Ueberroth on U.S. athletes and China: Guests Not Reformers

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In a copyrighted story in USA Today, dated February 26, Peter Ueberroth, the chairman of the U.S. Olympic committee considers US athletes representing their country in the Beijing Olympics as "invited guests and not China's would be reformers." according to the story.

A direct quote from Ueberroth, " We expect and are sure that the athletes are going to respect their own country, respect their flag, respect the flag of every other countrya and operate as we all will, under the IOC rules of the Olympic Games..."

It can be argued that Mr. Ueberroth is the man with the golden touch. In the early 1980s, Peter Ueberroth saved the modern Olympics with his successful managing of the LA Olympics. His management style was considered tough but reasonable and he filled the coffers of the IOC and the USOC.

Ueberroth did it the old fashioned way-he used business management skills, cheerleading and hard work to defeat the naysayers and convince the media to give his plan a chance. Russia organized a strong boycott, that truly ran cold. His invitations to Romania, China and other countries diluted the Soviet plan at revenge.

The Games in 1984 were masterful. Great competitions, well managed, well orchestrated, and well run. The legacy fund from 1984 continues to assist young athletes in Southern California.

Ueberroth came out of the 1984 Olympcs as the man who could do anything. He was the man who do anything. In 1986, he became a director of The Coca-Cola Company. In 1989, Ueberroth helped form the Contrarian Group, Inc. where he and his team managed sick businesses back to health. His leadership of Major league Baseball was also a feather in his cap.

But the USOC seems the perfect place for him. With his direct experience in the LA Olympics, his management skills and his leadership skills, Mr. Ueberroth, at the very least, commands a strong presence and speaks with the strength and backing of his position as the Chairman of the U.S. Olympic committee.

While I believe that Mr. Ueberroth is correct in what he states about the demeanor and role of US athletes in Beijing, I must thoughtfully disagree to his pronouncement. It is true that US athletes must follow the IOC bylaws and respect the flags and host nations. This, is something that we can agree on. The U.S. athletes need do nothing else but perform and change will happen. If they choose to speak their mind, they should do it, thoughtfully, knowing that our country too can be criticized and is being criticized for much of its recent actions and history.

There was also the pronouncement in the Spanish paper, Marca, by 87 year old former IOC president Juan Antonio Sammaranch that China was a much better choice than the old Soviet Union of 1980 and that, other countries have issues that they can be chastistized for as well.

Both men can be seen as upholding the Olympic flame, and that is honorable. I do share with them the belief that the Olympics is a) the modern world coming out party, b) to host an Olympics a country opens itself up to the winds of change.

I am concerned that Mr. Ueberroth's description of the role of U.S. athletes, and Sammaranch's comparison of the Chinese government of 2008 versus the Soviet Union
in 1980. I do think that Ueberroth is right in setting up boundaries for an athletes' actions while representing their country during the Games, and I do believe that Sammaranch is probably right about the comparison of the old Soviet Union and China today, but make no mistake, China is not a democracy and they do not pretend to be.

The 2008 Olympics is a huge event and huge coming out party for China. More foreigners will visit during the Games and right after than every before! The Games, under the security and control of the Chinese goverment will be safer than many in the past. The city of Beijing will look very different. The smog will be lessened (but still there).

China has changed for 2008. It's economy is robust, yet much of its own local and small businesses are disappearing. China can make anything! Dont believe it? Last weekend, at the WSA show in Las Vegas, I walked through the Chinese pavilion, which had over 500 booths! They were making any shoe type or insert that you can imagine.

The investment by the Chinese in the 2008 Olympics has been estimated at $40 billion U.S. dollars. More than the combined development costs for all past modern Olympics, if I am correct.

In this huge coming out party, the IOC and the USOC do not want U.S. athletes or Western media for that matter to be rude. They will handle the accidental breakdown of web sites or transmission of media ( it can happen, look at what Pakistan did last week with their trying to close down You Tube in Pakistan-the result was two hours of no You Tube globally). There will be protests, but in moderation, and the Games will be the best ever.

The Olympic movement is as close as this secular world gets to religion. The six billion souls who will watch the Beijing Olympics will fill the coffers of NBC, the IOC, the USOC and the major sponsors from the good feelings that Olympic sports gives them for a month every four years. The Winter Olympics is only an appetizer, the summer Olympics is the real thing, no matter what anyone says.

In this movement, in this global celebration of sports and arts, one has to hope that new ideas, new thoughts, new writers, new artists will be seen and introduced to the world. That is the beauty of the Olympics.

It is my belief that the fall of the Eastern Bloc was longer due to the Moscow Olympic boycott. Would there have been some terrible sports squabbles there-of course, there were anyway, just ask any media who were there!--but the culture of change that the Olympics brings, without anything being done by the IOC, USOC, is inevitable.

It is okay for Mr. Ueberroth to say athletes need to behave, it is okay for Mr. Sammaranch to say that China in 2008 is better than Moscow in 1980. The important thing is for the twenty two year old from Atlanta, Georgia or the twenty five year old high jumper from Goteborg, Sweden to go to China, compete, meet some athletes, and see another culture.

The change from the Olympics will be huge in China, not the next day, not overnight, but the change is inevitable.

For the complete text of Sammaranch's interview, please click on http://www.insidethegames.com/show-news.php?id=1870

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