Rio 2016: Learning from the Salt Lake Olympic Winter Games

Natalie GochnourHosting the Olympic Games is not for the faint of heart. The spotlight is bright, the logistics are complicated and the cost is substantial.

Nobody knows this better than Rio de Janeiro, the host for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. The Rio Olympics have been beset by extraordinary challenges, including the Zika virus, doping scandals, serious crime, environmental problems, political mayhem and the nation’s worst recession since the 1930s.

Just as bad, Brazil’s troubles are occurring amidst a backdrop of worldwide political upheaval (the Brexit vote and the impact of the controversial U.S. presidential elections) and vicious terrorist attacks and threats from the Islamic State Group.

My feelings mirror those I felt before the Salt Lake Olympic Winter Games. The bid scandal put the Games at risk. Then, 9-11 happened. Everything felt uneasy and frightening. The peace-loving world needed us to be successful.

The same can be said about the Rio Games. The world needs something good to happen. While nervous, I’m crossing my fingers and finding reason for hope—partly because of the extraordinary Brazilian people and partly because of the magic that is the Olympics.

Transcending sport

I’m familiar with an experience Olympic gold medalist speed skater Derek Parra had during the Salt Lake Olympics. He wrote eloquently about it and I’d like to share it with you. It captures the emotional connection I feel for the Olympics and peaceful countries all around the world. It’s a sentiment I crave right now. Parra, who claims Utah as his home, reflected on his 2002 Olympic experience:

“You might think my greatest Olympic moment came when I stood on the podium for the first time with a gold medal wrapped around my neck, but you’d be wrong. In fact, my most powerful Olympic memory came before the Olympics even started.”

Indeed for Parra, the Olympics are about more than sport. He was one of eight athletes selected to carry the World Trade Center flag into opening ceremonies. When he got the request, he was ecstatic:

“Instantly I knew it was something I had to do, something I wanted to do. It was an honor beyond anything I could have imagined … at that time our country was still reeling from the wounds, the trauma and the pain of Sept. 11th.”

He then shares the connection he felt with the families of the victims:

“As the opening ceremonies got under way, the flag-bearing athletes and I gathered backstage. We were standing with the Port Authority officers, whose job it was to oversee the flag. They began telling us how proud they were of us, that the families of the victims were proud of us, that all the people who lost their lives were proud of us.”

Parra’s words intensified as he described the moment:

“When it came time to begin the procession, I touched the flag for the first time, and I remember a physical sensation unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. If it’s possible to feel your soul being touched, then that’s what I felt. As we carried the flag out before a capacity crowd and worldwide television audience, the silence was deafening.”

Then the real magic becomes apparent. Parra captured his sentiments in three sentences:

“That flag, which had flown over so much pain and loss, still stood for life, love, and the hope of a nation. There are a few times in any life when the emotion of a moment is all that exists. That night, time stood still.”

New beginnings

The Salt Lake Olympic Games and Rio Games are very different. Utah planned masterfully and was well prepared for success. Brazil—well, let’s just say they face significant challenges. Even amid challenges, however, the Olympics can transcend so much that is dead wrong about the world and can help make the world a better place. It can stand for life, love and the hope of the world.

I’m fond of the phrase, “Fresh starts come from harsh beginnings.” I want Rio 2016 to be successful for the wonderful country of Brazil. Even more, I’m hoping the 2016 Olympic Games are successful for the entire world.

Natalie Gochnour is an associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber.