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Going for the Gold

In its quest for 2012 Olympic fire--and to beat out New York--our sibling city to the north will put on quite a show. But the truth is, much of the action would take place in the South Bay.

By Gina Arnold

SUMMER IN SAN FRANCISCO is well known for its polar qualities, but autumns are a different matter entirely. On a good day in September, the City by the Bay can look like a mound of sparkling diamonds set in sapphire-blue waters. And, fortuitously for those in charge of San Francisco's bid to host the 2012 Olympics, the Sunday of the San Francisco Grand Prix was exactly that kind a day--a pure, unadulterated advertisement for San Francisco as a sports-fan Mecca, a breezy, golden promised land just begging for an international event.

From the point of view of the Bay Area Sports Organizing Committee (BASOC), conditions couldn't have been better for a hypothetical Bay Area Olympics, an event that they've spent three years trying to make happen.

And conditions were also perfect for the Second Annual Grand Prix, the BASOC-sponsored 110-mile bike race around San Francisco that saw 130 riders humping themselves up and down the city's fabled hills--and, the organizers hoped, was viewed by members of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC). That, more than anything, was the point of the race: to convince viewers that a Bay Area Olympics would be not only a desirable event, but a perfect one.

Thanks to the weather and the scenery, the point was made in spades. Never mind that most of a Bay Area Olympics would take place 40 miles to the south: the Grand Prix made it plain that a San Francisco Olympics would--at times--be as scenic as they come.

Adding to the international appeal was the participation of world champions Lance Armstrong and George Hincapie, but it was doubtful that more than a handful of the 40,000 people who came to watch the race could name any other competitors.


Here, There and Everywhere: The proposed events of the 2012 Olympics in San Francisco will sprawl throughout the region.


And yet, despite their ignorance, people turned out in droves, prepared to spend five or six hours trailing around the city waiting for the bike pack to suddenly whiz by at top speed and then disappear into the distance. It was as if everyone became French for the day. Seriously.

Literally thousands of newly minted bike-racing fans lined up along Fillmore Street between Greenwich and Broadway, peering down at a bright-blue view of the bay. Some of them sat in trees and perched on telephone poles, while others walked back and forth among the coffee shops and restaurants of Union Street and various vantage points.

Each time Armstrong appeared, always in the middle of a pack of other cyclists, the crowd shook its cowbells and held up its "GO LANCE" posters and yelled bloody murder. But perhaps it said something profound about our essential ignorance of road racing--and our inherent niceness--that, on the eighth and final run up this hellishly steep incline, the crowd didn't yell nearly as loudly for the four-time winner of the Tour de France as it did for some nameless cyclist in last place.

By the time this hapless rider reached the Fillmore Hill, the pace cars and spare bike vans had long gone by. As he chugged, solo, onto Fillmore Street and saw the grade--along with the 7,000 or so people waiting to watch him do it--you could actually see him blanch. He started his climb, zigzagging a bit to make the gradient less steep, and the crowd went bananas, screaming, yelling, crying, "You can do it!" They shrieked, rattled their cowbells in unison ... and they didn't even know his name.

That kind of moment represents the real lure of international races like the Grand Prix--and events like the Olympics. Which is why, in a few weeks--on Nov. 5, to be exact--the United States Olympic Committee will make either San Francisco or New York the official American entrant in the 2012 sweepstakes.

The winner will then have two years to beat out four other cities on as many other continents for the privilege of hosting the 40th Games of the Olympiad, in the summer of 2012, in which case moments like that one on Fillmore Hill are going to pile up like so much confetti as the entire region basks in two weeks of Olympic glory.

Stanford University Stadium
Illustration by Screampoint

Pass Me the Torch: The Stanford University Stadium would host opening and closing ceremonies.

Quest for Fire

In its three-year quest to become an Olympian, our sister city to the north has already trumped two other U.S. cities, Houston and Washington, D.C., to make it to the North American finals--and spent a million dollars, all raised privately, in the process.

Now comes crunch time, a mad eight-week process in which San Francisco's bid committee will attempt to edit down its 1,100-page proposal to a two-hour presentation designed to sway the USOC into making it this nation's top choice.

San Francisco or New York? It's a tough choice, unless you're an athlete who competes in one of the sweaty sports, in which case, San Francisco's perennially moderate weather probably tips the scales westward.

Lance Armstrong, for instance. "Of course, from my point of view, I'd rather be biking up these hills than around the streets of Manhattan, which are totally flat," says the athlete, who is known for his ability to climb hills better than most four-wheel-drive vehicles. "But I love both cities, and after the events of the last year, I'm not going to be saying anything against New York. Hey, I only look stupid."

Armstrong has put his finger on the weakest part of San Francisco's bid: New York, as a concept, is currently in the midst of an enormous burst of sympathy and love. Otherwise, it's hard to imagine a fan of the Olympics watching this year's Grand Prix on TV and not wanting San Francisco to get the bid.

The irony is that, come 2012, that selfsame fan could easily arrive at SFO to see the Olympics and never go north of the airport, since many of the events, including the opening and closing ceremonies, gymnastics, swimming and diving, and track and field, would be held in Palo Alto, Santa Clara and San Jose.

Indeed, calling them the San Francisco Olympics is almost a misnomer, since most of the events would be occurring in Silicon Valley. The organizers of the bid, though acknowledging that this is an aspect of their efforts that New York is going to throw at them, say that this is not a problem.

Ann Cribbs
Photograph by Paul Myers

Stroke of Genius: Former Olympic swimmer Ann Cribbs, CEO of the Bay Area Sports Organizing Committee for the 2012 Olympics, swam at the Santa Clara Swim Club as a child and was instrumental in getting South Bay venues listed in the San Francisco bid.

"It's always been conceived of as a regional bid," says Ann Cribbs, the CEO of the Bay Area Sports Organizing Committee. "The rules require that there be one host city, and we originally talked to the mayors of San Jose, Oakland and San Francisco, [and] the sports organizations, the athletes and the coaches, and everyone was very comfortable with leading off with the brand of San Francisco."

Because of the small size of San Francisco's sports venues, most of the events that will be held in the city itself are some of the less prominent ones, like judo, tae kwon do and table tennis. Cribbs and Co., however, claim this as a strength.

"We've created these human-sized clusters that will give you a sense of Olympic pageantry, but on a human scale," Cribbs explains. "Each cluster will get more individual attention from that community. So we who sit here and don't play table tennis could disparage table tennis, but a large number of Asian Americans love table tennis, and those stands will be filled."

So, too, will be Stanford Stadium, the proposed site of the opening and closing ceremonies. Indeed, the city that will profit most from the two-week feeding frenzy will most likely be Palo Alto. In one sense, this is a good thing, since it will obviate the kind of relocation and cleanup of slums and housing developments that brought critics down on Atlanta and Seoul. Palo Alto doesn't have any slums, after all, so it won't have the kind of protests that such sudden pave-overs inevitably draw. That's a point in its favor over New York, where any building that goes on will inevitably crush some poor neighborhood to smithereens.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the bid is so South Bay-centric, given that Cribbs is the driving force behind the effort to make San Francisco an Olympic City. A lifelong Bay Area native who attended local high schools, learned to swim at Sequoia High School and swam for the Santa Clara Swim Club, Cribbs is a former Olympian who attended Stanford and, among other things, headed up the Palo Alto Recreation Department and the Chamber of Commerce.

Since retiring from competitive swimming at age 15 and raising a family of nine, her sports activities have mostly centered around raising the bar for women athletes. In 1996, she was instrumental in forming the ABL (American Basketball League for Women). But Cribbs' true love is still the Olympics. She competed in the 1960 Games in Rome--placing fifth in the 200-meter breast stroke and sharing a gold medal for the medley relay--and the experience is still the defining one of her life.

"My mother told me that I could do anything that I wanted to do," Cribbs recalls. "All I had to do was work hard, be persistent and get enough sleep. She told me that, and I believed it, and it was true."

That kind of breathless enthusiasm is typical of Olympics fans, whether they made the grade or not, and it is also what is making this bid so sincere, since Cribbs is the only former Olympian--and one of only two women--to be heading up a bid committee.

According to Tony Winnicker, BASOC's director of publicity, since the scandal in Salt Lake City, there's been an increasing push to include athletes in the planning of the Olympics, and BASOC is taking advantage of that trend. Its steering committee includes the likes of swimmer Mike Bruner, water polo player Maureen O'Toole, swimmer Katrina Radke and fencer Barbara Higgins.

"We've gotten a lot of input from athletes about what would make the Games easier for them," says Winnicker. "For example, Mike Bruner mentioned that the idea of being transported to the venues on a subway or a ferry--as would be the case in New York--was frightening: what if he forgot his suit?"

Moffett Field
Illustration by Screampoint

Naval Rings: If San Francisco's 2012 bid becomes a reality, the former naval air station at Moffett Field would house the Olympic Village.

Olympic Hopeful?

Athletes, schmathletes, I hear you cry. What about the citizens of the Bay Area? If you're not a die-hard sports fan, the specter of an Olympics may simply sound like two weeks of pure hell, a merchandising frenzy, a publicity blitz, a tourist free-for-all and a traffic nightmare.

Those are just some of the charges leveled at the Games by opponents like Gabriel Roth of the Bay Guardian. "The Olympic Games have always been a bad thing for the region that hosts them. They involve massive long-term changes to regional infrastructures to accommodate a two-week influx of tourists and athletes. They necessitate urban 'revitalization' that comes at the expense of poor and working residents. They take power from local governments and turn it over to business interests," wrote Roth in an editorial last year.

BASOC cares about these concerns and has crafted a fiscally conservative, environmentally sensitive plan that addresses them all. The plan provides for improved public transportation, low-cost housing and other projects that could improve the Bay Area in long-term ways--creating, Cribbs says, "legacies that can stand long after the Olympics has gone elsewhere."

Critics will counter that however good a city's intentions are, the multinational corporate interests that govern the Olympics end up usurping all Olympic cities, and there is certainly some truth to that assertion. But BASOC would respond that the benefits of a Bay Area Olympics outweigh any temporary difficulties an Olympics might cause.

For example, if the Bay Area bid is ultimately successful, the committee will have a $2.8 billion budget (gained from TV rights, ticket sales, merchandise and sponsorships, not from tax dollars) to spend in the area. In addition to providing numerous improvements on already existing venues, the money will finance the construction of a new world-class velodrome (cycling track), a tennis stadium, an equestrian ring, a shooting range and 1,500 units of high-density, energy-efficient, low-cost housing at Moffett Field.

Also, as San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales says, "If anything can ensure that BART makes it to San Jose sometime in the next 10 years, this will."

As Gonzales' remark implies, the Olympics could serve as a great catalyst for people and organizations to get behind projects that they might otherwise find boring. Winnicker, for example, talks enthusiastically about the Moffett Field site, which has brought together architects, engineers and designers who have planned high-density, transportation-friendly, infill housing that is environmentally advanced, contributing to the energy grid instead of taking away from it. And they're doing this basically because designing it was fun.

Cribbs agrees. "I don't think it's about the money," she says. "It's more about the spirit and the community-building that the Olympic Games bring. Economic studies say it will bring $7 billion into the community; but more importantly, if you go back to Sydney or Atlanta, and ask everyone if they'd do it again, they all will say it was the best experience of their life."

Her remarks may seem surprising to people who think of the Olympic movement as one that bankrupts cities and serves no one as well as itself--and certainly, the Olympics have been tainted in recent years by scandal and corruption, ranging from bribery in Salt Lake City to the figure-skating judging controversy.

In fact, it's hard not to think of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as a bunch of fat, red-faced burghers sitting in a German castle. "Or warlords," agrees Winnicker.

Cribbs acknowledges the image, but says that in recent years the IOC has been working to change its bylaws and to include more athletes and women. "My favorite part in the questions they asked us is No. 14," she jokes, "where it said, 'What will you do for women and other disadvantaged populations?' So they even acknowledge that we're disadvantaged, which cracks me up!

"It's taken a long time even to make the events equal," she adds, citing the discrepancy in male and female distances and events and sports, "but if you look at our success in Atlanta, it was a real validation of Title IX [the 1978 ruling that has equalized spending between men's and women's collegiate teams], and that shows that the Olympics can have a hugely positive effect on women's sports." It's hard to imagine that women's sports is a priority in Mount Olympus, but Cribbs says there's no reason to think that it couldn't be in the future.

"I have been disillusioned by the Olympics," she admits, when pressed. "Everyone has something about their Olympic Games that you don't like. But here's our opportunity to make a Games like we want them to be. I still think that the Olympic Games have so much good about them--that the ideals, the overriding statement in the Olympic charter--educating people through sports to build a better world--is as good as what we've got to try to deal with what goes on in the world."

Cribbs pauses, dropping her guard for a second. "I just think that the whole notion of celebrating excellence and individual achievement, having a dream, setting a goal, determination, persistence ... those are all qualities that every Olympian is able in some way or another to pass on to somebody else."

Now she hopes to pass on her own vision, not just to a single individual, but to the region itself. Whether she succeeds or not is now up to a group of 123 USOC delegates, people, she notes, "who may have a very different agenda than us."

On Nov. 5, she and her committee will have to convince them that San Francisco is the best city to offer to the IOC as an Olympic site for 2012.

"But we didn't get in this to lose," she says. And as we know, Cribbs is a lifelong winner, as long as she works hard, is persistent and gets enough sleep. Come Nov. 5, we'll find out whether she has.

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From the October 3-9, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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