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The Venice Olympics?

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On October 2 at 6:53 PM,  the news broke upon an unsuspecting city — and even some unsuspecting city councilors — that the local headmen had cooked up a new scheme: Officially proposing Venice as the site of the 2020 Summer Olympics.

I’ll pause while you adjust your screens.

Technically speaking, “Venice Olympics” wouldn’t necessarily connote the same thing as “Venetian Olympics.”

The “Venetian Olympics” would consist of any typical activity of any typical day in almost any typical week.   Medals would be awarded for such events as:

  • the 2000-meter walk home  over five bridges carrying 20 pounds of shopping in plastic bags and a six-pack of mineral water bottles during Carnival (an event which could be adjusted for difficulty according to the distance, bag weight, number and height of bridges, density of crowds, and whether you   have up to three small children with you);
  • the  vaporetto-boarding-at-6:15 PM  in the rain with two runs having been skipped, leading to a phenomenal accumulation of enraged, wet, tired mammals (starting line: Piazzale Roma, finish line at Rialto, San Toma’, or San Zaccaria);
  • choice of one of several activities at the train station (buying a ticket at  5:45 AM; finding a bathroom at  9:30 PM;  locating your departure track in the absence of any information on any notice boards, five minutes before departure), to be judged not only on  speed but style;
  • getting from  San Marco to the Lido in the fog  during a transport  strike;
  • obtaining a package from abroad via  SDA, a delivery company which does everything but give correct  information in a timely fashion,  or deliver.

Actually, I think the “Venetian Olympics” could be a spectacular event, for those in the right frame of mind,  and best of all,  they could be held any day of the year, practically.

But I am only slightly jesting.   The headmen, on the other hand,  are completely serious.   That’s because they are: Massimo Cacciari, the mayor; Giancarlo Galan, governor of the Veneto Region; Franco Manzato, regional vice-president AND councilor for Tourism; and Andrea Tomat, president of Confindustria Veneto, the regional  business association.   Politicians and businessmen — it’s the winning team in most Olympic efforts, I have no doubt.   And as soon as Madrid lost its bid to Rio, thereby re-opening the field to a European candidate for the next go-round, Venice pounced.

The Region of Veneto.

The Region of Veneto.

But “Venice Olympics” is a loss leader.   What they mean by “Venice Olympics” translates into “Olympics scattered around the Veneto region.”   Everybody wants to get into the act.

The only foreseeable competitor in Italy would be Rome, which hosted the Games in 1960 (perhaps a handicap, though capital cities seem to do well).   I”m not sure what card Rome will be playing in an attempt to become the national candidate, but it’s true that they wouldn’t have to face the quips that almost certainly will soon be lobbed at Venice.   I can imagine the helpful suggestions for organizing the pole vault over the campanile of San   Marco; synchronized swimming in the Grand Canal; the hammer throw and shot-put aimed at the taxis churning along the Giudecca Canal.    Field hockey in the Piazza San Marco.

Let me not blemish the euphoria by mentioning crass numbers; clearly the visions of new everything being built all across the region has got lots of people all worked up.   I merely mention, at random, that the candidacy of Madrid, which made it all the way to the finals, cost the equivalent of $55 million.

And that’s just the cost of candidacy.   Once you nab the Games, the real bills start to mount up.   Brazil has budgeted $14 billion to host the Games in Rio.   Venice has a few handicaps, in my opinion, in that regard:   It’s already the most expensive city in Italy (this ought to really lure spectators), and it has made a career of rattling its tin cup, wailing that it has no money.   But… but… If there is no money for schools, monument restoration, policemen, hospitals, firemen, and so on, how  can they  suddenly  find millions — gosh, it was right here behind the Encyclopedia Britannica all  the time  — and be prepared to expend billions, if they get the nod?   (That was a rhetorical question.)  

The notables who have spoken  have been refreshingly direct about why they want the Olympics.   Skipping entirely any mention, however brief, of desiring to add to the glory of Italy, or the honor of the city, or the splendor of our athletes (somebody did refer to that, I think, but I can’t see how that matters), they’ve gone right to the point.

“Promoting and organizing the Games of 2020 would permit the city and the entire metropolitan area represented by the triangle of Venice, Padua and Treviso (italics mine) to accelerate the numerous improvement and renewal projects which for years have filled the agendas of the institutions of the territory,” said  Mayor Cacciari.    

“Venezia 2020 represents a strategic project for the development of the infrastructure of the entire Region,” said Dr. Galan.   For the record, the entire Region covers about 7,000 square miles.  

“Our businesses realize that having the Olympic Games   in Venice in 2020 could act as a catalyst for a series of ‘virtuous’ processes in the economic field and help the consumer regain confidence,” said President Tomat.

But don’t break out the Prosecco just yet.   First of all, Rome isn’t going to  shrink  from the fight — au contraire.   This was the home of the gladiators, after all; also, the mayor of Rome belongs to the right wing of the political spectrum, while the mayor of Venice is from the left.   They’re used to fighting.   So, like every war, this brewing conflict has a long history and many undetected combatants.

And a few cautious voices — important voices — have sounded their notes of warning amid the chorus of praise for this audacious notion.

If you cross your eyes just a little, the big picture comes into better focus.

If you cross your eyes just a little, the big picture comes into better focus.

“Extremely important economic guarantees are going to be needed,” commented the head of the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI), the group which will adjudicate which city carries Italy’s banner into the final selection.   Not a very heartening public statement, though unusually honest.   They were polite enough not to refer to the recently (finally) completed   Ponte della Costituzione (“the Calatrava Bridge”),  which required 11 years,  many lawsuits and an impressive cost overrun (final cost:  $18 million compared to the $10 million quoted in  the winning bid), to span  265 feet of the Grand Canal.   But an Olympic Stadium ought  to be a lot simpler.

“It would undoubtedly be a great opportunity for the entire Veneto [there we go again] to furnish itself with facilities adequate to such an event which would then remain at the disposition of  local groups….It would require an enormous investment with the complete participation of the government as well as the industial sector,” remarked Renzo Di Antonio, president of the  Olympic Committee’s Veneto division.

“As a Venetian I couldn’t be anything other than happy at this proposal,” said  Andrea Cipressa, fencing gold medalist and vice-president of the national fencing association.   “Naturally, on the real feasibility of the project I feel some understandable doubts….There are many, many things to take into consideration and the first impact of the proposal is mainly emotional, romantic.   But then you have to start taking reality into account as well as the many problems which are  always connected with Venice.”

But perhaps he has failed to grasp the magnitude of the marvels which the Olympics would bestow on the Region (excuse me: ENTIRE Region], especially right around Venice, innovations which have already been discussed for quite a while in the government:

“I believe that Tessera” (the village near the airport) “has all the necessary potential,” said Laura Fincato, councilor for Urban Planning.   “We are discussing an area which would have a multilateral potential — an area of recreation including a new building for the Casino, a stadium, a concert hall and an structure for all sorts of sports.   In this area there is also the airport and the [future] passage of the high-speed railway [the TAV Corridor 5 which will connect Kiev to Lisbon, passing through  northern Italy].   If we then add a forest of 105 hectares [260 acres], it seems to me that we have all the right conditions.”   A forest??   Now that’s something that’s really been missing from the urban fabric.   We don’t have enough firemen — we don’t even have a breakdown lane on the Liberty Bridge.   But a forest by the airport?   Why didn’t anybody think of that before?

The mayor of the nearby beach resort  of Jesolo is already jumping up and down and waving his hand: “We could hold the windsurf and beach volley competitions,” is his contribution to the discussion.  

Paradoxically, though, the rowing competitions would be impossible to hold in the lagoon, due to the tidal currents.   Sailing in the Adriatic ought to work, but rowing would have to be somewhere else.   That’s going to be a little tricky for the public relations work.   Maybe they could dig the rowing basin in the forest by the airport.

Probably the only thing the campanile of San Marco hasn't seen since 1514 is a Summer Olympics.

Probably the only thing the campanile of San Marco hasn't seen since 1514 is a Summer Olympics.

One commentator, Tiziano Graziottin, sees the big picture this way: “However you look at it, there are many obstacles on the horizon to overcome; the ‘tripartisan’ group put into play by Cacciari, Galan and Manzato… looks at Venice as the figurehead of an entire Veneto system, using the icon of the most beautiful city in the world to fascinate world public opinion while aiming at developing the potential of an entire macro-region… Venice is the star that drives photographers crazy but the Olympic ‘film’ succeeds only if all the actors play their part under the highest-quality direction…. The good thing about this idea is the concept behind it, and it’s a key concept for ‘internal use’: To make clear to a public opinion frequently divided into provincial (in every sense) rivalries that Venice and the Veneto can and must march together.”   For those  numbed by  the endless bickering between Dr. Cacciari (center-left)  and Dr. Galan (center-right), this is a revolution.   “Bipartisan” isn’t a word you hear used very much; in Italian, it’s a knobby little word (bipartitico) which doesn’t really have a home in anyone’s vocabulary.   I think it must sleep in the political garage.

A closing note — more like a shot across the bow — from the ever-contrarian lawyer, Francesco Mario D’Elia, who has organized four (4) referendums with the aim of separating Venice from Mestre, all of which failed, but not by so much.   He has now organized a committee called “No to the Venice 2020 Olympics.”

“To propose Venice for the Olympics,” he stated, “is merely an operation involving  the image, in order to exploit the fame of the city without giving anything in return…. Therefore we say ‘Enough’ to those who exploit the name of Venice, a city which has no need of the Olympics.”

So he has wasted no time in writing to the  governor of the Region of Sicily saying that there’s a small group in Venice ready to support their candidacy for the Olympics, presumably at Palermo.   “The Palermo Olympics.”   That sounds even stranger than The Venice Olympics.

In all, a fairly audacious gamble, which will require betting millions of somebody’s money to play a hand which may not turn out to be as strong as its holder might imagine.   Venice isn’t in the habit of competing, really — people come here anyway, whether you invite them or not.    As a historic, artistic and even touristic city, who would it compete against?   So having to think as a global competitor for anything is going to be a short sharp shock to a few people here.   Especially when they come up against other potential candidates such as Cape Town and Mumbai and St. Petersburg.

But that’s the point of gambling — you’re ready to take a chance.   Perhaps it will turn out that  this whole Venice Olympics  business is going to be less like a game of poker or mah-jongg and more like a long and unfathomably expensive session of “Risk.”

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