Daily Telegraph

OLYMPIC GAMES are always a delicate balancing act between jingoism and spreading international goodwill.

The really successful Games, such as the Sydney Olympics, can use the occasion to celebrate national spirit, yet make the world feel so welcome that foreigners come away thinking the party could not have happened without them.

Not in Salt Lake City. After three weeks here I’m still like the man at the party who stands with a drink in the corner of the room, checking he has the right invitation and struggling to find anybody he could really talk to.

Nothing illustrates this sense of alienation more than the medal table. This shows United States second to Germany, but this has been achieved by standing the normal Olympics medals table on its head. At other Olympics the country with the most gold leads the table; the total number of medals won is a secondary factor. In these Games the Americans have discarded the gold standard to show themselves in better light.

This sense of deviation from normal standards is reinforced by the fact that most Americans have not much contact with winter games, and the newspapers have been running tutorials, complete with diagrams, to educate their readers on the various sports.

But then these games are Americans talking to themselves. The rest of the world may eavesdrop, but that is about all.

I had a vivid illustration of this last Saturday when I went to Park City up in the mountains near Salt Lake where some of the events are being held. The main street, which had been closed to traffic, was packed and had all the feel of a gigantic street party. However, if there were even a dozen from other countries I would be surprised, and I felt I had somehow taken the wrong turning.

It is not surprising that Utah, the Mormon state which has always been considered an oddball state by other Americans, should use the Games to become part of mainstream America.

How far the Mormons will succeed in this is not clear. They seem to have an inferiority complex about their religion and, fearful of making this look like the Mormon Olympics, they have asked their missionaries to keep such a low profile that other American Christian sects have taken full advantage. Every Olympic venue has seen Baptists and others hand out their literature, but no Mormons.

When it comes to making money from the Olympics, the Mormons are not slow. I met one BBC man spending £350 a night for a room in a hotel which would normally go for about £50. And restaurants have been adding a compulsory 18 per cent service charge, on top of which taxes are added.

The cost of coming to the Games and the high ticket prices, £650 for opening and closing ceremonies, have meant few international visitors. The exceptions are the Dutch, who have made the short track a wonderful Orange haven, but even they say that at £20,000 each for the trip, it is like taking out a second mortgage. As if to make up for the lack of foreigners, the Americans have adopted the Canadians. Never has Canada had a better or more extensive press coverage than now and, while the Canadians were grateful for this during the pairs skating scandal, they have bristled when Americans try to appropriate their victories and present them as great North American triumphs over the rest of the world.

For the British the structure of the Games has not been right. At Sydney they began with a cycling gold on the first day and took off from there. Britain’s best hopes are well into the second week and so far, sad to say, the most dominant British presence here has been the British ticket touts. Touting is legal here, and some of the touts I spoke to were very proud that they were teaching the Yanks how. They are part of a pack who follow international sports.

© Mihir Bose


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