By Kevin Sullivan
Apr 7, 2009
My favorite memory from the four Olympics I’ve attended wasn’t watching Michael Johnson win gold or Michael Phelps make history. In fact, it’s not about an athlete at all.
The scene unfolded early one morning at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, where I was working my first Olympics for NBC Sports. I had just passed through the metal detector on my way into the International Broadcast Center. As I gathered up my cell phone and bag, I was startled to hear an ovation ring out.
Olympians frequently came to the broadcast center after they were finished competing to do interviews with the media from their home countries. I thought maybe an Aussie hero had arrived, but I was wrong. It turns out the local security volunteers in Sydney had started a tradition. Whenever an athlete handed over his or her Olympic medal to walk through the metal detector, all the volunteers at the 20 or so checkpoints stood and applauded. I spotted the Olympian, whose name and country I wish I could remember. She was overwhelmed, clearly touched by the moment. She smiled, bowed her head slightly, and waved in appreciation as the volunteers went back to work.
That scene taught me a lot about the people of Sydney. I knew Australia was a sports-mad, fun place that celebrated its athletes, but I didn’t understand the true spirit of its people. Those volunteers wanted that athlete — whose name most of them didn’t know — to one day look back on the Sydney Games, not just as the crowning achievement of her career, but as a great personal experience. They wanted her to feel welcome, to feel special and to feel appreciated for her years of work to get there. I promise that athlete has not forgotten that moment. I can imagine her time and again telling the story: “And you won’t believe what happened the morning after I won my medal,“ she would say. “The people there were so great to me.”
During my career, I have been fortunate to attend just about all the big-time sports events from the Super Bowl, NBA Finals and Wimbledon to the World Series, Ryder Cup and Daytona 500. I worked three Olympics during my time as Senior Vice President of Communications for NBC Sports and had the privilege of attending the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics with President Bush during my time as White House Communications Director.
Sure, championship events like the Olympics and Super Bowl are huge drivers of desperately needed economic growth, but that’s not what makes those events great.
People make those events great and the people of North Texas will make Super Bowl XLV an extraordinary experience for each other and for the thousands of visitors.
Back in 1999, I worked on North Texas’ bid for the 2012 Olympics. I traveled the region giving presentations on how the Olympics would benefit North Texas. I was armed with statistics demonstrating how Atlanta’s convention, real estate, tourism and construction business boomed following the 1996 Summer Olympics. But I always closed those speeches with three or four inspirational Olympic stories right out of Bud Greenspan’s vault.
Landing the Olympics for North Texas, I frequently said, would not just improve our economy, it would improve our lives. We would welcome visitors from around the world in the way only Texans can. We would see incredible athletes performing at the peak of their powers. We would see underdogs defy the odds to accomplish the impossible. We would see the pain of heartbreak. We would see adversity overcome. And we would see it all together as a community.
Years later, fathers and daughters may not remember the number of jobs that were created in the service sector…but they would never forget the once in a lifetime experience they shared together. I was talking about the Olympics, but I could just as easily have been talking about the Super Bowl.
Of course, we didn’t get the 2012 Olympics, but North Texas did get Super Bowl XLV. In less than two years, visitors from all over the world will roll into North Texas for their once in a lifetime moment together. Many will be visiting North Texas for the first time.
Those visitors may arrive with stereotypes in their carry-on bags, the way I did when I traveled to Athens for the 2004 Olympics. I had read about the “friendly inefficiency” and bleak, old world outlook of the Greeks. What I found was a modern, high tech, secure international city filled with optimistic and fun people.
The multitudes of Super Bowl XLV visitors will experience firsthand what North Texas is all about. They will be enriched by the music, the shopping, the Tex-Mex, the steaks and the barbecue. They might even hit one of the world-class museums or other cultural hot spots. Mostly, they will love the people of North Texas, whose warmth and spirit will come through when offering help with directions, or when explaining the difference between a chimichanga and a chalupa. The visitors will never think about North Texas the way they did before.
And just like I have never forgotten the kindness and spirit of those volunteers in Sydney almost nine years ago, the world will never forget the kindness and spirit of the people of North Texas. What a great reason to host a Super Bowl.