Assignment Abroad Times Weekly Newspaper 2016 Olympics

Photo submitted by Ben Fischer Marietta native Ben Fischer covered the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio and will head to South Korea for the winter games on Feb. 3.

After a 14-hour flight from JFK to Seoul on Feb. 3, Marietta native Ben Fischer will board a bus for a two-hour ride to the site of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. It will be the second trip to the games for the SportsBusiness Journal reporter, who covered the summer Olympics in 2016 in Rio De Janeiro. Rather than reporting on the athletic events themselves, Fischer is tasked with exploring the business angle, meeting with marketing specialists, sponsors and corporations.

Question: Rio was your first Olympics, right? What was your overall experience there?

Answer: It’s changed a lot since I first got back. In real time, it was really frustrating. It’s hard to do your job in Rio. I joke that it would be great to go back for a vacation but it’s hard to work there…the traffic, the general disorder. In hindsight, I’ve grown to appreciate the experience more. I have more remarkable moments that stick in my mind.

Q: What are some of those moments?

A: When Usain Bolt had his 100 meter victory which was the last in his career. Everyone in the stadium was rooting for the same guy so that was neat to see. Simone Biles on the women’s gymnastics team winning…That was a big day for Americans. I was there when the swimmer from Singapore (Schooling Joseph) beat Michael Phelps. It’s one of the only times he’s gotten a silver medal so that sticks out in my mind.

Also, just being in the city and being immersed in Rio. I went through some really downtrodden areas–there’s a lot of poverty there-and then there are the extremely fancy shopping malls that would rival anything in the United States. It was amazing to see the diversity.

Q: Do you have essentially the same assignment going into the winter Olympics?

A: It will be different just because it’s a smaller event. The winter games aren’t at the same scale. But I’ll be doing something similar, covering corporate sponsorships. The idea is to give readers a sense of who’s trying to make money on the Olympics, why, how and if it’s working.

Q: Are you personally more or less interested in the winter games versus the summer events?

A: It’s interesting on one level because the winter games are more intriguing since they’re unfamiliar sports. No one really watches bobsledding, the luge or curling. On the other hand, for me there’s no cultural relevance like there is for the summer games. Swimming, track and field, you can find those in any part of the U.S. With the exception of ice hockey and downhill skiing, that’s not true of the winter sports. You’re not going to run into them growing up in Marietta. I can’t claim the same emotional connection to them. And from the business perspective and explaining the business side of this, it’s different, too. I first have to explain what curling is to make a point about it. But Michael Phelps is the fastest getting from one end of the pool to the other. A 5-year-old can understand that.

Q: Are you worried about security issues at all, given that the location is South Korea?

A: I’m more excited to go to a hot spot in the world than nervous. I expect the games to be one of the safest places to be in the world. I’m not sure I would want to move to South Korea but to be there for three weeks during the Olympics I think will be very safe. I was more likely to be hurt by random street crime in Rio than I am to be hurt by North Korean warfare. Nuclear war is scary but if you put it in a practical perspective, Rio was more dangerous.

Q: How do you think you’ll do adjusting to the time change? Do you travel often enough that you’re used to dealing with that?

A: I do travel a lot but I’ve never done this level of time change. It’s 14 hours so it will be totally different. All I can do is sleep a lot on the plane and try to have good habits like not drinking too much. Otherwise, I think I’ll just have to suck it up and deal with it.

Kate York conducted this interview.

About Ben Fischer

¯ Age: 35.

¯ Hometown: Marietta.

¯ Current residence: Queens, N.Y.

¯ Occupation: Staff writer for Street & Smith’s SportsBusiness Journal.

¯ Education: 2000 Marietta High School graduate; bachelors degree in newspaper journalism from Kent State University; masters degree in public affairs reporting from University of Illinois.

¯ Family: Wife, Mandy Jenkins; Parents Sue and Orvie, of Devola; Brother, Will, of Bowie, Md.

Source: Ben Fischer.

But experts say the Games also served as a powerful catalyst for urban revitalization, spurring infrastructure projects, financed with taxpayer money and private investment, that will enhance the lives of Rio’s residents.

Nearly 100 miles of rapid bus lanes have slashed commuting times for thousands of the working poor. Four new tunnels have been built, and a 17-mile light rail system opened in June. A new subway line, the system’s first major expansion in decades, began operating four days before the opening ceremony.

The city said it had sped up the construction of more than 400 schools and health clinics in impoverished neighborhoods, part of what the mayor called a revitalization spurred by the Olympics.

Still, critics say the Games have delivered uneven benefits, favoring upscale areas like Barra da Tijuca, the site of the Olympic Village, while ignoring hundreds of poor communities where residents live in jerry-built housing that lacks basic sanitation.

“The Olympics have led to displacement, gentrification and sweet deals for real estate developers and construction companies,” said Theresa Williamson, the executive director of Catalytic Communities, an advocacy group for the city’s favelas.

But while acknowledging the dire state of Rio’s public finances — the underfunded schools and hospitals, the unpaid government salaries and the unmitigated misery of its hilltop favelas — some experts say the Olympics will provide benefits for years to come.

“It’s undeniable that the infrastructure that has been built for the Games will benefit the population once the Olympics are over,” said Barbara Mattos, an analyst at Moody’s, the credit rating agency.

Eduardo Paes, Rio’s hard-charging mayor, who has aspirations of higher office, is quick to swat away criticism of the Games, calling the event a once-in-a-generation opportunity to lure investment to a city where fortunes have waned in the nearly six decades since the national capital moved from Rio to Brasília.

“No one ever said the Olympics were going to solve all of the city’s problems,” Mr. Paes said in an interview. “But we used the Games as a good excuse to get a lot of things done, things that have been the dream of mayors for 50 years.”

He noted that the $12 billion budget for the Games was significantly lower than the expenses of other recent host cities — the roughly $15 billion spent on the 2012 London Games and the $51 billion that Russia lavished on the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

More important, Mr. Paes said, much of the money came from the private companies that built the Olympic Village and the Olympic golf course, as well as those that renovated the city’s port, a project that includes a two-mile waterfront promenade and two new museums.

Over all, he said, the city has built 75,000 units of affordable housing since 2009, although some estimates suggest that nearly as many people, most of them poor, lost their homes to projects related to the Olympics.

Critics dispute some of Mr. Paes’s figures, pointing out that cost overruns will most likely bring the final cost of the Games to $20 billion. Others note that the 3,600 apartments that make up the Olympic Village will end up as homes for the rich, and that the golf course, which required filling in protected wetlands, will serve only the wealthy.

“Yes, the Olympic Village will be something for rich people,” Mr. Paes said. “But there’s no shame in that.”

In a sign of the anger over the Games, a media bus was attacked on August 9 in an area torn apart for Olympic projects. But some analysts agree with Mr. Paes that the Games will not leave the city with significant debt.

In a report issued in May, Moody’s said that the Games would have a negligible impact on the city’s ailing economy but that the $7 billion in transportation-related spending was money well spent.

That assessment stood in stark contrast to the benefits seen in the estimated $11 billion that Brazil spent hosting the 2014 World Cup, which left behind a constellation of 12 new or renovated stadiums, most of which are not used regularly.

Parsing the numbers can be tricky, of course, and Olympic hosts often fiddle with budget categories to conceal the true costs.

Bent Flyvbjerg, an Oxford University economist and the lead researcher on a study that examined Rio’s Olympic finances, said the actual amount spent on sports venues was most likely $4.6 billion, 51 percent over budget.

That amount, Mr. Flyvbjerg said, placed Rio somewhere in the middle of host cities that have exceeded their spending projections.

“All governments try to take the most convenient truth and spin it for their own purposes,” he said. “I guess if I was doing P.R. for the mayor of Rio, I’d also say we’re doing better than the previous three Olympics.”

In recent years, Oslo, Boston and Munich, bowing to popular opposition, have dropped their Olympic ambitions. Over the last three decades, nearly every city that has hosted the Games has lost money, and few expect Rio to recoup the billions of dollars spent preparing for an event that lasts just weeks.

“Fewer and fewer cities are willing to host the Olympics because they are a tremendous waste of resources,” said Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College and the author of “Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup.” “There’s no sensible way to rationalize the expenditures that have gone into this.”

The amount of money lost to waste and corruption may never be known. Sérgio Cabral, the former governor who helped land the Olympics, has been accused of demanding millions in bribes. It also remains to be seen whether the 12 Olympic venues intended to become schools or community sports centers will end up as white elephants.

But city officials say the Olympics helped move the needle on infrastructure plans that had languished for years.

In some poor neighborhoods, the Olympics served as a cudgel to speed the overhaul of public clinics that had been plagued by long waits and poor service. At one, in the troubled City of God favela, software now streamlines the triage process, a cheery ombudsman takes complaints and a new app lets supervisors track how long doctors spend with each patient — or whether they take inordinately long lunch breaks.

“It’s like night and day,” said Elizabeth Rezende, 61, a retired maid waiting to get her electrocardiogram results after experiencing chest pain. “The other emergency hospitals are so chaotic.”

Then there is Meu Porto Maravilha, or My Wonderful Port, the historic waterfront that for decades was cut off from downtown Rio by a hulking elevated highway, its 19th-century warehouses left to molder. Plans to rehabilitate the port, first put forth in the 1980s, had long been stymied by a lack of money and insufficient political will.

The $2.5 billion rehabilitation, much of it financed through the sale of air rights from adjacent properties and tax incentives to developers, included demolishing the viaduct and funneling traffic through a new three-mile tunnel.

Over the next decade, the developers plan to build 500 apartments that they say will be affordable to residents of a nearby favela. Many of these residents are descendants of the half-million African slaves who first arrived in Brazil at Valongo Wharf. The wharf’s recently unearthed foundations are scheduled to become part of a museum that will also include a forgotten slave cemetery.

“If we didn’t get the Games, I’m not sure this would have happened in our lifetime,” said Alberto Silva, who is in charge of the project.

Since opening in May, the port has been a hit with Brazilians, who crowd the waterfront promenade day and night, drawn by free concerts, food trucks and the opportunity for selfies in front of the Olympic flame.

As she made her way through the elbow-to-elbow throngs, Maria Helana Lima, 49, a house cleaner, said she had initially shared the skepticism of friends who viewed the Games as a colossal waste of money.

“It’s hard to get excited about the Olympics when our hospitals are so overcrowded and people can’t find jobs,” she said. But sitting in the shadow of a new science museum by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, Ms. Lima said she had changed her mind.

“I’m sure there was a lot of corruption and waste that went into this, but the end result is gorgeous and really cool,” she said. “This is definitely a place I’m going to come back to again and again.”

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