What A Difference Seven Years Can Make

Seven years ago, PyeongChang and Munich (and to a lesser degree, sorry, Annecy) were in a pitched battle to win the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.

It was a heated race in some aspects, but also one tempered by an aura of friendship and respect. It had none of the nastiness or pettiness that began to creep into latter Olympic bid campaigns.

I do recall (I worked for PyeongChang) it being a challenging campaign to work on. We were the underdogs…a long shot. At the beginning, I wondered, more than once, if the Koreans had learned anything from their two consecutive losses in the 2010 (to Vancouver) and 2014 (to Sochi) Winter Games campaigns.

It turns out they did learn a lot and adjusted course and strategy for 2018. You can read about that campaign here. But that’s not what this post is about.

This post is about how the Olympic spirit really works.

I’m headed over to PyeongChang in a week or so for the last half of the Games. I can’t wait to see what it looks like now after all these years. I have many friends there already, and everyone is writing to me, raving about the quality of the venues and the genuine hospitality of the Korean people. I hate to say, "we told you so..."

What is interesting to me now is looking at the smiling, happy photos of IOC President Thomas Bach in PyeongChang this week.

It’s interesting because President Bach was the head of the PyeongChang bid’s number one competitor: Munich 2018. And looking back on it, I think that his presence and influence on that campaign is the number one reason for my thoughts up in paragraph two of this post.

IOC President Bach inspecting PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Village - Olympic.org

IOC President Bach inspecting PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Village - Olympic.org

Munich 2018 conducted a great campaign. I have said many, many times, Munich 2018 was Olympic Agenda 2020 before Olympic Agenda 2020 was cool. But it was more than the technical aspects of Munich 2018 that made it a great bid, it was the bid's leadership's desire to compete fairly and with honor and grace. They achieved that.

Korean NOC (then) President Y. S. Park and IOC Member Thomas Bach, Togo, June 2011

Korean NOC (then) President Y. S. Park and IOC Member Thomas Bach, Togo, June 2011

Although Bach was not the IOC president during the 2009-2011 campaign for the 2018 Winter Games, he certainly knew how to comport himself as one. A student of the Movement, an accomplished attorney, a worldly figure in IOC politics, and a Gold medalist to boot; he was (and still is) a man to be reckoned with.

If I’ve learned one thing over the 25 years working in the Olympic Movement, it is this: Olympians hate to lose. And President Bach hated losing the 2018 Winter Games. It was palatable in the aftermath.

So, seeing the pleasant photographs of him in PyeongChang, I cannot help but wonder if he is thinking “this could be happening in Munich right now…”. Honestly, he would not be human if he were not thinking that, at least once.

But here’s the thing. I believe that he believes in the power of the Olympic Games. I believe that he understands that PyeongChang 2018 has given him and the Movement, almost by accident, a new proof point on the power of Olympism thanks to the (some would say “opportunistic”) participation of North Korea.

We can debate North Korea’s motivation forever. We will know soon enough and by the way, what’s the point?

The media have to be pleased to have something interesting beyond the Games to cover.

The fans have to be happy to see something different and new – and unexpected.

The athletes have a new, historic twist on their own Olympic legacies to tell for the rest of their lives.

The IOC has to be happy that the Games are being held up as an instrument of peace and reconciliation in one of the most dangerous locations - and times - in history.

And the Korean people’s hearts will burst with pride and emotion in ways we can never truly understand.

Elvis Costello once wrote, "What's So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding?" It's a fair question. I loved Elvis by the way; he was never a big star in America, though.

Perhaps somewhere down deep in his heart, President Bach might whimsically think about walking around Munich 2018’s proposed Olympic Village this week; he's entitled to it but I doubt very much that he will dwell on it. I know that once he – or indeed anyone – gets onsite at an Olympic Games, the magic takes over and the world seems fresh and new, if only for 17 days.

Go ahead cynical friends, roll your eyes about now at my Olympic naiveté - but people will be talking about, writing about, and loving the Olympic Games long after you and I are gone. I guarantee it.

Seven years ago, Thomas Bach was heartbroken; I get that becuase I know how it feels to lose an Olympic bid, too.

Yet now, seven years later, I can only imagine the pride that he and his fellow IOC members must feel as the world turns its attention, finally, to the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic & Paralympic Winter Games – for all the right reasons.

During the bid, our tagline “New Horizons” had nothing to do (on purpose) with the reconciliation of the Korean people. The moral of that story? Keep on believing, but stay flexible.

Funny what a difference seven years can make.


Terrence BurnsComment