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Ollan Cassell signing the 1964 Tokyo Olympics poster in Rio; from the collection of Ollan Cassell

The doomsayers had their say – the Rio Olympics, under the crushing weight of the poor economy, scandals, environmental and health scares, worries of security, would fail.

Ollan Cassell has seen it all. As a member of the 4X400 US men’s track relay team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, as well as in his role as the executive director of the Amateur Athletic Union, the American governing body for 17 sports in his time, Cassell has been to every Olympics since 1964, excepting the Athens Olympics in 2004.

So when he arrived in Rio, he read all the stories about the problems. He certainly noticed the empty stands. And he put up with the traffic snarls that paralyzed the city during the Games. But Cassell knew that once the Games started, the problems would fade to the background.

The org committee was broke, the country is in a mess. They threw their president out. They didn’t have the finances to get things done. But like all the other Olympics, for the athletes with medals on the line, they‘re ready to compete. Regardless of what the situation is, once the Olympics roll around the athletes are ready. The athletes are focused on competing and wining regardless of what’s going on. When the lights go on, and the gun goes off, the press writes about how great the games are.

And what was the most amazing event Cassell witnessed? “The most spectacular event I saw in Brazil was that 400 meter world record (set by Wayde van Niekerk). I couldn’t imagine anyone could go 43.3 seconds. It’s like going 21.5 for two 200s!”

There were of course fears of security. Cassell was in Mexico City when hundreds were killed as government troops thwarted an anti-government protest prior to the start of the 1968 Olympics. Cassell was in Munich when Palestinian terrorists murdered 11 Israeli Olympians and coaches in 1972. But Cassell felt safe in Rio de Janeiro. Accompanied by his daughter, Cassell played tourist and was comforted by the presence of security.

 

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Ollan Cassell at Christ the Redeemer; from the collection of Ollan Cassell

 

As was true with the world cup in Brazil, there were about 75000 to 80000 soldiers. I felt safe. No one in my group had been robbed or held up. The military was patrolling all the time. When you went out into the streets, sightseeing, you would see the military trucks with open beds and machines guns driving through the area. It was like an armed camp, but you felt safe. They had barriers in the sightseeing areas, big steel barriers the kind police use when they want to direct car and foot traffic into certain area. They were imposing. But that’s been true at all the Games. In London, they had barriers to make sure you went where they wanted you to go.

As for the environmental or health issues, to Cassell, it wasn’t an issue. “I didn’t hear of anyone getting sick because of the water. And I saw only one mosquito, which my granddaughter killed.”

But perhaps, one of the most satisfying parts of an Olympian’s life is to re-connect with the Olympian fraternity.

It’s a special feeling – being an Olympian. There are so few of us compared to the population of the world. In Olympic Villages there are about 10,000 Olympians, which is a select group. In the United States, there are about 5,000 living Olympians, with quite a few in their 90s. So it’s wonderful to see old friends and Olympians at these events.

To read about Ollan Cassell and the history of international sports from the 1960s to the 1990s, read his absorbing book, Inside the Five Ring Circus: Changing Global Sports and the Modern Olympics.

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It was the morning of September 11, 2011 when Mitt Romney was driving past the Pentagon in Washington DC. The Pentagon was on fire, the smoke so extensive it filled Romney’s car. Romney was the head of the Salt Lake City Olympics Committee at that time, and was in DC to lobby, coincidentally, for more government support with security for the upcoming Winter Games to be hosted in Utah.

Romney immediately got on the phone with his COO, Fraser Bullock to talk “about the fact that in less than five months, we were going to host the world and how were we going to keep everyone safe.”

The Salt Lake City Winter Olympics went on to become, from a sports and business perspective, a relative success compared to other Olympics. But prior to the start of the Games, with 9/11 heavy on organizers’ and casual spectators alike, security was a major priority.

In fact, even if 9/11 had not occurred, the organizers and the US government had already invested heavily in security. After all, it was only about 5 and a half years earlier that a pipe bomb went off in Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta on the evening of the ninth day of the XXVI Olympiad. Over 100 people were injured, including two who died.

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Mitt Romney, President George Bush and IOC Head Jacques Rogge
While the budget for security in Atlanta was $101 million, it more than doubled to $225 million for the Salt Lake City Games, according to this New York Times article. The Winter Games that year saw a security presence unlike any other Games. More importantly, a wide variety of federal, state and local authorities were coordinated in a manner that had been unprecedented, the result of painful lessons learned about the consequences of various relevant agencies not coordinating information and efforts pre and post 9/11. Here are a few or the major decisions to boost security at Salt Lake City 2002, according to the Times article:

  • Secret Service agents will be used to secure all areas used for Olympic events. In the past, their role was confined to protecting the president and other dignitaries. The expanded presence represents the federal government’s largest security investment, $27.2 million, according to the government report.
  • For the first time in an Olympics in the United States — this is the eighth since 1904 — all law agencies, as well as military commanders, will operate as part of a unified Utah Olympic Public Safety Command.
  • Airspace over northern Utah will be heavily guarded, with AWACs surveillance planes on routine missions, F-16’s from nearby Hill Air Force Base on alert and added radar operating at Salt Lake City International Airport, where plans call for commercial traffic to be stopped at various times, including the opening and closing ceremonies.
  • In another new effort, the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service are pooling resources to create an instant check on foreign visitors through a database that will let Customs officers determine immediately whether an Olympic athlete or official is on a United States watch list.
  • In addition, military forces will be stationed in and around the city. Mr. Romney said the commitment could reach up to 10,000 troops, including more than 2,000 from the Utah National Guard, the largest call-up ever in the state.

On February 8, only 151 days after September 11, the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Games commenced. In memory of the events that took place that beautiful Tuesday morning in New York, the tattered American flag that was recovered from the ruins of the Twin Towers was brought into the Stadium amidst an honor guard of Port Authority, NYPD and NYFD personnel who were in New York that day, with helicopter rotors thumping in the background.

Bullock said that there were objections from influential people about injecting a potentially powerful political statement like this particular American flag being displayed in an event that purports to be politically agnostic. But Bullock said that Romney had to twist a few arms to get to that decision because it “was the right thing to do.” And when the flag appeared, Bullock said, “the world really came together. It was a special moment for everyone.”

Life in the Favela_NYTimes 1

The slums of Brazil are called favelas. One of every five residents in Rio de Janeiro, host of the 2016 Summer Games, live in a favela. In this poignant video piece, Nadia Sussman of the New York Times paints a picture of despair as favela denizens seek stability and happiness amidst a war between the police and the drug lords.

Sussman interviews Damião Pereira de Jesus, a resident of a favela called Complexo de Alemão, whose aunt was killed by a stray bullet. He expressed his views of life in the favela after the Police, known as the Pacifying Police Units, came to his favela.

They came giving residents a lot of hope for social programs. But they don’t get close to residents in that way. The government comes with its laws. But here there’s already a law, the traffickers’ law. Residents are confused. Who to trust? Who to interact with?

Everyone has dreams. The favela is full of them. If the government would come and help realize these dreams, the community would be happier. I intend for my children to bury me, not for me to bury my children.

Screen capture of the New York Times video, Pacification Without Peace
Screen capture of the New York Times video, Pacification Without Peace

France24 Report on Rio

This is a fascinating report from France24 on the state of Rio de Janeiro one year prior to the start of the Olympic Games. More than anything else, security is the biggest concern for the government and for residents. Brazil is considered one of the most unequal societies in the world, and the gap between the haves and the have nots so great that drug gangs, crime and violence have been a constant background to life in Rio.

While the government has beefed up its police force with the addition of 37 additional special protection units, violence between gangs, and between gangs and police continue. Four thousand have already died from such violence in 2015, many happens when the torch is extinguished, the banners taken down, and the excitement gives way to thoughts of making ends meet in the coming years.

press pass _revisedThis was my father’s identity card for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Through his work for NBC News, and NBC’s sustained relationship to the Olympic Games, I was a fan of the greatest sports competition in the world. I was only one years-old at the time of the Tokyo Olympic Games, and of course remember nothing of it. But come 2020, when the Summer Games return to Tokyo, I will be there.

© Roy Tomizawa and The Olympians from 2015 onwards. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of material within this blog without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Roy Tomizawa and The Olympians with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.