Feb. 18, 2008: Wood Storks Not A Concern At Beijing Olympics


If there are any wood storks in China, they are in a heap of trouble. The XXIX Olympiad, as the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing are so grandly known are just months away and I am willing to bet all the tea in — well, you know — that not one person there gives a flying honk about the wood stork.

That was not the case in Atlanta as we prepared for the Centennial Olympic Games of 1996. Billy Payne and an intrepid group of volunteers had secured the event for the city and the state of Georgia in a huge upset over the favored city of Athens, Greece and they asked me to join the group in 1993 as managing director of communications and government relations. It was there that I met the wood stork.

Under the heading of “No good deed goes unpunished,” cities around the state clamored for an Olympic venue and if they were successful in securing an event, they immediately attracted special-interest groups like barnyard manure attracts flies. For example, Savannah was awarded the prestigious Olympic yachting competition. After the initial euphoria wore off — about a day —somebody discovered that — gasp! — wood storks were nesting in the general vicinity. Environmentalists were convinced that the yachting venue would single-handedly kill off all the wood storks in Georgia. The locals wished us good luck and to let them know when we had solved their problem.

Eventually, we mollified the environmentalists. Olympic yachting was a success despite the fact that lightning struck the venue twice and Hurricane Bertha paid a visit. I don’t think God likes yachting. The wood storks seemed to enjoy the attention, though, and I assume they lived happily ever after. I never asked.

I mention this incident because it was only one of a million crises that occurred in planning the 1996 Games that won’t occur in China. We were in constant battles with government and special-interest groups over issues like lead poisoning at the shooting venues, equine piroplasmosis (don’t ask), and gay rights issues in Cobb County. If that weren’t enough, state flaggers threatened to wave the state flag at all the venues to embarrass us, while black preachers in Atlanta tried to extort money from us because they said Sunday events would put a dent in the church collection plate.

To top it off, the world media resented the United States because they thought Athens, Greece deserved the 1996 Olympic Games. The national media thought we were a bunch of country bumpkins and the local media were — to put it kindly — in over their heads, giving new meaning to the term “amateur hour.” Not exactly a formula for positive coverage of a gathering of the world’s best athletes in peaceful competition. In spite of all the problems and stresses and meanness, along with a horrific act of hometown terrorism in Centennial Olympic Park, we survived and the Games were magnificent, thanks to Billy Payne’s leadership, a dedicated staff and thousands of outstanding volunteers. But it was hard.

Now, twelve years later it is China’s turn. Look for the Beijing Olympics to be as smooth as silk. No gay rights demonstrations, flag-waving dissidents or pyroplasmosis. No threatening black preachers and no fretting over wood storks. If you’re intent on making any waves the Chinese officials will simply throw your butt in jail or ship you to Outer Mongolia until the Games are over.

Local press coverage should be glowing. As for the international media, I would hazard a guess the Chinese could care less what is said about them or their politics. China is the largest market in the world, and a cheap source of manufacturing. There is no way that marketers and manufacturers are going to let a small thing like human rights violations keep them from making nice with their hosts.

While I have had all the experience with the Olympics I ever want, I think often about having a similar role in the Beijing Games. The first thing I would do would be to put all the whiny environmentalists — and the infernal wood storks — on the first train to Outer Mongolia and then dare anybody else to make a peep. After what I went through in 1996, it would be a pleasure.