Monday, January 22, 2018
Sports

Olympic spirit at crunch time

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Even if only for two weeks, can "Faster-Higher-Stronger" overpower deadlier, scarier and bloodier? Can the Olympics still offer the world momentary levity, distract it from terror, shootings, poverty and other worries in globally grim times?

U.S. women's and UConn basketball coach Geno Auriemma thinks so. He called the Olympics "a two-week haven where people can get away from it all."

"Every time you get here, get settled in, nothing seems to matter to any country other than the competition — as it should be," said Auriemma, at his third Games. "These two weeks, the joy and spirit of competition seems to win out."

If not, what use is the multibillion-dollar celebration of youthful endeavor and mostly niche sports?

Through no fault of their own, the athletes who will march in massed, joyful ranks behind their nations' flags in tonight's opening ceremony for the first Olympics in South America shoulder expectations beyond their own ambitions for gold, silver, bronze and personal bests.

No Olympics in recent memory has opened under so many dark clouds, both within recession-battered Brazil and beyond. Yet Olympic organizers can't be faulted for trying their best to distract people, with their "Together we can change the world" slogan and OlympicPeace social-media hashtag.

Tonight in Maracana Stadium, 10 refugee athletes will march as one team behind the white Olympic flag, a reminder to the world that they aren't solely defined by their lack of a place to call home. Cold War boycotts aside, the Games remain a symbol of global togetherness, even if an increasingly commercialized one.

And speaking of commercialization, reports about the Zika virus, polluted water, crime and political unrest in Brazil have helped NBC's advertising sales, network executives said Thursday.

"It just made people more aware that there is something going on down here," NBC Sports advertising head Seth Winters said.

He said NBC had already sold $1.2 billion in national advertising time, at a pace about 20 percent above the 2012 London Games, and is holding back inventory for additional sales. The network hit its internal target weeks in advance, and often that doesn't happen until after the Games start, if the target is reached, he said.

Though not expected to have as grand an opening ceremony as past ones, Rio still expects to wow.

"The Athens ceremony (in 2004) was classic, and Beijing (2008) was grand, was musical. London (2012) was quite smart. We're going to be cool," said creative director Fernando Meirelles.

And even on the streets of Rio, some Brazilians are beginning to embrace the moment and all it means. "Finally people are beginning to feel the Olympic spirit," said Ilene Pessoa, a college administrator who lives in Rio's Copacabana neighborhood. "The eyes of the world are on us."

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