The Rapid Evolution of the Olympics

The Olympic road from Albertville, France, in 1992 to Turin, Italy, in 2006, has been jammed with change. American TV money and X-Games events have helped transform the games. But inside the packaging, many "pure" moments remain.

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DON GONYEA, host:

After 17 days of skiing, skating, sliding, and yes, even a little doping, the Winter Olympics end today.

For NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman the Turin Games are the seventh Olympics he's covered. Looking back, he has this essay on how the Games have changed and stayed the same over the past 14 years.

TOM GOLDMAN reporting:

The Olympics have come full circle.

My first Games in 1992 were less than 100 miles from here in Albertville, France. The distance is short; many of the changes from Albertville to Turin are huge.

In 1992, the Winter Olympics were still heavy on the traditional sports like Alpine Skiing and Skating. But that year, the Games also started leaning toward the extreme. Mogul skiing made its debut in Albertville. Aerials would follow in 1994, snowboarding in '98.

And now, 2006, Halfpipe gold medalist Shaun White, known as the Flying Tomato, is a star in the United States.

Mr. SHAUN WHITE (Snowboarding, United States): This is insane. I just, I don't know, I got all nervous on my first run and I fell, and now I just made a pact with myself to just stick in the next couple of rounds, and now here we are. It's crazy.

GOLDMAN: The inclusion of X-Games type sports may have a lot to do with their American roots, because America has a heck of a lot to do with the Olympics.

In 1992, CBS paid $243 million dollars for the exclusive American TV rights to the Games. NBC has paid $613 million for the rights to Turin. The rights fees goes up, the Games get bigger, meaning Olympics in quaint settings like Grenobal, Lake Placid, Albertville, are a thing of the past.

Certainly the world around the Olympics has changed. Those '92 Games were the first after the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed. The Cold War tension that fueled so many gripping Olympic moments was gone, but still, it was a roiling time. Fledgling countries showed up in Albertville proud just to display their own flags. Now countries born after the fall of Communism aren't content to just be at the Games, they want to win. Consider the success in Turin of Slovakia and the Czech Republic in Men's Hockey.

In 1992 doping was an Olympic side issue. Now there's the world anti-doping agency, thousands of journalists report on the issue, and in Turin for the first time at an Olympics, the police got involved, acting on suspicions that Austrian cross country skiers and bi-athletes may have been involved in doping. Here's Arne Ljungqvist of the International Olympic Committee speaking to reporters a few days ago.

Mr. ARNE LJUNGQVIST (International Olympic Committee): Well, the Italian authorities had made a raid and they have searched for material, for drugs, for instruments, when we talked with the Italian authorities. It is the (unintelligible) and what they may have done. And we are waiting for that report.

GOLDMAN: As the Olympics evolve on some issues, the games stay stuck in the past on others. I'll always remember the bizarre turn at the press conference following the 1992 Men's Figure Skating competition. A reporter asked the three medalists if all male skaters are gay. Fast forward to Turin, where American skater Johnny Weir was asked about his sexuality. Weir has never said he is gay. He has described himself as princess-y. But to Olympic reporters he said, Who I sleep with doesn't affect what I'm doing on the ice.

Yes, after 14 years I'm still part of a group of people that asks figure skaters if they're gay. But I'm also a fortunate member of that group. Since 1992 I've been able to see the Olympics, to hear the Games uninterrupted without packaging as they actually happen and not on delayed broadcast. Just sporting events unfolding, their innate drama building to moments like the Swedish Swiss gold medal match in Women's Curling the other day. One Swedish stone at the very end sent two Swiss stones skittering out of the target. Swedes got the gold; both teams cried for very different reasons. Those moments, I'm glad to say, will never change.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Turin.

(Soundbite of music)

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