The bird watchers triumph

Selecting sites for 1972, the Olympic committee was as aloof as ever, but never underestimate the power of the last-minute politician
May 08, 1966

For all that ceremony and straight-backed dignity, International Olympic Committee meetings always seem to have overtones of the Brink's payroll robbery or War and Peace. Sober pronouncements that come from such sessions often leave more questions than answers, and the recent proceedings in Rome were wonderfully typical. The IOC answers are clear: Munich, Germany and Sapporo, Japan will be sites of the 1972 summer and winter games respectively. But there are those nagging questions: 1) Sapporo...uhh, where? 2) What did poor old Detroit ever do to deserve eight consecutive rejections? 3) Can the world still find happiness in the belief that the IOC is Olympian in its movements and aloof from human bickering and maneuvering?

Not that the committee choices were bad ones. Olympic sites are chosen because the cities have both the facilities and the fervor for the Games. Munich and Sapporo certainly have fervor, and there are six years to fix the facilities.

The more noteworthy element in this year's IOC meet was that the whole thing had the air of a mystery in which a butler (or a burglar) is whodunit. In the contest for the summer Games, Madrid was melodramatically in, out and in again. Detroit seemed a good bet, making a low-pressure bid on the theory that high-pressure tactics did not work four years ago; Montreal and Munich appeared to be even money. For the winter Games, Banff, Canada was the solid favorite. It had lost the bid by only one vote in the 1968 round, and it had made a handsome, thoughtful presentation this time. Salt Lake City, chosen to carry the United States colors, also was considered to be a strong contender. At that point, low-elevation Sapporo was a definite dark horse, and Lahti, Finland was assuredly out of it.

Munich was announced first. The Germans reportedly won on the second ballot with 31 votes. Madrid had drawn 15 and Montreal 14. Detroit apparently was dropped on the first round (the IOC never divulges vote breakdowns). And after accepting congratulations all around, Walter Troeger, secretary of West Germany's Olympic committee, said, "I don't know and can't understand why Detroit keeps on losing. I just cannot imagine what is against them."

Nor could Detroit understand it after eight frustrating defeats. "We were very disappointed," said group chairman Fred Matthaei Jr. "We had hoped for some sentiment, at least, for our bid." Unofficially, the view of other delegates was that Detroit's driving promotion in the meeting four years ago—particularly some overt pressure by the White House—had put the IOC in a lasting snit. The IOC, it was said at that time, does not yield to pressures.

The Sapporo announcement was a stunner to international handicappers, who had figured both the snow and the mountains were too low. Sapporo won with 32 votes, apparently on the first ballot; Banff was runner-up with 16. What had happened? Surely the IOC was still loftily above external pressures. Yet the byplay was there for all to see.

First, three Canadian conservation groups warned that the Games, with attendant crowds and confusion, would upset the bird and animal balance in Banff National Park. It was a masterpiece of timing. The IOC took no official notice. But one member growled privately, just before the vote, "We have enough to worry about without the bird watchers."

After the great Bird Watcher Caper, the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Federation made its move. This group is made up of ski-area operators from 20 U.S. locations and eight in Canada. One of them is Banff. The operators, considered as safely American as home and mother, came out for Canada, "in the interest of international goodwill." The Salt Lakers did not need that sort of goodwill.

Somewhere in all this, IOC Chairman Avery Brundage spoke out. He brought up the bird-watcher incident and mused out loud that the committee was certainly impressed with the efficiency and economy of Tokyo's 1964 summer Games. He also pointed out that Sapporo would have gotten the 1940 winter Games (its bid had been approved for that year) if war had not intervened.

These statements may have done it. Hans Maciej of the Banff delegation called it sabotage. "Mr. Brundage brought up the protests of conservationists at the very right moment—right before the vote." he said.

And with that, the curtain came down on the oldest melodrama in sports.

Back in Japan, delegates took another look at 4,360-foot Mt. Eniwa, their projected site for the men's downhill. In its presentation, Sapporo had been expectably laudatory about the mountain. "Snow quality is fine," they said, but had not said much else about it.

Small wonder. The official Japanese travel guide lists Mt. Eniwa as an active volcano and says, "Small clouds of steam rise constantly from the crater of the mountain which occasionally erupts violently."

Consider that one, IOC. If Mt. Eniwa erupts in 1972, the world will see the fastest downhill race in Olympic history.