Athens In the posh hotel they occupy, far from the bleak, sun-baked desert that is the main Olympic complex, there must have been a whole bunch of champagne corks popping last night.
The members of the International Olympic Committee knew they had dodged a bullet, perhaps more literally than anyone dare imagine. They awarded the gargantuan Summer Games to a small, poor country, hoping to play off the romantic notion of returning to the origins both of the Ancient Olympics and of their modern revival, while polishing their own tarnished image.
In every practical sense, it was a lousy idea. Athens became a perpetual headache, with construction delays, with political inertia and with the growing sense that the country simply lacked the will and resources to get things done. Up until two weeks before the opening ceremony, there were doubts about half-constructed venues, transportation snafus, climate, pollution and security.
Somehow, it came off pretty much without a hitch (though the pre-Games foul-ups clearly drove away thousands of spectators, both foreign and domestic). The traffic moved. The air was breathable. The sports venues were adequate. The people were friendly. And the terrorists, scared off or simply holidaying, didn't blow anything up.
If that was the product of massive, last-minute cash infusions or dumb luck, or if, as the local residents insist, it was just the Greek way of doing things, no one is sweating the fine points now.
The IOC can pack up and return to Lausanne, leaving the Greek people, their children and probably their grandchildren to savour the memories, to celebrate their triumph, to wallow in national pride and to pay bills that no one dares calculate yet.
Not that the keepers of the Games are entirely carefree today. The doping issue remains a huge threat to the Olympic product, which requires a veneer of wholesomeness to go with a collection of sports that aren't easily marketable unadorned by the rings. But the IOC proved here that it could push the issue, that it could endure the embarrassment of high-profile, cheating athletes, and that the Games wouldn't necessarily sink under the cynicism that positive tests naturally produce.
Meanwhile, there's apparently trouble on the horizon. While watching an event the other day, a highly ranked Canadian Olympic official mentioned that the next Games, the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, could well be a mess because of sponsorship shortfalls and precarious funding. With the travails of Athens understandably having been the focus, no one has been paying much attention to what comes next.
Still, as other outposts of the sports and business colossus are entering an inevitable period of decline, the Olympic franchise seems more than capable of surviving another organizational blip. Even if the returns from Athens in terms of television viewership are disappointing in some quarters, even if Turin is a struggle (and would be without National Hockey League players, as seems a real possibility), the Games look rock-solid into the next decade, if for no other reason than location, location and location.
Even while the Athens Olympics were taking place, it was difficult not to think of Beijing in 2008, as China pushed to second place in the medal standings, winning in sports where traditionally the Earth's most populous country hadn't been a factor. They had a hurdler match a long-standing world record, they won a gold medal on the tennis court and they got a first-ever medal in boxing, a sport banned for 30 years after the revolution because even its amateur incarnation was considered decadent and bourgeois.
When the Olympics arrive in China, there will be no organizational issues. There will be no construction issues. In fact, the IOC has already suggested they slow down a little so that the venues aren't ready too far in advance. You won't hear anything about cost, there will be little talk of security and the trains will run on time. It will be big, perhaps bigger than any Summer Games in history, and be sure that the home team plans to come out on top.
Games in distant time zones can be tricky for North American television viewing. But the possibilities of the Chinese market will more than compensate the IOC for any loss of interest.
Two years later, the much smaller Winter Games will arrive in Vancouver, where it is hard to imagine empty seats, or incomplete venues or any real hassles, outside of the drive to Whistler. It is assumed that the NHL, however its labour war is finally resolved, will want to be part of the mix in North America. And Canada, primarily a winter sports country, should be able to bask in the success of its curlers, skaters, skiers and hockey players without undergoing a national crisis of confidence.
The big prize, though, will be awarded next summer, and this is where the IOC has bought itself a hefty insurance policy against whatever economic or political pitfalls lie ahead. They could go out on a limb, as they did with Athens, and award the Olympics of 2012 to Africa (though the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, soccer's world governing body, beat them to the symbolic punch by putting the 2010 World Cup in South Africa). Instead, the candidate cities for 2012 are big, rich and glamorous: Paris (the odds-on favourite), London, New York and Madrid. Even the potential chaos in New York, a long-shot candidate now, would be balanced with the glamour and excitement of the place. There isn't a losing proposition in the bunch.
In the meantime, the IOC may do some fine-tuning, reducing the number of events in the Summer Games, demanding that some of the judged sports clean up their act.
They can do so, though, understanding that the foundation is strong, secure in the knowledge that they survived the great sentimental roll of the dice.