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Vancouver buzz a devalued currency

The Baltimore Sun

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. - With one year to go before the caldron is lighted, it's gut-check time for those whose lives are intertwined with the five Olympic rings.

The host city of Vancouver and the athletes and their coaches have covered a lot of ground to get ready for the XXI Winter Games, but hurdles remain before the opening ceremony next Feb. 12. Not surprisingly, many challenges are tied to the economy:

* Sponsorships are down.

* The Vancouver organizing committee has shaved millions from its budget and dipped into its contingency fund.

* Financial assistance for athletes is drying up.

* Although demand for seats at marquee events has been robust, it's not known how many of the estimated 1.6 million tickets will not be sold.

So much remains in question - but that's not unusual.

In February 2001, pre-Olympic fatigue rather than the threat of terrorism was on Mitt Romney's mind as he guided plans for the Salt Lake City Winter Games. Four years later, figure skating newcomer Kimmie Meissner was still savoring her first taste of national recognition and looking forward to what she hoped would be her first Olympics - in 2010. This winter, veteran athletes such as two-time Olympic luge slider Tony Benshoof test whether their battered bodies can endure one more run at a medal.

"My experience is this will be the low point, a year or so out," said Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and 2008 Republican presidential candidate. "There seems to be a cycle in most Olympic Games. There's euphoria when you win the bid and then comes the agonizing reappraisal as the reality of all the challenges set in. Public support for the Olympics slowly drops. ... The nadir is probably just before the Games, when people are asking themselves if it was worth it."

Romney predicts the attitude will shift "when the torch finally reaches the country and the media begins reporting about the torchbearers and the athletes getting ready."

With slightly more than 2 million people in its metropolitan area, Vancouver will be the most populous Winter Olympics site - taking that distinction away from Turin, Italy.

Last month, the poor global economy forced the 2010 organizing committee to cut its $1.63 billion operating budget, which comes from ticket sales, domestic and international sponsorships, the International Olympic Committee, international licensing and merchandising and fundraising.

Romney said the Winter Games face challenges not experienced by Summer Games hosts. Smaller venues mean less revenue from ticket sales. Sponsorship is less because the sports aren't as visible. Some sports, such as bobsled and luge, require very expensive venues with limited post-Olympic uses.

"But my guess is with Vancouver, given the number of people on their committee who have been part of an Olympics before, it ought to be a real success," he said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Olympic Committee finds it harder to sign and retain sponsors. General Motors, Kodak and John Hancock have pulled out. Anheuser-Busch has reduced its sponsorship. Johnson & Johnson and Kellogg are still in negotiations.

The USOC also had to step in and help 86 athletes after Home Depot announced in January that it would end its 16-year program that supplied part-time jobs and health benefits.

The U.S. team won 34 medals, 10 gold, in Salt Lake City in 2002. Four years later, the team experienced the traditional drop-off that happens when a home team moves to foreign soil, winning 25 medals in Turin, nine of them gold.

Jim Scherr, the head of the USOC, declined to make a prediction except to say, "We will field a team that is clean and drug-free."

For the athletes, the next year is what they've been waiting for.

"It's hard to describe the Olympic feeling," said Bel Air's Meissner, who defied her own timetable by finishing sixth at the 2006 Winter Games and winning the world title a month later. "It's pride in yourself and your country. It's nerves because the world is watching and it's unbelievable joy."

The lure of the Olympics can entice battered athletes to suit up one more time and coax retired athletes back into training.

"Going into an Olympic year, there's always a little more buzz," said Brian Martin, who with luge doubles partner Mark Grimmette won a sixth world championship bronze medal Friday in Lake Placid. "But does it change the way you prepare? ... I don't think it changes much."

Benshoof willed himself back onto the luge track this past weekend just weeks after major back surgery to relieve pain that drove him to his knees.

"Part of it's the glory and the opportunity to come away with a medal," Benshoof explained after a training run. "It's the camaraderie. It's being with your friends and guys you've battled for years. It's the Olympic vibe."

Figure skater Sasha Cohen, who has been taking acting classes and touring with "Stars on Ice" since winning the silver medal in Turin in 2006, will decide in June whether to endure the rigorous training and Grand Prix circuit to try to win a spot on the U.S. team in January.

"The reason I am going back isn't because I need a gold medal or some other title," Cohen told the San Jose Mercury News. "I need that challenge in my life and that purpose. I think I still have one more in me and it feels incomplete."

Canadians, who played host to the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal and the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary, hope they can break the hometown jinx that has prevented their athletes from winning gold. That will most likely come in hockey, where Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby is expected to lead Canada's squad. Long-track speedskater Cindy Klassen, winner of five medals in Turin, is another favorite.

To visualize yourself standing on the podium and seeing your country's flag raised "is addicting," Benshoof said. But to just miss the bronze medal, as he did in Turin, "will haunt you for the rest of your life."

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