To the Point: Penn State expert on the Winter Olympics

February 12, 2010

University Park, Pa. — Mark Dyreson, associate professor of kinesiology in Penn State's College of Health and Human Development, is a national expert on sports and culture and the history and impact of the Olympic Games. The writer and editor of numerous articles and books on the Olympics, his author credits include "Making the American Team: Sport, Culture and the Olympic Experience," and "Crafting Patriotism: America at the Olympic Games." His most recent work includes co-editing and contributing an article to 2009's "Olympic Legacies: Intended and Unintended."

In this Q&A, Dyreson discusses perceptions and popularity of the Winter Olympics, the "Californication" of the games, impacts on host cities and what makes a memorable moment.

The 2010 Winter Olympics begin this weekend in Vancouver, and there has been a lot of talk lately of the unseasonably warm weather there. How do you think that may impact the games and how people view them?

Dyreson: I'm assuming they'll have enough snow up in the mountains that they won't have a problem. My understanding is that it is the largest city that the winter games have ever been hosted in and one of the more temperate ones too, being on the sea coast. I think it will affect the ambience that people come to expect. It's not going to be Lilehammer or some cozy Alpine village with a lot of snow around. That has no impact on skating or any of those events because they have the facilities for that. The ski areas are quite distant from Vancouver, so this is a more urban and more spread out Winter Olympics than in the past.

They had severe weather problems in Lake Placid (N.Y., in 1932) with a severe thaw and they had to truck snow in for skiing events. Vancouver's not the first city to sweat the snow and wonder what it was going to look like. Lake Placid was just a disaster when they had a big thaw that February.

At least in the United States there tends to be much more hype, and a perception of greater popularity, with the Summer Olympics as compared with the Winter Olympics. Do you think that's the case and why?

Dyreson: Historically that is accurate. The United States has been less interested in the winter games than the summer. There are a variety of reasons for that. One is that what we call the summer games now are the original modern Olympic Games that have been around since 1896, and the winter games were only introduced in 1924 in France. They were and still are smaller, and a little more adapted to the taste of Northern Europeans and other folks who live in the Frost Belt of the world. The U.S. originally voted with its three delegates to the International Olympic Committee [IOC] in the 1920s not to have them. If you look at early American press coverage of the winter games, even when they were at Lake Placid in 1932, it is that they're amusing, kind of fun, but it's bizarre and only a bunch of northern Europeans are interested in these sports. They treated them as sort of a carnival sideshow, whereas the summer games were treated as the real test of nationhood.
During the Cold War, in the '50s and '60s when the Soviets and the U.S. increased the political rhetoric of the summer games even more, the U.S. started to get more serious about the winter games. I think until very recently most Americans have dismissed the winter games as the province of Norwegians and Russians who care about sports like biathlon that nobody in the United States ever pays attention to. It's amusing to learn that 300,000 people turn out in the snow in Norway or Sweden for a 50-kilometer Nordic race, and Americans find that bizarre.

Snowboarding has become a marquee event in the winter games, and you have described this as part of the "Californication" of the Olympics. What does that entail, and why do you think it's happening?

Dyreson: There has been the addition in the last four or five Olympic games of what I've called the "Californication" of the Olympics with X-Games events like snowboarding, short track speed skating and these made-for-TV, younger generation sports which the IOC adopted to get North American TV audiences. The U.S. and Canada are the goose that lay the golden egg in terms of revenues in the forms of TV contracts for the winter games, and the summer games as well. They've also increased our medal share. Who dominates these sports? They all originate out of California and are part of the California middle-class leisure lifestyle, and Americans win medals. There's (champion snowboarder) Shaun White on the cover of Rolling Stone with the American flag draped over him and his medals on his chest. That's probably increased in younger generations some interest in the winter games.

Is there also an international idolization of the perceived California lifestyle at play?

Dyreson: I think there very much is, and the people and industries who run those kinds of sports very consciously use the Olympic Games to market those lifestlyles.

You will hear some commentators argue that these new sports are in some way transnational, not as rooted in particular historic cultures as older sports. There's an argument that some of these sports -- in the summer games as well with beach volleyball and BMX racing -- aren't really nationalistic and are a fit for the Olympics because affluent middle-class people around the world, be they in Brazil, Norway or the U.S., can love these games. These sports are a truer reflection of the games being about internationalism because they are a new product of some global youth movement that breaks down national barriers. In my opinion that's not a very good argument because these are sports with specific historical roots in California designed in part to sell an Americanized version of the good life. I think the transnational rhetoric is really a veneer to help sell them even more. It's a shrewd marketing strategy and one that Hollywood and the California culture industry are very good at dressing up and selling to global markets.

Snowboarding's debut at the 1998 games in Nagano, Japan, did not go particularly well. How has it been able to grow into such a popular event?

Dyreson: The TV networks have thrown a lot of money at it. Since that debut it has continued to be on television in the form of X-Games and other competitions on ESPN and other networks. I think the TV networks have made an effort to showcase it because they can broadcast it at other times to build this younger audience.

The ratings for these sports on TV in no way approach the ratings for the marquee franchises of the American sports industry, but they've increased their market share quite dramatically. There are some key corporations interested in that. You have a recognizable star now, where before nobody knew who these guys were. Shaun White, "The Flying Tomato," is now a household name.

The other thing is that these are very telegenic sports. To Americans, we don't have much tradition or connection to Nordic events, speed skating, biathlon. You just aren't going to develop TV audiences for those events. More and more young people are snowboarding. There is crossover to the music industry, film and television. Shaun White is a pop icon. Even I who don't snowboard find it to be compelling television. The action fits in the camera's view very well. In the half-pipe you see them doing stunning acrobatics. Two of the newer events, the snowboard cross and skier cross, where you've got four competitors at once going down the course and the ever-present danger of them colliding with each other, that's just great television.

The same can be said for the summer games. Though BMX didn't do it for me, it did fit the television screen really well and there's a big youth demographic interested in those sports.

What kind of lasting impact does hosting the Olympics have for a city? Is there a difference in the legacies created by summer vs. winter games?

Dyreson: The impacts are interesting. Staging an Olympics is enormously expensive, and it always has been. Trying to get data about whether Olympics makes or loses money for the host city, region and nation is tough. It's all in how you do the accounting. Most cities have lost money. If you just talk about developing the stadium for hockey and speed skating and adapting the ski areas, the basic Olympic infrastructure is just one part of what a city spends. What often is not factored in is money for security and infrastructure development. Salt Lake City for the 2002 Winter Olympics, for instance, did huge renovations on highways, built light rail, did a bunch of stuff on their downtown. Since a lot of that money came from the federal government, I'd argue Salt Lake, though they relatively broke even, did very well because they jumped to the front on a lot of federal projects because the United States had committed to allowing Salt Lake to host the games. Cities can often leverage with their national government to do urban renewal and a lot of infrastructure they normally wouldn't get done.

It always helps the ski industry to host the games. It's an unparalleled free commercial with a global audience. If there isn't a one-to-one dollar correlation to the amount of money brought into the economy by hosting the games, the global identification, branding and marketing you get can't be bought any other way. In that sense it's a really good investment. The indirect benefits are hard to measure but are considerable. Most of the cities that bid for this have big winter tourism industries. They want to be destination locations. That was true as far back as the 1930s. Lake Placid knew they were going to lose money, being in the middle of the Depression. They got the games because they wanted to be the destination for winter sports in the United States. It was all about branding them as the place to ski.

The outstanding Winter Olympics moment for the United States that most people remember is the 1980 hockey team. What other performances are hallmarks of the games for the U.S.? What makes a historically memorable moment?

Dyreson: I would agree the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" is probably the most memorable event in public commemoration in the United States. There, it's a confluence of the political environment at the time -- the U.S. coming out of the 1970s and the feelings of malaise and helplessness and floundering in foreign policy overseas, not being able to check Soviet aggression. Remember the backdrop is that [President Jimmy] Carter is about to announce the boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. It's still in the Cold War, and the Olympic Games were lightning rods for Cold War propaganda from the '50s through the '90s. There was this perception of the Soviet team as this sort of professional army versus these thrown-together true amateurs -- whether that was accurate or not is another issue. The U.S. was the underdog and captured the moment. It was a spectacular event.

There was another huge upset with the U.S. hockey team, in 1960 at Squaw Valley, Calif., before the games were quite as widely televised. Beating the Canadians, the Soviets and the other Eastern European teams was a stunning upset that got a lot of people's attention. Figure skating has often been for American audiences a signature event. So you have Peggy Fleming and her grace in 1968, winning the gold medal. If you want a lowlight, there was Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding's soap opera, which certainly produced huge TV ratings and captivated Americans. It was memorable, though certainly for different reasons than the Miracle on Ice.

In 1936, the winter games are in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. Hitler's there and the U.S. had come close to boycotting the summer games in Berlin and the winter games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. The U.S. team very publicly refused to dip the flag to Hitler and the Nazis.

Salt Lake City in 2002 was interesting because it was so soon after 9/11. There were some controversies, the 9/11 flag came in and people were wondering whether George Bush would be there or not. It was in some ways a solemn games. In 2002, you had an older theme you get more in the summer games with the U.S. -- the notion of America being a melting pot. Immigrants from all these nations dot the American Olympic teams and win medals for the U.S., having come from lands that had oppressed them. That has been a longtime theme of the summer games for the U.S., but it was surprising to see when we had the first Cuban-American and Mexican-American medalist in speed skating. We had an African-American win a gold medal in the bobsled. The X-Games sports allowed the Sun Belt people to participate. Rollerblading, for example, translated fairly easily to short track speed skating.

Anytime an American wins a medal in a sport Americans consider interesting, at least for the moment, captures some attention. Recently, snowboarding has captured a lot of attention.

  • Mark Dyreson

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated November 18, 2010