'Worst Games ever' label doesn't stick

British media have suggested that the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver may be the worst ever in Olympic history? Is that a fair assessment?
A woman lights a candle for Georgian luge athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili under the Olympic rings in Whistler, B.C. ((Gero Breloer/Associated Press))

"But in the real world there is another epithet up for grabs that is both unofficial and unwanted: worst Games ever." — Lawrence Donegan, sports writer for the Guardian, on the Vancouver Olympics.

And with those words — a sentiment echoed by many of his fellow British scribes — Canadian officials were put on the defensive, as the focus of the Games began shifting from the performance of the athletes to the performance of the organizers.         

With the tragic death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, combined with transportation issues, poor weather conditions and other assorted so-called glitches, many joined in on the Olympic bashing, questioning whether these Games may indeed be a colossal failure and the worst ever.

Really? The worst ever?

"No, not at all," said Olympic historian David Wallechinsky when asked if the Vancouver Games will go down as the worst Olympics ever.

"Looking at it from a historical perspective the one thing that will be part of the Games will be the death of the athlete. The rest of it is minor issues."

Critics quickly pounced on officials from the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (VANOC) for the accident.

The blame game       

While an investigation is underway, Wallechinsky said it is unfair to lay all the blame on VANOC, pointing out that the track is ultimately the responsibility of the International Luge Federation.

Wallechinsky also noted that Kumaritashvili is not the first athlete to die at a Winter Olympics. At the 1964 Games in Innsbruck, Austria, British luger Kazimierz Kay-Skrzypecki was killed in a training run two weeks before the competition began.

At the same Games, Australian downhill skier Ross Milne was killed when he hit a tree during a training run.

Many would argue that the "worst Olympics ever" debate is a moot point once the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Games in Munich is taken into account.

Blame it on the logistics

Critics are also damning the overall logistics of the Games.

The opening ceremony has come under fire after one of the pillars failed to rise at the climactic moment of the cauldron lighting ceremony. Others have criticized the fence surrounding the outdoor cauldron and the lack of access to the monument.   
A fan photographs the Olympic flame through the controversial fence in Vancouver before organizers made changes to it. ((Jae C. Hong/Associated Press))

Wallechinsky said problems do happen at the opening and closing ceremonies (in Sydney, for example, the cauldron lighting was delayed due to a small malfunction) and that he had hoped organizers had practised numerous times.

Wallechinsky praised VANOC for allowing visitors to be able to get close to the outdoors Olympic cauldron, since people rarely have access to the monument as its usually affixed to the top of a stadium. He agreed, though, that it was not a well thought out plan to install an ugly chain-link fence around the cauldron and that the monument should have been raised so people could take pictures.

It also was bad form allowing VIPs to get close to it, while the average spectator was kept away.

Complaints have also risen over the ice quality at the Richmond Oval arena and the breakdown of ice resurfacing equipment — fair criticism against VANOC, he said.

VANOC also gets poor marks for problems with transportation and all the tales of broken down buses. As well, drivers, some having been imported into Vancouver from other provinces and states, are getting lost.

While acknowledging that transportation is often an issue at the Olympics, Wallechinsky said: "You have seven years to get your transportation together. You have the advantage of seeing what mistakes have been made in the past. There’s really no excuse for this sort of thing."

But Wallechinsky said it doesn’t compare to the 1980 Lake Placid, N.Y., Olympics, which suffered from "horrendous" transportation problems.

Included in that was the major gaffe of selling tickets for the alpine event at the venue. The problem: a spectator couldn’t get to the venue to purchase a ticket for the event unless they already had a ticket to the event.

Nor do those transportation problems compare to the 1996 Atlanta Games, where drivers were flown in from all over the U.S., not properly trained or given proper housing. Hundreds went home after a couple days as athletes and spectators were often left struggling to find transport to venues.

All the technical snafus might be forgiven, or at least forgotten, if not for the mild weather and rain, which has forced the postponement of events and the refund of nearly 30,000 tickets at the Cypress Mountain ski and snowboard venue.

Fog shrouds the venue and heavy rain falls as spectators arrive for the women's snowboard cross competition at Cypress Mountain. ((Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press))

Yet the weather is often a problem with the Winter Olympics.

The 1928 Winter Games at St. Moritz, Switzerland, got hammered with rain for 18 straight hours, forcing the cancellation of events during one day.

The Austrian army was called in to bring in snow for the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, for the luge, bobsled and Alpine skiing. But then it rained, and the army had to come back to pound in the snow with their hands and feet.

At the 1998 Nagano Olympics in Japan, instead of getting too little snow, as organizers had initially feared, the area received too much, forcing the postponement of some events and sparking concerns of whether they would get all the events in on time.

Wallechinsky said an important measure of the success or failure of the Olympics is not necessarily the number of problems, but how the organizers respond to them. So far, he thinks they have responded quickly and well.

For example, new ice resurfacing equipment was quickly brought in and the fence surrounding the cauldron has since been moved closer to the monument. A viewing platform is also being built.

As for the worst Olympics, Vancouver has a long way to go before it comes close to deserving that honour, he said.

That, he said, belongs to the Atlanta games.

Along with the bombing that killed two people and the transportation problems, the Games were marred by ill-trained volunteers, computer system problems and failing equipment.

"It was just an awful situation."