Maybe you have a Jewish mother. Maybe not. I do. I’m the oldest son, of four boys. Let’s be honest. Being a sportswriter? Is this a doctor, or a practicing lawyer, or something else brag-worthy? OK. Does my mother truly, honestly care about sports? Do you have to ask?
Like me, my mother went to Northwestern. Could she tell you who the Wildcats are playing this weekend in football? Not if her life depended on it.
So you might understand further how little sports intrudes into my mother’s life, especially these past few days: last week, my mother, her husband of nearly 20 years (my dad passed away many years ago) and the fugly dog had to be evacuated from their home in south Florida because of Hurricane Irma. (Update: some minor damage to the patio outside, more or less everything OK.)
Hurricane be damned, a matter of import apparently had been weighing on my mother’s mind. “I want to tell you something,” she said in that tone that when your mother uses you go, uh-oh. Obliging son that I am, I replied, “Yes?”
It has been a long time since, you know, I lived under my mother’s roof. Even so, she likes to keep up, at least in a general sense, with my whereabouts. She knew I was bound for Peru, and the International Olympic Committee session at which Paris would be awarded 2024 and LA 2028.
“These Olympic people,” my mother said, “have a big problem on their hands.
“Why in the world are they making all these people fly halfway around the world for a meeting for something that has already been decided? It’s a waste. It’s dumb.”
In journalism school way back when, we learned that it can be dangerous to extrapolate too much from a single anecdote. Even so, when this sort of thing makes its way to mom in South Florida, who has to leave her home because of a really bad hurricane, and it’s enough that she stops and wants to lecture the sportswriter son — yes, these Olympic people have a big problem on their hands.
This is the culture and communications disconnect that the IOC had best start addressing, and immediately if not sooner, if indeed it intends to make headway in addressing its No. 1 issue, staying relevant by connecting with the young people of the world.
If my mom understands this, surely the IOC ought to get it.
Or does it?
At that IOC session, which wrapped up Friday, there was a lot of buzzword-laced talk about “sustainability.”
Uh — see above.
At that assembly, there was a lot more talk — indeed, almost an entire afternoon — devoted to Agenda 2020, president Thomas Bach’s would-be 40-point reform plan, enacted in 2014. A lot more buzzwords were tossed around. But as has been noted in this space, and repeatedly, the key initiative to have taken hold out of Agenda 2020 is the Olympic Channel.
Virtually everyone, and I mean everyone, in Olympic space feels they have to pay lip service to Agenda 2020, or risk the wrath of Bach or key staff.
The IOC put out a release from Lima that said “one Games host that already has taken advantage of Olympic Agenda 2020 is Tokyo 2020,” with chief executive Toshiro Muto saying the organizing committee had been able to “benefit massively,” in part via a “venue masterplan review which saw Olympic Agenda 2020 fitting perfectly with Tokyo’s plans.”
Venues for 11 sports were relocated, he said, with 60 percent of competition venues now based in existing facilities, a “significant increase” from the prior number, 40 percent.
The Tokyo bid book called for an all-in budget of $7.8 billion — $3.424 for the organizing committee, and a capital budget of $4.38 billion. It’s all right there in black-and-white in the IOC 2020 evaluation report, on pages 67 and 68.
Also right there is one of the most curious financial mysteries of modern Olympic times. The bid book said that the Tokyo Municipal Government had set aside a “hosting reserve fund” of $4.5 billion, in cash, for financing construction work needed for the Games. What happened to that money?
Four years have passed since Tokyo won for 2020. Budget estimates have ballooned as high as $25 to $30 billion. Seriously. Now — and Tokyo 2020 is by any measure the first significant test of Agenda 2020 — the number is said to be $12.6 billion.
Incredibly, under the “sustainability” heading of the Agenda 2020 “halftime report” (four years into Bach’s eight-year — presumably first— term, to be followed by a second term of four more), the IOC declared that Tokyo 2020 saved $2.2 billion thanks to Agenda 2020. Hello? $2.2 billion off what? There's no clue.
Under "credibility," the "halftime" memo says the new IOC annual report offers “full transparency of IOC operations and finances.” That’s not even remotely true, as David Owen of Inside the Games brilliantly demonstrated recently in a bid to parse the IOC budgets.
These examples of double-speak absurdity tear at credibility.
It's why people all around the world are freaked out — and not in a good way — about the Olympic scene, and why the IOC, and everyone in a leadership position connected with the movement, really need to get his and her act together and just start talking straight about what matters, and why.
It’s that simple.
In this context, it's particularly worth noting the two profoundly different responses, in California and in France, to the returns home from Lima of the Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028 teams.
The comparisons begin with an acknowledgement that, broadly speaking, cultures in Paris and SoCal are of course different; that the state plays a key role in the French bid (and organizing committee) process but not in the American system; that French president Emmanuel Macron has political points to score via Paris 2024 but not so much U.S. president Donald Trump with 2028 (when he, absent pulling a Grover Cleveland, won’t be in office); and more.
Even so, at this moment in our world, with bombast, conflict and grievance dominating so much political and diplomatic rhetoric in so many places, doesn’t the Olympic movement — for all its many and considered flaws — still hold the unique ability to reach hearts and minds?
That is, if — this is the big if — leadership can strike the right tenor and tone? In particular, keying on the three key Olympic values: friendship, excellence and respect?
And, maybe now more than ever, a dose of humility and a focus on, you know, young people?
In France, the Paris 2024 team landed to a red-carpet reception (water cannons, too) at Charles de Gaulle airport.
From there it was off to the Élyseé Palace and a reception of some 400 people from the worlds of sports and politics, including Macron’s two predecessors, François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy.
Compare and contrast the LA experience.
Not one peep from President Trump. Not even a tweet.
On Thursday, upon arrival at Los Angeles international airport, Mayor Eric Garcetti, 2028 chairman Casey Wasserman and city council president Herb Wesson held a low-key news conference on the tarmac.
A spokesman for Joe Buscaino told the LA Times the councilman spent fewer than 48 hours in Lima and no taxpayer money was used on his trip.
On Friday, Wasserman, along with chief executive Gene Sykes and others joined Olympians and Paralympians for a volunteer service project with a bunch of kids at Gates Elementary in LA. The kids rotated through Olympic-themed projects and, with the LA28 folks, planted a garden.
On Saturday, the LA28 people are off to an American institution, the county fair — the LA County Fair, in Pomona, California, to take part in a parade (more Americana) with LA84 Foundation “SAMbassadors,” young people who “provide feedback, guidance and advice” on what the legacy foundation of the 1984 Games is doing right, or not.
There’s talking the talk, which the IOC does a lot of, and which even my mother has observed is — a problem.
Then there’s walking the walk.
Time for way, way more of the latter.