Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Olympics, and President Obama’s Trip to Copenhagen; A Different Side of Woody Hayes

The International Olympic Committee will decide on Friday the host city for the 2016 Summer Olympics. The vote will take place in Copenhagen and President Obama is flying there to lobby on behalf of Chicago's bid. Most people believe that Rio De Janeiro is the favorite to get the bid trailed by Chicago, Tokyo and Madrid.

Amazingly, there has actually been criticism of the President's trip. Republicans, many of whom would criticize this president for wearing a gray suit rather than a blue one and claim it was part of some conspiracy, are saying he's leaving the country in the lurch, flying off on a lobbying mission that is un-important given all that is going on in the country and in the world.

Sure, that's true. There are no phones on Air Force 1, there's no technology, no way for him to stay in touch with Washington while he's away for less than 48 hours. When Democrats joked about how much vacation President Bush took, his defenders pointed out (correctly) that the ranch in Crawford had everything he needed to stay in touch with the goings on in the world. Maybe Obama doesn't know how to text.

Democrats, on the other hand, are concerned that it will be a blow to the president's image if Rio or one of the other cities, gets the bid over Chicago. Their theory is that if Obama flies to Copenhagen and comes away empty-handed it will somehow make him look weak. Oh please. To begin with, Rio is a sentimental favorite because there has never been an Olympics in South America and because getting the Games is seen as a way to revive the city and the country's flagging economy. More of the voting delegates probably know Pele than President Obama and Pele is there representing Rio.

What's more, failure is part of being president--especially in anything that involves other countries and other governments. Before he leaves the White House Obama is going to have to put himself on the line in situations far more important than this one and there will be times when he will fail. Anyone who has taken eighth grade social studies can tell you this so for Democrats to get tied up in knots at the thought that he will make a pitch for the Olympic Games and fail is just ridiculous.

Beyond that is this simple fact: Getting the Olympics is a good thing. It is certainly a good thing economically even if the up-front costs are huge. It is impossible to know how much money corporate America will pitch in come 2016 but for an Olympics in the U.S. it will probably be plenty. The long term affects are perhaps what's most important. Lake Placid (1980); Los Angeles (1984) and Atlanta (1996) still benefit to this day in ways tangible and intangible from being Olympic hosts.

It is also good for the psyche of any country to host the Olympics. Sure, the IOC is among the most corrupt organizations on earth and the corporate influx--started in Los Angeles by Peter Ueberroth--frequently gives the Games a NASCAR/PGA Tour feel. You sometimes think all that matters is where the corporate logos are places or how many endorsements--rather than medals--the athletes can ring up.

And yet, there's still nothing quite like the Olympics. Nothing in my lifetime completely mesmerized the country like the performance of the hockey team in Lake Placid. One of my most vivid personal memories was being in Anaheim in 1984 when Jeff Blatnick came back from cancer and won the super heavyweight gold medal in Greco Roman wrestling. Because I was one of only two American writers in the building that night, Butch Henry, the one-time Arizona SID who was in charge of the venue, sneaked me backstage to talk to Blatnick's parents while he was being drug-tested. When Blatnick walked out of the drug-testing room he went straight to his mother, took the gold medal off and put it around her neck. I still get shivers just thinking about it.

Every Olympics produces indelible moments. Beijing was Michael Phelps AND Jason Lezak's mind-boggling comeback on the anchor leg of the 400 freestyle relay. The list goes on. The old saying that only the athletes save the Olympics is true and without fail they do save them. Look, I get fired up about speedskating (now there's a book I would love to have the chance to do) and I still remember when a bobsledder named Brian Shimer won a bronze medal in his fourth and final Olympic games. Only the Olympics can make most of us care about bobsledding and Nordic skiing.

That's why the president is doing the right thing by taking a couple of days to go to Copenhagen to lobby. I saw a quote from Dick Pound, who has been on the Olympic committee forever, saying that the main reason London ended up beating Paris out for the 2012 games was that British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife flew to Singapore to lobby just prior to the vote the way Obama is doing now. What if Chicago ended up JUST losing to Rio and Obama hadn't gone? How would he have felt if that happened? I can hear Rush Limbaugh now: "The man could have brought millions--no BILLIONS--to this country in economic stimulus and he was too lazy to get on a plane and fly to Copenhagen..."

Of course his presence guarantees nothing. But, regardless of how the vote comes out, he did the right thing by getting on the plane and going. It isn't as if he's going to have to take his shoes off going through security to get to Copenhagen. And the White Sox are out of the playoffs so there's no reason for him to hang around right now.


People came up with some very good names when I asked yesterday about great athletes or coaches who are remembered for one infamous moment: I remember watching Steve Smith score into his own goal in the seventh game of the Edmonton-Calgary series in 1986 to cost the Oilers a third straight Stanley Cup. He went on to be a multi-year All-Star and won three Stanley Cups. Jim Marshall, a superb defensive lineman and one of the Minnesota Vikings Purple People Eaters ran the wrong way for a touchdown and is seen on replays to this day making that play. And Woody Hayes, one of the all-time great coaches, ended his career when he punched Clemson's Charlie Bauman after Bauman had made a game-clinching interception at the end of the 1978 Gator Bowl. Hayes's ending was so sad that when I was working on "A Season on the Brink," friends of Bob Knight often expressed concern to me that Knight would have a "Woody Hayes," ending. Of course, in a sense he did, getting fired by Indiana for grabbing a student who had the temerity to say, "what's up Knight?" as he walked by him.

Two interesting side notes to that: The kid in question, whose name I can't remember, ended up transferring to--of all places--Purdue. And, the last time I saw Woody Hayes was when during the season I spent with Knight. Knight and Hayes were very close dating to Knight's days at Ohio State. By 1986 Hayes was sick and in a wheelchair. After Indiana won at Ohio State that year, Hayes came into the locker room and Knight introduced him to the players. After he had spoken briefly to them, each player came up to shake hands and introduce themselves. After they had all left, Hayes pulled Knight down close to him and said, "Don't ever forget to love them Bobby." Talk about seeing a side of someone you would never expect to see. He died a little more than a year late


Anonymous said...

Mr. Feinstein, you are no doubt one of the finest writers of our time and I highly respect your work but STOP playing politics. You manage to bring that subject up every time you write. Look, I am a Republican and I respect the Democrats and I believe everyone is allowed to have their own opinion but stop hitting us over the head with your views. This is why I love sports; no one cares if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. I understand this is a very touch subject but for the sake of your readers.....STOP! Thank you, Guy

Bill- said...

Mr Anonymous - the topic of the day is the Olympics. The Olympics are about the most political sporting event of our time. To not discuss it would do it a dis-service. Maybe he could have pinpointed down into the Chicago political scene, where it is very much divided, instead of the national and international view. But all in all, a pretty tame angle anyways.

Anonymous said...

Feinstein seems to navigate his way thru the Republican dominated PGA Tour ok without rankling too many feathers. So,take a deep breath, Anonymous#1, and/or avoid the blog the days the posts are not to your liking. I happen to share his political views and ask for more, but only as it relates to sports topics as it did today. Sammy

Iain said...

Every study I've ever seen reported indicates that the Olympics do not help the economies of the host city.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous #1:

JF will agree to stop making political comments when rethugs stop making ridiculous charges vs. Obama. In other words, never.

Anonymous said...


George Solomon tells a funny story about "seeing another side of Woody". After an OSU loss, Woody would meet the reporters in the nude.

I asked Mike Rosenberg about this, but he was not aware of it. Maybe he's recently updated his book about Woody and Bo.