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Olympians are inspirations because of their achievements despite the barriers before them. Lijia Xu won the gold medal in the Laser Radial sailing competition at the 2012 London Olympics for Team China, reaching the heights of her sport after overcoming a lack of hearing and sight, a sporting complex inexperienced in sailing, cancer, and a culture not yet open to new ideas.

Today, the Shanghai native is based in Dorset, England, and like so many high-performance athletes, figuring out how to transition from sport to new and sustainable career opportunities.

As a coach and trainer, Xu has gone online, sharing her techniques and insight on Airbnb Experiences. Xu has two courses: Olympic Champion’s Sailing Journey, and the one I participated in, Home Workouts & Q&A with Olympic Gold Medalist.

In the Home Workouts course, Xu is all business, as she takes you through a wide range of stretching and small-muscle group workouts, explaining how “T,” “Y,” and “W” exercises can relieve pain and improve posture. For a first-timer like me, those exercises proved to be a heck of a workout.

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Xu learned these techniques as a teenager when she first started training with sailor and coach, Jon Emmett, who taught her that not only could Pilates resolve her spine issues, they would give her the mobility and movement required for the very physical aspects of sailing in a one-person dinghy.

Xu met Emmett because she was desperate to learn. Within the sports development system in China, Xu was beholden to her coaches and the sporting administrators who dictated the training regimen of all their athletes. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, competitive sailing was a relatively new sport in China, and so the local expertise was not so advanced.

Thirsty for knowledge, Xu read a book called “Be Your Own Sailing Coach,” and reached out to the author, Emmett, on Facebook, as she explained in her fascinating book, “Golden Lily: Asia’s First Dinghy Sailing Gold Medalist.” Despite the local protests, Xu helped get Emmett hired to coach the sailors in China. But that was just the beginning of the challenge, as Emmett and his coaching ways created discomfort for the local coaches, as Xu wrote:

All the sailors have to listen unconditionally to their coaches; the coaches obey their leaders; and the leaders report to their superiors. What Jon found hard was how those leaders, who had never sailed, could say that they knew what was best for the sailors and arrange everything based on their knowledge of an unrelated realm. They were unwilling to listen to the sailors’ opinions and it was a common practice to deny or disagree with what someone in a lower position said or asked for. So however hard the sailors tried to make the most reasonable and sensible suggestions to their coaches and leaders, their effort was mostly in vain.

Up to the moment Xu won the gold medal in the Radial Laser competition at the 2012 London Olympics, she had to fight for time and advice from Emmett, as access to the English coach was highly restricted. But in some ways, that was par for the course for Xu.

When Xu was born in 1987, her parents learned that she had half the hearing of an ordinary person and very poor vision in her left eye. Throughout her childhood and teenage years in Shanghai, she had to deal with the embarrassment of asking people to repeat themselves, or the spiteful laughter of children and adults who could not understand why she had to be told things over and over again.

But thanks to a chance meeting in Shanghai with a sailing coach who spotted the 10-year-old swimmer at a pool one day, Xu was asked to try out for the nascent sailing team, in a boat called “Optimist,” an appropriate name for the young girl who continued to keep her chin up. Once she realized the benefits of sailing, her self-esteem bloomed.

The freedom (of the water) was particularly appealing because I felt my life was limited by my poor hearing and eyesight while on land. Young children laughed at me, made fun of me, and didn’t allow me to join their activities due to my lack of these basic human functions. So the moment I boarded a boat, a deep sense of freedom suddenly overwhelmed my body, heart and mind. I loved to be in the boat surrounded by nature which isn’t judgmental; just fresh, open and vast! I had never been so happy and fulfilled as I was on a boat.

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The little tomboy grew from 130 to 176 cm and doubled her weight from 30 to 60 kg. She won the 1998 Chinese National Championships in Hong Kong, and in 1999, won her first international competition, taking gold at the Asian Championships. Soon she was flying to other countries and winning championships overseas. And in 2002, at the age of 15, she had the 2004 Athens Olympics in her sights.

Perhaps the Olympics had always been a silent goal. Xu wrote in her book about how she was inspired by a Japanese television series about a female volleyball player hoping to make it to the Olympics. And when she eagerly watched the opening ceremonies on the 2000 Sydney Olympics, her father teased her by saying, “Will I see you on TV one day, representing China in the Olympic Games?”

However, as Xu wrote, “life doesn’t always go the way we plan.” In November of 2002, a tumor was discovered in her left thigh bone. Surgery would mean that the dream of making the team for the Athens Games was over. Not having surgery, she was told, would mean the possible loss of her leg, if not her life.

After the surgery, after the unbearable pain began to fade, she started her recovery – excruciating exercises so that she could reactivate her leg muscles and walk again. But beyond the exercises, she used the downtime to study English, with the intent to communicate with foreign sailors to improve her craft. And it was in those quiet moments alone, she realized how much she missed sailing.

Sometimes I would ponder how boring my life was without sailing. It was like a life without vigor, a picture without color, or a movie without sound. It was in those quiet days, reflecting on myself and the past, that I realized how deeply I loved the sport of sailing. My life just couldn’t continue without it. When I steered the boat it is actually the boat which was pointing out a route for me, guiding me towards my dream goal and life values.

Sometimes you meet someone whose life energy is so great, it’s visible. If you have the opportunity to meet Lijia Xu, online or otherwise, you’ll know what I mean.

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Who will win? The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

The online experience is best when you forget you’re online.

Olympic sailor, James Espey, and his wife and Team USA sailor, Genny Tulloch, made that happen in their program – Sail the Virtual Seas with an Olympian.

Bantering with amateur sailors and sailor wannabes online, Espey provided an exciting blow-by-blow commentary of one of his own races at the 2012 London Olympics, using video and web conferencing annotation tools to demonstrate the excitement of Laser class sailing, drawing involuntary “woah’s” and “oohs” from the program participants.

We were all joining a new virtual learning course organized by Airbnb. The global lodging company has invested in guided experiences hosted by residents of popular travel spots called Airbnb Experiences. In the era of social distancing, Airbnb is moving experiences online, a growing number hosted by Olympians, current and retired. While other programs focused on the personal back stories of Olympians, like the Airbnb Experiences of Breeja Larson or Lauren Gibbs, Espey’s focus was on the tactics of race sailing, finding inventive ways to engage and teach.

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Using household items like utensils, bag clips and tooth picks, Espey, a Northern Ireland native, and Tulloch, a contender for Tokyo2020, demonstrated the choices sailors make at the starting line depending on wind direction. They showed through items on their table how competitive sailors explain race conditions and tactics  to each other, a practice called “Bar Karate,” so called for the movement of arms made to show shifts in boat direction, usually executed with a favored drink in hand.

For the layperson, sailing is a mystery. For the competitive racer, sailing is a challenge. But the differentiating factor between a great sailor and an Olympic sailor, like the Olympic Alpine skier, is in the ability to read the course. Unlike skiers, sailors have to read their watery course as it changes on a moment-to-moment basis, because of the wind.

Catching the visual cues of wind, revealed in darker patches of water known as “puffs,” or “cat’s paws” is a critical differentiating factor, as Espey explained. “If you get a header, you tack. If you see a puff, you have to understand why it is happening, what its effect will be, and how your behavior in the boat should change. Is it going to lift me? Head me?”

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Is that dark patch a “puff” of wind to leverage, the shadow of a cloud, or a forest of kelp?

In addition to dark patches in the water, clouds are clues to the location of wind. But you need to understand the differences in clouds. Tulloch said that “clouds that are building are sucking in air. They look like mushrooms, and you want to avoid them at all costs. The ones that are about to spit out rain, you sail to as fast as you can. The second that rain comes there is 10-15 knots more than anywhere else on the course.”  Added Espey, “You have to watch clouds out of the corner of your eye. As clouds move across the course, they can drag the winds, create a temporary false wind shift, and swing back again once that cloud leaves. They’re very helpful. You can play them. You just don’t know until it happens.”

On the particular London Olympic race day that Espey shared, it was “pretty hectic,” as the Nothe Course, one of five Laser courses in Weymouth Bay had considerable wind shifts in play. “It was hell,” said Espey. Like any race, reading the “puffs,” and understanding which ones will provide the greatest acceleration is vital. And he showed how many sailors may have misread a dark patch in the bay to the left of the starting line as a puff, when actually it was a shadow of a very high cloud, “which distracted a lot of these guys,” said Espey.

A smaller group headed right toward true wind, and got off to a great start. Tulloch explained that  people who qualify for the Olympics are the best at managing these things: reading the wind, starting well, and physically handling the demands of the boat while monitoring shifts in the wind. Espey said it’s like examining a puzzle and finding the easy way through it.

Espey still competes in professional competitions at the highest levels, and remodels boats in San Francisco, including the 100-foot super maxi CQS, the world’s fastest yacht, the first to exceed 50 knots. Tulloch does color commentary for televised sailing events like American’s Cup, and is expected to do so during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Together, they form a terrific tag-team teaching combo. Come and sail the virtual seas with them in this engrossing Airbnb Experience.

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James Espey sailing in the Laser competition at the 2012 London Olympics for Team Ireland. (With permission from James Espey.)

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Some people describe it like being kicked off a cliff in a trash can, akin to the worst turbulence you ever felt while flying.

That’s how Lauren Gibbs described the experience of the bobsleigh in her compelling online program, A Day in the Life, Olympic Bobsledder. Her live program is part of Airbnb’s newly launched online experiences, a growing list of programs you can join via Zoom, a great way to fill the time during your COVID-19 home isolation. On the day I participated, people from New Jersey, Ohio, Colorado, Virginia, Quebec and Tokyo gathered to listen to a bona fide Olympian.

Gibbs is a native of Los Angeles, California, which she points out is “far from being the Mecca of bobsledding.” Unlike Breeja Larson profiled in Part 1, Gibbs didn’t dream of being an Olympian since the age of 4. She went to college (Brown University) where she played volleyball, got her MBA (Pepperdine University), and then worked in sales for 12 years. She was working in Denver, making good money overseeing a team of 200 across 5 states. But she wasn’t happy in her work.

One day in 2014, while working out at Front Range CrossFit in Denver, Gibbs had one of those accidental meetings that in hindsight, changed her life. Jill Potter, eventual captain of the US women’s rugby team at the 2016 Rio Olympics, trained at the same gym, and asked Gibbs a series of surprising questions: How much do you back squat? How about dead lifts? And can you sprint?

Gibbs answered, but had no idea why she was being asked these questions until Potter came back and said, “I think you should bobsled.” Gibbs, who sprinkles her talk with laugh-out-loud remarks throughout the online session said, “which of course is something every 30 year old thinks they’re going to hear on a random Wednesday.”

But Gibbs actually took the idea seriously. She had experience being unemployed during the sub-prime crisis and promised herself then that she would always give every new opportunity a serious look. So she did some digging. She learned that since women’s bobsledding was introduced as an Olympic event in 2002, Team USA had medaled every time. She learned that the USOPC had a training center in Colorado Springs and that there happened to be a try out that weekend. She thought, “What do I have to lose. At the very least, I can enjoy the food at the cafeteria, maybe meet some Olympians. It will be a cool story to tell at the office.”

After the try out, she got an invitation to rookie camp at Lake Placid in New York, and found out what it was really like to ride a bobsled down an actual sliding course.

I’m standing over the edge and it looks like an iced-over water slide, a death trap. I’m standing at the top of the mountain and I’m terrified. I’m staring down at the dark abyss, because it goes right into a corner and you can’t see what’s coming next.

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Gibbs demonstrating what it’s like to be a brakeperson in a 2-person bobsleigh.

Gibbs made it down the track, and she screamed “Heck yes! I’ve got to do that again!”

And so the sales executive quit her job and embarked on a path of potential glory, but also great uncertainty.

Following your dream is an amazing thing, but it is also painful. The harder you work and the closer you get to your goal, the more terrifying it becomes. You start to realize that as you get closer to your goal, you have more to lose. There is so much uncertainty. And a lot of times, there’s nothing you can do about it as so many things are out of your control.

Spoiler alert – Gibbs would eventually make Team USA on the 2-person bobsleigh team, joining then two-time Olympian and medalist, Elana Meyers-Taylor. The pair would take silver in their event at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics.

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Showing off her very heavy silver medal from the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics.

Today, Gibbs is training to make Team USA for the 2022 Beijing Olympics. She is making less money, but she is saving more as she has become more focused in her goal and more disciplined about what she needs and doesn’t need. And she is happy.

In her online program, Gibbs shares three of her life’s lessons, one of which is how to say “no,” something easier to do when you know what you want. She knows it. And she’s going for it.

Do you want to feel that passion? Do you want to ask her yourself how she does it? Then sign up for her program.

Elena Myers Taylor and Lauren Gibbs
From Lauren Gibbs’ Instagram page.

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She grew in the heart of the ghetto in Mesa, Arizona, with dreams of making a million dollars, but little else.

I was four years old, watching my first Olympic Games, and looking at the gymnasts, and being thrilled with them, how powerful and beautiful and graceful they were. And I had the thought, ‘they’re little like me. If they can do it, I can do it.’

Today, Breeja Larson is an Olympic champion, with a life of lessons for future Olympians, and the rest of us. In fact, in this age of CoronaVirus, lock downs and social distancing, Larson is expanding her network and influence virtually. Working with Airbnb, Larson offers an online program called “Goal Setting with Olympic Gold Medalist,” an intimate and stimulating experience with a world-class athlete.

Larson won a gold medal in swimming at the 2012 London Olympics on a powerful Team USA swim squad which took nearly half of the 34 gold medals up for grab in swimming. One of those gold medals went to Larson who swam in the preliminary heat in the 4×100 medley relay for Team USA, swimming one of the fastest breaststroke legs amidst the 16 teams, ensuring her team would compete in the finals. Although Larson didn’t swim in the finals, her teammates set a world record and got them all gold medals.

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Larson with her gold medal….the color reflected on my screen not doing the medal’s sheen justice.

Larson shared her story on Zoom with 8 participants who joined from California, Texas, Illinois, North Carolina and Tokyo. They were able to hear her Olympic journey, a powerful story of perseverance.

As Larson grew to 6 feet tall, she realized she wasn’t going to realize her dream as an Olympic gymnast. But she knew sport was a way for her to get a college education, and that she would need a scholarship to accomplish that. She saw swimming as an opportunity, and convinced a local Mesa swim club to allow her to swim for free for 10 months. Her coach was encouraging, and asked her of her Olympic dreams. When Larson explained  she used to harbor hopes of becoming an Olympic gymnast, her coach opened her eyes to the world of possibility.

Swimming is like gymnastics. Every time you dive in the pool, you have to have the perfect angle, grace and power. Every flip turn has to have the perfect landing. It’s a beautiful dance routine in the water.

That was the moment Larson’s mindset shifted, when she learned that every time you look at something as a negative, you can change the mental angle and see it as a positive. “Mindset has a very strong hold over your performance,” she said.

Larson built up her savings in high school lifeguarding, making sandwiches at Subway, cleaning homes, even collecting aluminum cans while training hard as a swimmer. And her hard work paid off when she got a partial scholarship to Texas A&M University. But life as a student athlete was tough, particularly since she had to embark on a training regimen to make up for years of training that most of her teammates had already compiled.

The workload as a student athlete was just crushing me. And one day, two months into the academic year, I remember going into the cafeteria, trying to eat my food, and the biggest pile of bricks just fell on me. I felt I was about to crack. Everything felt so hard and I was breaking down.

She sent a long message to her mother – “a pathetic rant” as she called it – and said essentially, “I’m going to drown. I don’t want to do this anymore. I want to quit. I want to go home. I’m not good enough.” And as Larson wallowed in self pity, her mother sent a her a very simple life-changing message.

This is what it feels like to be a champion.

In this Airbnb Experience, Larson shared that lesson as well as several others she has learned over the years. In addition to the critical impact of having a positive mindset, she talked at length about how important it is to set audacious goals, to chunk the big goal into smaller tactical goals, be intensively self aware about what you want and why, and get objective feedback from others. She is articulate, practical and most of all, inspiring.

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And now, at the age of 27, Larson is working hard to apply those lessons and make the team again for Tokyo next year. Competing as a pro, she actuallytook first leading wire-to-wire in a 100-meter breaststroke finalsof the Phillips 66 National Championships on August 3, 2019, only 9 months ago, giving her hope of returning to the Olympics in 2021. But then COVID-19 entered the picture.

The pools are all closed. Coaches don’t have jobs. But the athlete in my head is saying, ‘keep going. You got this. 16 more months. Just chunk it out. Figure it out up here and the rest of it will take care of itself.’ But if I choose to swim, everything else goes on hold. I can’t eat anything with sugar. (Assuming concerns of the pandemic ease) I wouldn’t be able to travel anywhere with my boyfriend or go to music festivals. I’d miss a lot of summer weddings.

However, if she doesn’t make the attempt, Larson said she would “have this empty hole. I want to hang up my goggles after my last race, instead of saying the pandemic happened and I moved on.”

So against all odds, Larson stays positive, focused on her goal. Will we see her in Tokyo in the summer of 2021? Maybe you should attend her Airbnb Experience over the next few months and ask her yourself. She’ll be happy to talk with you.

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Happy 2020 New Year from the olympians

Welcome to 2020!

Welcome to the Year of the Rat!

While the “rat” in English tends to have negative connotations, in terms of the Chinese zodiac, the rat is seen in a very positive light.

In Chinese culture, the rat is energetic, alert, flexible, witty and full of life. The rat, because of it’s reproductive prowess, is a symbol of wealth.

As the Chinese zodiac runs on 12-year cycles, and the Olympics run on 4-year cycles, there have been a large number of Olympiads, both summer and winter, held in the Year of the Rat.

Year of the Rat

Summer

Winter

1900

Paris

1912

Stockholm

1924

Paris

Chamoix

1936

Berlin

Garmisch-Partenkirchen

1948

London

St. Moritz

1960

Rome

Squaw Valley

1972

Munich

Sapporo

1984

Los Angeles

Sarajevo

1996

Atlanta

2008

Beijing

2020

Tokyo

You can see a few selection trends via the above table. Initially, the Olympics were highly European-centric, with a shift to North America towards the end of the 20th century. The 21st century has seen a shift towards Asia, including three Olympiads in a row held in Asia (2018 – PyeongChang, 2020 – Tokyo, and 2022 – Beijing).

The 1972 Sapporo Olympics, only 8 years after Japan’s triumphant hosting of the Summer Olympics in 1964, were also a success. Not only did Japan win its first gold medals in a Winter Olympiad, it is said that the Sapporo Games turned a profit. The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics were considered the first Olympiad to make money as well.

So while the Olympics in general are not profit-making events, the Year of the Rat and its aura of prosperity may make a difference in the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics. By many measures, Tokyo2020 is already a success.

So if you smell a rat this year, that may be a good thing.

Caryn Davies and 2012 gold medal women eights
Caryn Davies (far right) with the 2012 London Olympic championship women’s eight team.

In 2012, the US women’s eight was the favorite to take the gold medal at that year’s London Olympics. Stroke seat Caryn Davies wasn’t buying it. “Everyone’s bow is even at the start line.  Being the favorite means nothing when we line up to race.”  And Team Canada was nipping at their heels, having nearly beaten Team USA in a World Cup race a couple of months prior to the Summer Games.

But only 500 meters into the finals of the women’s eights in London, coxswain Mary Whipple could see the commanding lead they had built, and she told Davies some years after that at that point in the race she was so certain of victory that she had wanted to stand up in the stern of the boat and shout to the competition behind her, “Bring it!” She didn’t, but the Americans did indeed win gold, leading from start to finish and winning America’s third-ever gold medal in the vaunted eights competition.

This was a significant triumph, important in cementing the American women’s dominance. And yet, for Davies, it was the end of a long road. After winning bronze in Athens and then gold in Beijing and London in the stroke position of the boat, she felt it was time to move on with her life.

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“I had had a good run,” Davies told me. “I won a bunch of medals and ended on a high note. I was almost done with law school. I thought it was time to get a job and start ‘real’ life.” With a law degree from Columbia and an MBA from Oxford, Davies entered the reputable law firm Goodwin Procter in Boston. For three and a half years, she advised clients on finance and M&A. While getting the work done, she wasn’t as fulfilled as she hoped to be. The competitive nature of business was different from the competitive nature of sports, and she was noticing the differences.

Business leaders love to listen to and be around sports champions. They love to hear their stories of preparation, struggle and triumph.  Yet success in sport is generally clear-cut and objective, whereas success in business is often opaque or subjective. The contrast led to the insight that the challenges of leadership and management can be greater in the world of business where goals and metrics are less clear. In such cases, the ability of leaders and managers to motivate individuals and sustain a team mindset becomes more significant.

She shared this insight in a 2017 interview with Forbes magazine.

True teamwork demands a level of bonding at deeper levels. That requires intentional effort to build. The intensity of the workplace, and its consumption of most of our brain power, leaves little reserve for building those bonds. When you’re executing a sport like rowing, even though physically demanding, you aren’t using all of your brain’s processing power, so there is reserve left to invest in relationships with your teammates.

In other words, often in business, managers may have to work harder to strengthen team bonds to improve team performance, particularly if there are perceived stars on the team. Davies experience has informed her that successful rowing teams do not emphasize the star.

In rowing, there is no standout player. On sports teams where you have star players, you see divisiveness. Generally, you know who is faster on your team, but from the outside looking in, there is no star. You see boats where there’s one person trying to win the race alone, and they burn out.   The people behind them can’t follow and there’s a disconnect between them and the rest of the team, just making the boat go slower.

Davies, who was already a member at a couple rowing clubs in Boston, began going down to the boathouse more regularly. She wasn’t there just to get in a good workout in the early mornings, but to learn from the club members who were themselves successful people with lessons for newbies to the world of business. And one day, she learned a lesson from a successful person.

“I was out in the single rowing one morning August last year and the legendary Harvard coach Charley Butt sees me and says through his megaphone, ‘Caryn, are you training for 2020? You should! Rowing loves you, and you love rowing.’”

Reflecting on that, Davies realized she still needs to play to her strengths—that maybe her work in the law firm was not the way to fulfill that drive to be the best.

I was feeling a bit frustrated with my career. I thought, okay, I could double down on law. But I don’t love law enough to be the best in the world. And there is something where I have been the best in the world – rowing -and perhaps I could still be the best in the world. Where is my best contribution? I could slog away at a law firm. But is that my best contribution?  There is this thing I am still good at and in which I still have a lot to learn – why not do it to the fullest before it’s too late?

Davies left Goodwin in February 2019 to focus on her training. Having been away from world-class competition for going on 7 years, she had to lot catching up to do, and is realistic about her chances of making it to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But she knows she has a lot to offer.

Let’s be honest. I am nowhere near as strong physically as anyone on the team. If you put us on the rowing machine I would not beat another person. My strength has been on the technical side of rowing. That is something you never lose. I still have that. I realize I can contribute to a team by being in a boat and rowing my best and help others row a little bit better. My #1 goal for this year?  Be the best teammate I can be. That means helping everyone get faster. I acknowledge that could help someone beat me out of a spot on the team. If that is the case, so beat it. I will have achieved my goal.

She now believes she has a 50:50 chance of making Team USA for the Olympics. And she’s got one positive sign so far: US Rowing announced the crews that will compete at the 2019 World Rowing Championships to be held in Linz, Austria from August 25 to September 1, 2019, and Davies made the cut. She will compete in the women’s four-person boat with Molly Bruggeman (Dayton, Ohio/University of Notre Dame), Madeline Wanamaker (Neenah, Wis./University of Wisconsin), and Vicky Opitz (Middleton, Wis./University of Wisconsin)

Caryn Davies (Ithaca, N.Y./Harvard University) said “I’m thrilled to be racing in that boat with those teammates.  I think it’s going to be a great regatta!”

Caryn Davies and 2008 gold medal winning women eights

Caryn Davies (top middle) with the 2008 Olympic championship team

In rowing, the American women are the dominant force in the glamour event, the eights. When the women from Team USA settle in their barracuda-like 9-meter shell in a world final, they do so as winners of 12 of the past 13 world and Olympic championships.

But in 2004, at the Athens Summer Olympics, that was not the case. Caryn Davies was a college student, and many of her teammates on that rowing team were also in their twenties. In the case of rowing, particularly today, experience is highly valued, and teams composed of rowers in their thirties or forties are not uncommon. But the 2004 team had . And a tailwind.

In a dramatic throwing-down-of-the-gauntlet, the crew burst out at the start and held off the Romanian boat in the first heat to set a world record time of 5:56:55 in the 2,000-meter race. Back on the dock, when a reporter informed the boat that they had broken the world record, one of Davies’ teammates blurted out on live television, “Holy shit, we did?”

In the finals, the powerful Romanians were ready for the hard-charging Americans. Despite the Americans holding a narrow lead at the 1000-meter mark, the Romanians pushed past them and held on for gold.

Athens was a learning experience and a launch pad for success. Davies became part of a core group of athletes that stayed intact through the next few years, winning gold at the world championships in 2006 and 2007 before lining up for the finals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“We had more experience as a boat, as the core had been rowing together since 2006,” Davies told me. “It was around that time that we saw a shift in the composition of the national team.  Leading up to 2004, most athletes came directly from college, and there was a lot of turnover.  After 2004, athletes stuck around for years after college. We had more confidence in our ability to respond to competition.”

Determined to win, they dedicated their pursuit of gold to the 1984 women’s eight, which were the last American women to win gold. Channeling the spirit of the women of ’84, the American eight started off with a slight lead, and gradually widened the gap, pulling away from the Romanians. At the halfway point of 1,000 meters, coxswain Mary Whipple called for an extra 20 stroke-long effort, a move dedicated to the team from 1984.

Davies is the stroke, the technically consistent rower who sits in front of the coxswain and sets the tempo for the other seven. She could clearly see how far ahead of the others her boat was. But even in the last few hundred meters, she believed that anything could happen, even the worst.

“In the last 250 meters, a little fear started setting in for me personally,” she said. “By that point in the race, I had driven myself into the ground. My technique was breaking down, and I knew that if it had been me alone in the boat, we would have been going backwards.  Thankfully my teammates were there to carry me across the line. There is a photo of me just as we cross the finish line where I am looking to the side with utter terror in my eyes.  In that moment I was thinking, ‘That had better be the finish line, because one of two things is going to happen in the next few strokes: either we’re going to cross the finish line, or I’m going to pass out.”

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She did not pass out. She and her teammates crossed the finish line first.

Spent, her teammates made efforts to smile and cheer. But Davies’s head was down, bent over exhausted. Whipple crawls over the stroke seat rigger to Davies and embraces her. The women from the US were Olympic champions: the first of three consecutive Olympic championship crews in a row that would cement this team’s dominant place in sports history.

Barcelona road to Segrada Familia
The wide-open road to Segrada Familia in Barcelona.

In my view, the streets in Barcelona are not suffocating with traffic. I was only in Barcelona for a few days in April, but the roads in the business districts are amazingly wide, and we were never slowed in our travels. When I walked the narrow paths of Gracia, a cozy neighborhood in the middle of Barcelona, I never felt squeezed by cars. I lived in Bangkok for 11 years. I know what bad traffic looks like.

But of course it is all relative. While Barcelona is no where near as hot, congested or polluted as Bangkok, for citizens of Barcelona, conditions are not as good as they should be. According to this VOX article by David Roberts of the University of Pennsylvania, Barcelona is the fourth-most population-dense city in Europe, is well under the World Health Organization’s recommendation for 9 square meters of green space per resident at 2.7 square meters, suffers from urban heat island effect at 3 to 8 degrees Celsius warmer than the region around it, and is considered one of the noisiest in the world.

One of the reasons for this poorer quality of life is due to decades of negligence by former totalitarian leader, Francisco Franco,  After the generalissimo passed away in 1975, development in Barcelona began again, peaking with financing sparked by the Olympics, which may be another reason for the state of Barcelona today.

According to Samuel Rosenthal and his article, Olympic Cities and the Legacy of Infrastructure: Barcelona 1992 and Athens 2004, the planners for Barcelona were essentially taking advantage of global trends, including the desire for large cities to invest in urban renewal, and to also brand Barcelona as an exciting destination for tourists and global financing. In fact, Rosenthal explained that planners shifted attention from “publicly planned, small-scale infrastructural improvements to larger schemes funded by private investors.”

This is not unique to Barcelona. The organizers leveraged the Olympics to realize long-held plans for the development of Barcelona as would any other city. But as I wrote previously, these Games were so successful economically that it is often held up as the gold standard for an organization of an Olympiad, cited as The Barcelona Model. But one can argue that the Olympics triggered inflows of private capital that brought both benefits and detriments to Barcelona, as Rosenthal explains.

…this largely positive appraisal of the Barcelona Olympics belies the negative consequences of its planning strategy that have become evident in succeeding years. The regeneration of the waterfront, while touted as a positive outcome of the Games, has increased housing prices across the city, forcing many longtime residents to leave. Additionally, following the Barcelona Games, inflation in the city increased and unemployment rose. And on a larger scale the city branding approaches used for the Barcelona Olympics have increasingly placed control of the city in the hands of private agents. Generally, post-Olympic city planning in Barcelona has become less focused on the improvement of the lives of the city’s residents, and more attuned to strategies that seek to maximize the attraction of capital.

Part of the woes of urbanization and increased emphasis on development is a diminished prioritization of the working class. Economist Andrew Zimbalist, author of the fascinating book, Circus Maximus – The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, quoted Josep Maria Montaner, an architectural critic, in explaining how old housing and factories, landmarks of a different age, were demolished, and new development lacked any environmental or sustainability standards. Zimbalist then went on to explain how inflows of private capital led to gentrification.

Barcelona’s new urban zones were redeveloped with improved public services and, in some cases, direct access to the sea. These parts of the city became gentrified, and hand in hand with gentrification came higher prices. Higher prices meant that lower-income people had to relocate, and, more generally, plans for public housing were underfulfilled. One study noted the following impacts:

  • Strong increases in the prices of housing for rent and for sale (from 1986 to 1993 the cumulative increase was 139% for home sale prices and nearly 145% in home rentals)
  • A drastic decrease in the availability of public housing (from 1986 to 1992 there was a cumulative decrease of 5.9%)
  • A gradual decrease in the availability of private houses for rent (from 1981 to 1991 the cumulative decrease was 23.7%)11 Thus, like the experience with mega-events elsewhere, hosting the games in Barcelona was accompanied by a redistribution of living standards to the detriment of lower-income groups.

One can argue that the decrease in supply is being driven by a Silicon Valley start up called Airbnb, which is highly popular in Spain. For those who don’t know, Airbnb is a service that connects you with people who are offering accommodations in their own properties. The original premise of Airbnb was that you could rent out a person’s room, and you could spend time with the owner. Today, people and companies run businesses renting out apartments and houses to people who are looking for alternatives to hotels.

Airbnb

I spent a week in Madrid and Barcelona in April. In Madrid, I stayed in a room the owner lived in. He was out of town, but a guest occupied another room. It was a great experience as we got along well with the other occupant. In contrast, our Airbnb accommodation in Barcelona was owned by a couple who managed three properties, none of which they lived in. Overall, both experiences were great for us. But while Airbnb is a boon for tourists, it is to the detriment of local residents, as explained in this New Yorker article.

Nearly half the Airbnb properties in Barcelona are entire houses or apartments. The conceit of friendly locals renting out spare rooms has been supplanted by a more mercenary model, in which centuries-old apartment buildings are hollowed out with ersatz hotel rooms. Many properties have been bought specifically as short-term-rental investments, managed by agencies that have dozens of such properties. Especially in coveted areas, Airbnb can drive up rents, as longtime residents sell their apartments to people eager to use them as profit engines.

It was early 1987 and Freddie Mercury was finally meeting one of his heroes – the great Spanish soprano, Montserrat Caballé.

As described in El Pais, they met at the Hotel Ritz in Barcelona. Mercury sat down and began to improve his song, “Exercises in Free Love“, singing in a falsetto a part he hoped Caballe would be willing to perform for him.

Caballé liked that Mercury, contrary to appearances, sold his voice instead of his image. “When he sat down at the piano to improvise, I realized that a true musician was before me,” she said. He made such a good impression that she agreed to meet him again at his house in London to record a demo.

Thus began a creative collaboration that resulted in an album called “Barcelona”, with three tracks sung by Mercury and Caballe, including the title track “Barcelona”. When the song came out in 1987, it hit #8 in the UK Singles Chart, peaking at #2 after Mercury passed away in 1991.

In the run-up to the 1992 Summer Olympics, Mercury was priming the world for the PR explosion to come for Barcelona, a city of sun and fun that was gearing up for its global coming-out party. Today, Barcelona is one of the most popular destinations in a country that is the third most visited in the world. And while city after city reject initiatives to bring the Olympics to their neighborhood, the 1992 Barcelona Olympics is often held up as one of the most successful Olympics ever.

In fact, The Royal Institute of British Architects awarded their 1999 medal to the city of Barcelona for its “ambitious yet pragmatic urban strategy and the highest design standards…(which) transformed the city’s public realm, immensely expanded its amenities and regenerated its economy, providing pride in its inhabitants and delight in its visitors.”

Barcelona Olympic Village 2
The site of the former Olympic Village of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, in Poblenou. Photo taken by author.

Starved of investment by Spain’s autocratic leader, Francisco Franco, Barcelona was a congested and polluted city by the sea, whose aging manufacturing infrastructure crumbled during the poor economy of the 1970s and physically blocked the city’s denizens passage to the nearby Mediterranean Sea. Thanks to city plans accelerated by the requirements for the  Olympics, investments into Barcelona’s transportation and communications infrastructure were made. According to Samuel Rosenthal and his article, “Olympic Cities and the Legacy of Infrastructure: Barcelona 1992 and Athens 2004,”

Barcelona renovated an existing stadium and created four Olympic areas with 4,500 apartments and 5,000 hotel rooms. In terms of infrastructure outside the immediate realm of the Games, the city constructed a new Ring Road to connect venues, two communication towers, new cultural centers and museums, expansions to the airport and the metro system, and five kilometers of new beaches.

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The section of ring road that passes by the foot of Mount Tibidabo in Barcelona. Photo taken by the author.

As so few examples of economically successful Olympics exist, this example from 1992 is often called “The Barcelona Model” – in general, a scenario where a city and a country are able to leverage the Olympic brand to accelerate existing plans to develop the host city’s physical and service infrastructure. Or as economist Andrew Zimbalist describes, “Barcelona used the Olympics; the Olympics didn’t use Barcelona.”

Zimbalist explains that there were four factors for Barcelona’s success. (The headings are my words.)

  1. Barcelona cool: In his book, Circus Maximus, Zimbalist described Barcelona in the early 1980s as “a hidden jewel. Its location, climate, architecture, and history meant that the city had a tremendous potential for tourism and business that had been unexploited for decades.” In fact, Zimbalist cited stars like Freddie Mercury who would visit the Catalonian center for its cool factor, and who added to the city’s secret cache. Barcelona was quietly becoming a popular destination for tourism and conventions. As Zimbalist wrote, “with a new airport terminal and forty new hotels in the city, the number of passengers at Barcelona’s airport almost doubled, from 5.46 million in 1985 to 10.04 million in 1992. Barcelona’s ranking as a tourist and business meeting destination among European cities improved from eleventh in 1990 to fourth in 2009.”
  2. Improving economy:  Zimbalist wrote that business was so good in Barcelona that unemployment dropped from 18.4% to 9.6% between the period of November, 1986 to July, 1992. Annual GDP growth was stuck under 1% for well over a decade from 1974 to 1985, which means that large infrastructure projects were few and far between. So when the Olympics rolled around, “the Barcelona economy was ready to receive and benefit from stimulus spending.” Unfortunately for Brazil and Greece, the opposite happened when their Olympics rolled around.
  3. EU Membership: In 1986, Spain joined the European Economic Community (today called the European Union), which gave Spain access to broader opportunities in finance, trade and tourism across Europe.
  4. The Olympics as Part of the Grander Plan: The most important reason that the Barcelona Olympics did not result in the hideous white elephants that we have seen recently in Sochi and Athens, among many others, is that “the Olympics were made to work for the plan. The plan was not created posthaste to work for the Olympics.” Most of the $11.5 billion budget 2000 dollars) was from private sources. Public funds were 40% of the entire budget, and most of the public spend were in projects already part of city plans that had existed for decades.

Part of grand plan of the city planners was to focus on four peripheral areas of Barcelona where investments for the Olympics would spur continued economic use. As Rosenthal explained,  “It was also important that any infrastructure built specifically for the Games had a clear post-Olympic use,” so the planners chose four areas in the peripheries of the city where investment was needed: Montjuïc, Diagonal, Vall d’Hebron, and Poblenou.

The most dramatic and most praised of the changes took place in Poblenou, the eastern seaside part of Barcelona that was opened to the sea, and boasted two gleaming towers that initially housed the athletes as a central part of the Olympic Village, and then went on to become residences for the citizens of Barcelona.  As Rosenthal wrote, “Newspapers lauded the ‘gleaming new Olympic village and beachfront’ which had replaced the ‘grimy industrial area that had blocked access to the sea for decades.'”

In 1992, Spaniards saw the Olympics as a symbol of progress and global integration. But it was also a chance to show off Barcelona cool, and help make the Capital of Catalonia a must-see destination. And nothing symbolized that more than the memorable cauldron lighting of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

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The Olympic cauldron of the Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys in Montjuïc, Barcelona. Photo taken by author.

At the end of the opening ceremony, held in the refurbished Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys in the newly improved Montjuïc area, archer Antonio Rebollo pulled back on the arrow, feeling the tension in the bow, and the heat of the flame that flickered in the wind from his arrow’s tip. Rebollo could barely see the reflection of the silver cauldron beyond the wall of the stadium, but once he was oriented and certain of his angle, he released the bow string sending the flaming arrow into the summer night. The arrow travelled 230 feet up into the air and over the cauldron, setting the fumes alight.

They call it one of the greatest Olympic torch lightings ever, for what is also called one of the greatest Olympics ever.

Barcelona Olympic Village 1
The author on site at former Olympic Village of the 1992 Barcelona Summer Games, April 29, 2019.

A journey is coming to an end.

I celebrate the fourth anniversary of my blog, The Olympians, by announcing that my book on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics is coming out in July.

The book, 1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes, is the product of the thousand-plus posts from my blog, The Olympians, which I started on May 1, 2014. It is also the product of interviews of over 70 Olympians from those 1964 Games, people whose memories and insights are lifeblood to the book.

I’ve had the honor for some of those Olympians, as well as writers and academics read the manuscript. Here are their advanced referrals for my book. Take a look!

Look for details going forward on the book here on my blog, The Olympians!

The author at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics stadium.