk about how sports brought two women from rival countries together.

Hyun Jung-Hwa of South Korea and Li Bun-Hui of North Korea were bitter rivals up until they were brought together as part of the first “unified Korea” team for the 1991 World Table Tennis Championships. These women spent 50 days training together, living together, and eating together. They also shared stories with one another.

Ping Pong Diplomacy

Li (Left) and Hyun (Right) playing some serious ping-pong and rocking the hell out of those uniforms.

In the end, they were unable to win the gold medal. Though, they did not leave empty-handed. They walked away from the experience with not only a new understanding of each other; they walked away with a friendship that would endure, even after 21 years of no contact.

Chiba 1991

AP Photo: In this April 30, 1991 photo, South Korea’s Hyun Jung-hwa, left, and North Korea’s Li Pun Hui, Koreas’ first-ever unified team, wave while holding their winning trophy after they defeated China at a world table tennis championships competition in Chiba, Japan.

21 years and both women still talk about each other as if it were just yesterday when they last spoke. It is stories like this that reminds me of the importance of the Olympic Games. It reminds me that it is not just here for entertainment; it is here as an opportunity for mutual understanding, as a time to confront prejudices, as a chance for friendships. It shows the importance of working as a team and the importance of respecting one another. Remembering that, at the end of day, we are all the same; we are all human.

Hyun Jung-Hwa and Li Bun-Hui do not know when they will see each other again as relations between the North and the South has been strained in recent years. But, what they do know is that the memories that they had together will never be forgotten and the friendship that they have will never change.

When you watch the Olympics this year, it is my hope that you remember Hyun and Li’s story, that you remember the real reason for the Games. That the bond of friendship is worth more than any Olympic gold.

We Support the Olympics (So You Should Buy Our Stuff!!)

Olympic Sponsors

Olympic Sponsors

I don’t have cable during the school year, so I have been taking advantage of having it this summer by having the T.V. on constantly. No, I’m serious—it’s on right now. This means that I have been bombarded with Olympics-themed commercials. The companies that put out these commercials have been supporting the USOC for decades in some cases, and Tide, MasterCard, McDonalds, et al are a big part of the reason there are three state-of-the-art training centers here and so many American athletes heading to London in a few weeks. So why not put up an advertising campaign highlighting your role in the biggest sports event of the year? Here are a few of my favorites!

Okay, so I couldn’t pick one of the Visa Go World commercials because I love them all. First, props to Visa for celebrating ALL athletes—that makes me really happy! Second, you really have to work at messing up a campaign that uses Morgan Freemans’ voice. It’s also really clever how each commercial is in shades of gold. There is an entire Visa Go Olympics YouTube channel (Visa Global Cheer) with all of the commercials.

Visa-Cheer-Facebook-app

Visa Cheer Facebook app

I would recommend watching Lopez Lomong’s commercial, it is pure genius how they packed so much emotion into 30 seconds. The team behind this campaign (which is a whole social media event, complete with a Twitter hashtag #GoWorld) deserves a medal of their own. It even makes me feel a little better about the balance on my Visa credit card. Well, not really… but, you know.

Okay, who doesn’t love commercials that highlight not the athletes but their moms? It’s sweet. After a little YouTube hopping, I realized this was a trend for P&G, because they put out a similar set of commercials for the Winter 2010 Olympics. Oh, and also… emphasis on world and not USA once again!

And speaking of P&G, Tide (which falls under their umbrella) has a commercial with a catchy little line “in the Olympic Games, it’s not the color you go home with that matters, it’s the colors you came in.” I doubt Tide has much issue with where Team USA’s uniforms come from, so long as those uniforms are being washed with its detergent!

There are hundreds of other examples out there, such as Cover Girl’s Olympic commercials that highlights the women of Team USA (in their new Olmypics makeup line). There are plenty that are incredibly nationalistic (NBC’s comes to mind). Let us know your favorite/least favorite/if you think I should stop watching so much T.V.

And now that I have blatantly promoted these companies, I expect some sort of compensation. Or a free ticket to an event (gymnastics?!?) at the very least. Before your judge me, I challenge you to watch these and not feel the tiniest bit moved.

Guest Post: Pride and Prejudice 2012

This guest post was written by my extremely clever friend, fellow Olympics fan and USC Master’s of Public Diplomacy student David Mandel.

I’ll have you know this is difficult to write. I wanted to be objective; I wanted to stay above the pride and just give you some impersonal, easy-to-digest material about Olympic cities. Clearly, that’s not going to happen.

Maybe I should start again.

The 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin was a pretty uneventful occasion. I think the most salient take-away for most foreign fans was that ‘Turin’ and ‘Torino’ is the same place. Still, I have the most vivid memory of watching those games, and more intensely, watching the majestic crane and swoop shots of the picturesque city that buttressed all the coverage. I thought, wow, what a thing for all the world to be shown that beautiful place in such a remarkable way.

The Closing Ceremonies for the 2006 Turin Olympics

The Closing Ceremonies for the 2006 Turin Olympics

I had always loved the Olympics: the pageantry, the meaning, the sheer force of the Olympics’ exertion upon my cultural landscape created in my impressionable mind a sense that the Olympics were the ultimate occasion.

It was then, in the aftermath of Turin, that my rather innocent infatuation with the Olympics became something decidedly more intoxicating. I thought: perhaps in the near future my two great loves, the Olympics and my home city of Chicago, might be united and provide me a televisual self-love nirvana for a few weeks in 2016.

The applicant city logos for the 2016 Olympics

The applicant city logos for the 2016 Olympics

I think I might have predated the official Chicago 2016 bid by a couple of months.

Following the bid became an obsession for me; I tried every summer to find a job working for them and proselytized to every (non)interested person who would listen about the greatness of Chicago and all the reasons it would be the host city. I fantasized about the breathless descriptions of Chicago’s beauty, about the hometown president saluting his city, about the “Paris on the Prairie” reclaiming its 1893 reputation as the exemplar of urban excellence.

When, one October morning, I updated my browser page in the middle of Econ 2a, I found that Chicago had been eliminated in the first round of voting. Just like that.

Chicago Olympics 2016, eliminated on Friday, Oct. 2, 2009 (AP Photo)

Chicago Olympics 2016, eliminated on Friday, Oct. 2, 2009 (AP Photo)

I was crushed; more upset than any grown man should admit to about such an esoteric thing. My years of unhealthy devotion to the cause had ended in sudden betrayal. ‘Rio 2016’ stung in my ears. For two years I avoided coverage of the Olympics, still too angry—jealous—to confront my former mistress. Although, I gleefully read all of the journalistic worrying about Rio’s capabilities, prejudiced as I was to root against the place.

Now, in the incipience of London 2012, I have to move on. I cannot hold my grudge against London, a favorite city of mine and the most deserving place to become the first three-time Olympic host.

Rio 2016, a name which still invokes from me some pangs of disappointment, is a different matter. Unlike London, Rio 2016 is a coming-out party for Brazil. Like Mexico City, Tokyo, Seoul, Barcelona and Beijing before it, Rio 2016 is recognition—an opportunity for a rising power to solidify its stance among the community of nations. If my home-town pride is strong enough to cause my embarrassing reaction, imagine the feelings of cariocas and other Brazilians as they prepare to introduce themselves to the world.

All of this begins to explain some of the fanatical attitudes towards the Olympics. Not all fans care about place in the way I do. Most may not even think about the tremendous advantages hosting a successful games can bring. But, it is impossible to be a fan of the Olympics and divorce yourself from pride, whether for your country, your city or your favorite athlete.

Still, I will watch the games this summer. And read about them before. Hey, I even managed to write about them a little bit. I will accept all of the televisual accoutrements and all the breathless fawning. I will try to put my fandom over my pride, even if I sometimes fail.

I recently heard there’s a new movement to bring the games to Chicago in 2024. A recently signed contract between the USOC and the IOC resolved the tension that was the source of the 2016 snub. I may have been fooled once but my love of both home and the Olympics is foolish; so I’ll know whom to blame if fooled again.

Guest Post: My First Olympic Experience

Here is another guest post! This time by Shaun Bechtold of GuojiSport, who is covering the Olympics live in London. He will be posting daily on his Facebook group page and his personal blog.

The 1988 Olympic Torch

The 1988 Olympic Torch

Here we go again, less than 2 weeks to go before the games, and I once again pack for the long flight across the Atlantic. This is a special games for me on a couple of levels. First with having a national identity, my own flag to wave. The second, this will be my first Olympic jorney as a member of the press.  All in all, my 9th (yes, I have been to 8) Olympic Games. Those are stories in itself, and something for another time, today I give you my first true Olympic experience.

It was February, 1988. A windy, bitter evening in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. A town about a 3 hour drive south of Calgary, the host city of the XV Winter Olympiad. The games were weeks away, as they are now, and the torch was on the final legs of its journey towards “Cowtown” as Calgary is known. This would be the second games Canada would host. The first in Montreal in 1976, the summer games that would prove to be a financial disaster, and embarrassing, as Canada would fail to win gold on home soil.  Would the maple leaf fly high this time?

I’m getting off subject, back to that night. I was 7 years old. My mother told me to get in the car, we were going to see “the torch.” I had no idea what she was talking about. At that age, I was still new to the general realm of sports, let alone the magnitude of the games. We got in the car, and off we went, to the downtown core. We park about 3 blocks from 3rd Avenue South, the street of the relay, and walk in this cold, miserable Canadian weather to an empty street packed 5 deep with people, excited beyond belief.

Why? I had no idea. A load of people lining the street, for a couple hours it seemed. Waiting, waiting. “Mom, what are we waiting for?” I ask. “The torch,” my mom told me. That was all she said.  Not long after, I look East, and I see the crowd start to light. My mom hands me a large white candle with a red cup just under the wick. She lights it. I look up, and see everyone did the same. Candlelit streets as far as I could see.

Then there was noise. Crowds cheering, and it was getting louder. Police sirens, car corns.

Then I see them, a convoy of vehicles, lights flashing, and the crowd going nuts, flag waving, everything.  It was almost a blur. I am trying to take it all in, comprehend what’s going on. Then I look into the street.

There it is. The Olympic Torch. Shaped like the Calgary Tower, and like the candle I was holding. A man was walking with the torch, someone holding each arm. Whoever was carrying the torch was blind. The only visual memory I had after seeing all that was that flame, it looked huge. Immense to my young eyes, and all I could think was, what is this about, and how do I get in on this?

A few days later, I’m in elementary, Grade 2, and the teachers were giving special presentations about what would take place in Calgary. We were given spectator guides & posters (which I still have). That night I remember just sitting in my bedroom staring at this poster, taking everything that happened in the last couple of days. My dad comes into the room and asks me what I think of all this. I tell him I want to know more. He gives me an envelope, and in it: Tickets. Tickets to THE OLYMPIC GAMES.

Even though they were another Canadian embarrassment, no Gold, there were still stories. Elizabeth Manley and her surprise silver in Figure Skating. Matti Nykanen winning 3 gold in Ski Jumping.  Alberto Tomba tearing the ski hills. Brian Boitano & Brian Orser dueling on skates. A ski jumper sent into a camera tower when chinook winds blew through the city, almost cancelling events with the weather.  Hockey, and Canada’ national passion was taking over people’s lives. Curling, Freestlye Skiing, & Short Track speed Skiing were demonstration events.

All that, and for the first time I could say, “I was there.” The people I met, the things I saw, the memories.  I even caught a puck at a hockey game, still got that too. It’s amazing what not just the Olympics, but sports in general do to people. These games would have a profound impact on my life to come, and I’ll tell you more in my next piece.

Every Participating Country in the Olympics Is Entering Women This Year

The past six months, all eyes have been on Saudi Arabia on whether or not they will enter women in the Games as part of their National Olympic Committee.

And I’ve been trying to write this story every week since May, but the answer keeps changing.

From the HRW website

In February, Human Rights Watch condemned Saudi Arabia publicly and called out the IOC in an extensive report called “Steps of the Devil: Denial of Women’s and Girls’ Rights to Sport in Saudi Arabia.”

In a press release:

“‘No women allowed,’ is the kingdom’s message to Saudi women and girls who want to play sports,” said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The fact that women and girls cannot train to compete clearly violates the Olympic Charter’s pledge to equality and gives the Olympic movement itself a black eye.”

The International Olympic Committee demurred, stating they don’t issue “ultimatums,” even though they have done so before with a ban on South Africa entering the Games until the end of apartheid. In March, however, the possibility of Saudi Arabia bringing in female athletes looked promising. Then in April, they weren’t. In June, things looked good once more, with an actual woman in mind — show-jumper Dalma Rushdi Malhas!

Dalma Rushdi Malhas

This is amazing.

Then last week, a female delegation from Saudi Arabia was “not guaranteed.”

On Monday, Malhas has become unable to compete thanks to injury to her horse, and no other women qualified to compete.

BUT YESTERDAY WAS DIFFERENT. Because finally, Saudi Arabia announced it would send two female athletes to London.

Sarah Attar, who will run in the 800-meter race.

So, the answer at this very moment is yes! Hooray! But there are two weeks until the opening ceremonies. The promise of Saudi women competing won’t be fulfilled until we see them on the field ourselves.

According to the IOC, this decision came after months of ongoing dialogue. Saudi Arabia is not the only country who is entering women in the Olympics for the first time.

Qatar’s Noor Al-Maliki via the Guardian

Qatar was easily convinced as they plan to bid for the 2024 Olympics (having failed to get the 2020 Olympics) and Brunei was not even able to send a delegation in 2008, so added a woman to their delegation this time with their list of qualifying athletes. Despite the fact that she would not qualify under normal standards, the IOC included her because the Olympic Charter dictates that “National Olympic Committees have the possibility of entering unqualified athletes in athletics and swimming should they not have athletes qualified in these sports.”

While the IOC’s ambiguity on the subject was definitely frustrating, Saudi Arabia’s back-and-forth in the face of international criticism was even more egregious. However, I believe that Saudi Arabia’s wavering on this has shown two things: first, that the government is holding tight to their values of restricting women’s rights, but also — also! That those values can be challenged if they are put under an international microscope like the Olympic Games.

What does this mean for the fans? Well, I feel that any sports where these three delegations are entered in are going to imbued with political justice. They’ll be the underdogs in their sport, but rooting for them will be even sweeter thanks to the political ideals they represent, and no matter how they do, they will be highly respected for it. That also means that the national broadcasters will (hopefully) see this crazy amazing thing for what it is, and hold on to that news narrative throughout the Games — women’s track and field will be an especially exciting no-more-than-15 seconds.

The “First” “Social Olympics”

This year is the “Social Olympics.” No, it doesn’t mean the Olympic athletes suddenly get together and act like college students as they get to know each other in their dorm-like habitats. They already do something of the sort already. And in years past, the Olympics has been social, to a certain extent — Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr were all invented before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. However, a lot has changed with social media in that time. We are more connected than ever, as shown in these infographics comparing past Olympics:

And all that is change is being utilized to the point that the already ubiquitous Olympics will become inescapable:

Many more people now have smartphones, so they can react immediately to something they have seen in a stadium, arena, court, pool, ring or velodrome. Clearly the London Games will be tweeted, tagged, liked, blogged, mashed and rehashed like no previous Olympics.

The BBC is a following a strategy in particular that will keep you glued to a screen during all times of the day:

“One, ten, four” was introduced in early 2011 to simplify and bring greater discipline to the BBC’s online strategy which, in preceding years, had seen the organization develop 400 different web sites. Its aim was to deliver “connected storytelling” through the delivery of one service (the BBC) with ten products (including TV, News, Weather and Sport) across four screens–mobile, tablets, PCs and connected TVs.

Facebook is working with the IOC to expand their social media outreach, because you really can’t ignore Facebook, especially since they’ve added 800 million people to the site since the last Summer Olympics in 2008. They have a special page collecting all Olympic “footage” that covers everything from specific Olympic pages to athletes’ updates.  NBC is also pairing up with Facebook so your friends will know what you are watching (even if they really don’t care). And the Washington Post is using the Socialcam app to create “London Eyes” all over the Olympic Games through their reporters and specific fan uploaded content as well.

Of course, in creating this project, I did a lot of outreach with Tumblr and blogs and Twitter, trying to find fans all around. With Twitter and Goole Hangout, I also found NBC reaching out to fans with specially allotted times with the athletes, like their #AskMegan initiative a couple weeks ago with Megan Rapinoe from the US Women’s Soccer Team.

Of course, the main reason this is the “first” social Olympics is the restrictions and guidelines put in place with social media in mind.

All this sharing and connecting has also created some new headaches. There is grumbling, for instance, about the restrictions that the organizers of the Games have imposed on this most freewheeling of media formats.

Local Olympic organizing committees always go to great lengths to protect sponsors, who sometimes shell out hundreds of millions of dollars to associate their brands with the Games, from so-called ambush marketing by companies that try to get free rides. Sometimes, as in the case of the London Games, special legislation is enacted.

This time, the guidelines include provisions for social media, detailing what marketers may and may not do. Among the banned actions are the use of certain word combinations in social media content: Nonsponsors have been warned not to try putting, say, “twenty-twelve” and “gold” in the same tweet.

Athletes and spectators face restrictions, too. Neither will be permitted to post video footage of sporting events to online forums. Participants are allowed to post on blogs or Twitter, but the postings must be in a “first-person, diary-type format and should not be in the role of a journalist,” the guidelines state.

“They must not report on competition or comment on the activities of other participants or accredited persons, or disclose any information which is confidential or private in relation to any other person or organization,” the rules say.

Olympic Tickets: Fraught With Controversy and, Well, Fraud

Of course God has an iPhone

Of course God has an iPhone.

Now, I don’t have tickets to the Olympics. I have no opinion on this, except to say that it is endlessly tiring to watch sports in real time when you are a short person (which I am). I mean, sometimes you’ll want to just sit down because your body is aching from trying to stretch your shortness to see over the 6 foot guy in front of you, but then when you do sit down everyone starts screaming over something they can see and you pop up again to look but then you remember you can’t actually see anything.

Wait, what was I discussing? Oh right: tickets.

Tumblr is filled with pictures of tickets from happy would-be spectators.

Olympic Tickets!

A lot of people on Tumblr use Instagram.

However, the problem with the tickets is that LOCOG decided to play hard to get. According to James Pearce at the BBC in May, the tickets are in danger of not being sold out.

Last year there were an astonishing 22 million applications in the first round ballot for the 6.6 million tickets available to the British public….

Fast forward a year and the story is very different.

Basically, after holding on to several rounds of tickets, almost a million tickets remained unsold two months before the Games. This decline in excitement could be a number of reasons: it’s too late to book a hotel, the prices are too high, etc. Fellow Fan Olly Offord spoke about his personal frustrations with the ticket process:

Weren’t we told that all sessions were oversubscribed a year ago? Why has the system put so many people off. Only 150,000 of the 1.2million people disappointed in the first round bothered to try again. That is some serious disaffection.

…My problem on Wednesday, when the tickets went back on sale, was the waiting and the system which allowed you to put tickets in your basket that no longer existed, and it’s only 30mins later that they tell you that deflating fact.

The other reason was the price. I’ve tried to enter into a few European ticket releases, but have had to stop dead when I see what they want to charge.

The most oversubscribed event in the initial ballot was … the Men’s 100m, duh. But there are still tickets available for the one event that is likely to grip the whole nation. Who doesn’t want to go? The only snag, they cost £4,500 a pop.

With that kind of exclusivity, is it any wonder that most people are starting to distrust that this is an Olympics we can all get involved in?

Then yesterday the LOCOG decided to really annoy British fans by having the tickets “distributed on an internal sales system to sponsors.” Though they promised 75% of the leftover tickets would eventually go to fans.

Hearing this news, the BBC asked fans who they thought deserved the tickets:

“I think it is fair that the sponsors were given tickets because without them the London Olympics wouldn’t be as good. However, I think the majority of tickets should be sold to the public and a small number to the sponsoring companies.”

Sasha, Swansea, Wales

“I think unsold tickets should go to soldiers who have come back from places like Iran as they deserve it the most not companies.”

Leah, Southampton, England

“I think I should have one because I have tried millions of times.”

Bob, Shropshire, England

“I think that they should donate some to orphans and homeless children who would love to go because they would never be able to afford them!”

Penelope, Blackburn, England

“I think people who give their lives to sport should get ticket and half price.”

Lara, Ireland

“I think the Olympic tickets should be given to the Beavers/Brownies/Cubs and the Girl Guides. Other countries have their children involved in major sporting events and I think we should also be given this opportunity.”

Alice, Bedfordshire, England

“I think that they should go to the Queen and she should select as many tickets that are left and give them to members of the public that have done something good or have been through hard times.”

Angelia, Northamptonshire, England

Add this to the scandal of tickets being resold on the black market by national committees! Which, even though the British public is expected to get all its tickets and the IOC and LOCOG are not at fault, is still really frustrating for the people who were hoping to watch the Games:

Many of those who have struggled to secure tickets for the biggest events and already feel ill disposed towards what they see as preferential treatment for sponsors and blazers will see this as yet more evidence for the prosecution.

The timing is less than ideal for London organisers, just as they were hoping to capitalise on the groundswell of goodwill created across the country by the torch relay and the looming excitement of the sporting spectacle. They hoped that growing buzz would translate into an acceleration in sales for almost 2m remaining tickets for football and high-priced options for less popular sports and drown out complaints over sponsors, Games lanes and selection controversies.