Bill Cleary remembers the thrill of marching in the Opening Ceremony in Cortina d’Ampezzo in 1956. “Here I am a young kid from Cambridge who had trouble getting across the Charles River,” said Cleary, who won hockey medals at two Games. “And the next thing I knew I was in the middle of these majestic mountains. You thought you were right next to heaven.”
That is where this quadrennial global sleigh ride will take place in 2026 when the Winter Olympics return to Cortina and co-host Milan after seven decades. Whatever were the Beijing Games that closed Sunday, there was nothing majestic nor heavenly about them.
The five Olympic rings might as well have been part of a chain link fence that walled off the athletes from both the city and the world for a forbidding fortnight. These were Games that were marked by anxiety, by isolation, by controversy and, finally, by relief that they were over.
The best thing that could be said about them is that they were superbly organized and that the competitors were spared having their events disrupted by the COVID surge that swept through their homelands.
But the closed loop that limited the athletes to the Olympic Village and the venues and kept out their families and friends deprived these Games — which IOC president Thomas Bach called “unforgettable” — of their customary camaraderie and joy. The 2022 medalists were not so much victors as survivors.
Assuming that the pandemic has passed by then the next edition should be decidedly more celebratory. Cortina, a charming resort tucked away next to a river in the Dolomites, has much the same vibe as it did in 1956 when the Games were significantly smaller and more intimate, when all of the events were outdoors and athletes stayed in hotels.
“It was just gorgeous,” figure skater Carol Heiss recalled half a century later. “Everyone was wearing fur coats. It was that kind of ambience.”
The Winter Games always had a snowshoes, sweaters, and schnapps feeling to them. The early ones were held in places like Chamonix and St. Moritz, Lake Placid and Garmisch, that existed for the savoring of snow and ice.
Once the sports program doubled in size and the number of participants tripled the Games outgrew mountain hideaways and went to cities like Calgary and Turin that had the necessary space and infrastructure. And once the price tag soared fivefold and bidders dwindled, the Lords of the Rings went to dictatorships where cost was irrelevant and dissent was non-existent.
These Games only were held in Beijing because there was no better place that wanted them. Oslo, the 1952 host and a winter sports hub, was the favorite during the 2015 bidding process. The city already had most of the necessary facilities and there were mountains and a sledding venue in nearby Lillehammer, the 1994 site.
But the Norwegians were sobered by the $50 billion that Sochi had spent a year earlier and appalled by the royal treatment that the IOC expected for its members which included cocktails with King Harald V, chauffeured cars, 24-hour service in a posh hotel, and “seasonal fruits and cakes” in the rooms among other lavish perks.
So the country’s parliament voted against a financial subsidy, Oslo withdrew and the 2022 Games were awarded to a repressive country with a horrifying human rights record because it was the “safe” choice, guaranteed to organize the event impeccably.
Even before this winter the IOC had resolved to choose future sites differently, consulting early on with interested candidates, guiding them through the intricacies of organizing the Games and then handpicking one.
It’s no coincidence that the next three selections — Paris, Milan-Cortina, and Los Angeles — all are previous Olympic hosts that will use existing facilities or create temporary ones.
The 2032 Summer Games already have been awarded to Brisbane and it seems likely that the 2030 winter version will go to either Salt Lake City or Vancouver, both recent hosts. What all of them have in common is that their countries are democracies. At some point, you run out of dictatorships that can build a bobsled run.
The IOC correctly was pilloried for taking the easy way out with Sochi and Beijing. The advantage of dealing with authoritarian states is that it’s one-stop shopping. You talk to Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, explain the requirements, and it’s done. The disadvantage is that those countries tend not to embrace the values of Olympism.
The IOC prefers to ignore the discordant discrepancy, insisting that the Games must be beyond politics. What it has realized, if belatedly, is that much of the world views that notion as hopelessly naïve.
Going back to Cortina will be a romantic return to a simpler time for the Olympics, a time before state-sponsored doping and professionalism and budgets of billions upon billions. None of the present realities, of course, will have changed by 2026.
The enduring memory of the Games just concluded is that a nation that was required to compete without its name, flag, or anthem as punishment for its past and ongoing addiction to banned drugs had the most successful medal haul in its history. And that a 15-year-old girl was the sobbing face of these Games.