Assessing the Legacy of the Vancouver Olympics, Examining the Modern Games

The 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics will sadly be remembered for more than the amazing athletic achievements that have been and will be accomplished during these Games.

On the day of the opening ceremonies, Georgia luger Nodar Kumaritashvili was killed during a training run. It marks the first death of an Olympic competitor since the 1992 Albertville Games, and is believed to be just the sixth death of an Olympic athlete during competition or practice since 1912.

Questions immediately arose about the safety of the luge course, in addition to the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) response that the death was based on human error. Still, Vancouver quickly implemented a plan to memorialize Kumaritashvili hours after his death during the opening ceremonies, and the Games, despite a few weather delays, have provided some memorable athletic performances.

In order to get more perspective into what the death of Kumaritashvili may mean to the legacy of the Vancouver Games, Fitness Information Technology (FiT) contacted Robert Barney, an authority of Olympic history. Barney, founder of the International Centre for Olympic Studies and professor emeritus at the University of Western Ontario, recently published an edited work with FiT titled Rethinking the Olympics: Cultural Histories of the Modern Games. Barney also recently returned from attending the Vancouver Olympics.

Q: The Vancouver Olympics got off to a somber start with the death of luger Nodar Kumaritashvili. How may that tragedy shape the way the Vancouver Olympics are remembered in the future?

Barney: “Indeed it was a somber start for Vancouver’s 2010 Olympic Winter Games. Everyone felt it, not the least of whom were Nodar’s family, his teammates, all of Georgia, VANOC (Vancouver Organizing Committee), and his fellow Olympians irrespective of what country they were from. That tragedy, in my opinion, at least in the case of Georgia and its Olympic memories, will perhaps remain as the defining moment of the Vancouver Games. But, given the extreme nationalism attached to ‘winning and losing,’ the remembrance of the 2010 Games by most nations and their Olympic fans/national citizenry will be how their own particular athletes fared, either gloriously or disappointingly. I feel sure that will be the case in the US and Canada.”

Q: The host cities of the Olympics invest years of planning, construction, and finances to play host to a three-week athletic festival but most often the end result is debt and empty, unused sporting venues for the host city after the Olympics have concluded. What changes can be made to ensure that future Olympic Games become more environmentally friendly and economically viable for the host cities?

Barney: “The most important facilities built or promised to be built as part of an Olympic Games bid for and execution of the Games are those that will greatly impact the lives of urban citizens. Thus, improvements in mass transportation, telecommunications, municipal security measures, and environmental enhancements, to name some of the major considerations, are all sound and perfectly defendable Olympic investments. But, huge sports venues whose post-Games disuse and continuing cost to maintain and operate, and which impact severely on urban financial budgets, do not make sense; in fact, they are grossly problematic. And yet, prospective bid cities ignore history—they must have them. A better approach, I think, is the plan that Chicago put forth in its unsuccessful bid for the 2016 Games. Its ‘Olympic Stadium’ was to be dismantled after the Games and all materials recycled.”

Q: In your newly edited book Rethinking the Olympics, many of the topics, such as performance enhancement, commercialism, and the politics of the Games, will most likely continue to be hot-button issues in the future. What do you hope Olympic organizers and the International Olympic Committee can glean from these historical essays that may make future Games more successful?

Barney: “This is extremely difficult to determine, given the fact that the somewhat cynical belief that ‘what we learn from history is we don’t learn from history’ continues to persist with both the IOC and Olympic Games Organizing Committees. Having said that, it might be that a return to the original and worthwhile ideals of Pierre de Coubertin for establishing the Games in the first place, as their fundamental motif for existing, remains appropriate, especially in this increasingly globalized world. Despite all, peace, tolerance, brotherhood, education, and culture remain as worthy ideals.”

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