Images: Steffi Baker at the rehearsal for the opening ceremony of the 2002 Winter Olympics and in 2018, placing at the 2018 Adult Nationals as the Bronze Ladies III silver medallist.
Despite the threat of Omicron, the third iteration of COVID-19, the 24th Winter Olympiad opened in Beijing, China on February 4. I’m watching and enjoying, along with millions of others around the world.
I watch with fond memories of 20 years ago – I skated in the Opening Ceremony of the 19th Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City on February 8, 2002. I was a snowflake in the opening winter storm segment and then a prairie girl in the Old American West grand finale.
It was one of the luckiest breaks I’ve ever had. My friend Chris Coleman, a former two-time bobsled team member, was working for the U.S. Olympic Committee at the time and forwarded me an email invitation to the auditions. He heard they were short on adult figure skaters and thought I might be interested.
Ahhhh, yes, I was interested. YES PLEASE. When I was eight years old, my birthday wish while blowing out the candles on my cake was to be an Olympic figure skater someday. What a wonderfully unexpected way for that dream to come true!
I moved from Silicon Valley to downtown Salt Lake City before I knew the results of the audition. Thankfully the gamble paid off, and later I was given not one but two parts to play after people started dropping out. (It was a considerable time commitment and the majority of ceremonies cast members were volunteers.) My job with a big computer company ended in a massive layoff two months after 9/11, leaving me time to be a full-time figure skater. I got a job in Olympic Square, which was just a few blocks from my apartment. And I purchased a package of event tickets. All in all, I was able to have an insider, behind-the-scenes experience of what happens at the Olympic Games.
Here are a few things I learned that most people don’t know.
- It takes an army of both paid and volunteer staff to make everything run and run smoothly. The efficiency was astounding to witness. Without volunteers, it would be impossible to pull off. An Olympic Games reaches far beyond revenue and statistics. It’s a labour of love, a gift to the world from the host city.
- The feeling of sheer joy and jubilance generated during the athlete parade into the stadium during the opening ceremony is unlike anything else on earth. Everyone is thrilled to be there and everyone is a potential medallist on that night. Everyone is everyone else’s best friend. The excitement, love and goodwill in the air are palpable and infectious. It is truly a world party, a celebration of the best, most inspirational qualities we humans possess.
- The events take a lot longer than anyone realises. What viewers see on television is heavily edited. I attended the men’s long programme figure skating. It ran from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. There were that many competitors. I also attended hockey and bobsledding. Same thing – it all goes on a lot longer than everyone sees on television. These days, it is sometimes possible to view the raw footage of an event. If you can find that, I highly recommend watching it. Because…
- There are amazing moments of all kinds the cameras don’t capture. At the men’s figure skating I attended, one Chinese competitor fell. And fell again. And yet again. Each time, the audience clapped and cheered him onto his feet. On that third fall he went down hard and was clearly in pain from thereon in. The entire house leapt to their feet and practically blew off the roof with noise to encourage him to finish, which he did, albeit barely. I’m certain that was the only reason he didn’t give up. The audience almost literally reached down on the ice, picked him up and carried him through to the end.
- The audiences play a bigger part in the Games than people realise. They are generous with their support of each and every competitor. Over and over, I saw high levels of enthusiastic encouragement from the crowd spur the competitors on to push themselves past their limits.
So watching the Beijing games, I think that’s what stands out most to me. The energy from the very limited audience is entirely different – muted. I know that affects the athletes to some extent. I still skate competitively and there are a handful of national competitors at my rink. I’ve heard them say it’s been extremely strange to skate in silence, with a weak smattering of live applause or worse, pre-recorded applause only at the beginning and end of their programmes.
In Salt Lake, almost all the available tickets were sold, another Olympic record. Figure skating seats, for example, were 99.9% sold out. In Beijing, only a lucky few are allowed entrance to events. At some point, Olympic venues will fill to capacity again when we get ahead of COVID-19 mutations… let’s hope that’s the reality at the next games (Summer Olympics) in Paris in 2024.
Meanwhile, the nature of the television audience across the board has changed dramatically since 2002. Salt Lake games television viewership set records in the United States for the Winter Olympics. NBC stations delivered just under 400 hours of event coverage to almost 200 million unique viewers. Each viewer watched about 30 hours, double that of Nagano coverage in 1998. Overall, the global audience clocked more than 13.1 billion hours watching Salt Lake events. (Source: https://stillmed.olympic.org/Documents/Reports/EN/en_report_456.pdf)
By contrast, viewership for Beijing games is at an all-time low for television. So far, viewership is running less than half of what it was for the 2018 Pyeong Chang games – so roughly 8-15 million for Beijing on the nights so far, as opposed to the 30 million plus each night back in 2018. Bejing is in fact on track to be the lowest television viewership ever for the Olympic games. (Source: www.si.com)
It will be interesting to see if controversy will spike the viewer numbers. The favourite for the ladies’ gold medal in figure skating, Russian Kamila Valieva, has apparently tested positive for a banned substance not long before the Olympics and the world is awaiting a decision from the IOC as to whether the Russian team will keep its team gold medal in figure skating and if she will be allowed to compete in the ladies’ singles events. That will capture interest, just as the figure skating judging vote fixing scandal of 2002 made headlines and drew more viewers.
But not to worry. The Olympics aren’t dead and won’t die anytime soon. Viewership on streaming services and online platforms such as YouTube is rapidly increasing, so it appears that people are still watching, but in different places. We’re now glued to our phones and computers, not television screens.
My advice is still – if you can volunteer at an Olympic games or get a ticket to an event, go. It’s an experience of a lifetime you will remember forever.
Steffi Baker is CEO of High Net Worth Women Institute. She holds a post-graduate diploma in business from Edinburgh Business School. She is a dual US/UK citizen. She returned to live in Utah in 2021. She continues to figure skating competitively and is coached by 1984 Olympic bronze medalist Jozef Sabovcik.
And if you can’t get enough of Olympic fever, do join anti-doping expert, Professor Peter Sonksen OBE on Thursday 17th February from 2.30-3.30pm. In this talk, Peter will take you through his fascinating medical career, including his work on the Olympic commission.