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Olympics, our stadiums and their personal entanglements

I’m about to hop on an airplane for China for my 14th Olympics, seven Winters and now seven Summers.

Not coincidentally, just two weeks ago, I interrupted my pre-Olympic immersion and haze for a story about the Vikings’ stadium debate.

Such a personal merging of stadium issues and Olympics harkens me back nearly 15 years … (If this were a movie, there would be harp music now. Imagine harp music, OK?) …

I was in the early days of my coverage of arena and stadium wars for the once-great Minneapolis Star Tribune. In 1993, the issue was how to begin to bail out Target Center. The NHL North Stars had just left town for Dallas. The Met Center had been made redundant by the construction of Target Center. The Target Center owners, Marv Wolfenson and Harvey Ratner, were in financial trouble. Lawmakers and the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission were getting involved.

I was in a quandary.

’94 Winter games
I was scheduled to cover the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. But I was also following the tiniest of news tidbits about Target Center and the potential return of hockey to Minnesota.

I confided my discomfort and concern to Paul Rexford Thatcher, then — and now — a member and chairman of the finance committee of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission. Thatcher is a barrel-chested, no-nonsense, hifalutin, starched-white-shirt-and-cufflinks kind of guy. A businessman of some success, he is also a longtime Democratic Party activist and, at his best, positively theatrical in public meetings.

Paul Rexford Thatcher
Paul Rexford Thatcher

“Paul,” I said, “I’m afraid I’m going to miss some interesting twists and turns in this Target Center debate so I can go to Norway and watch little girls twirl and lutz in their tutus on ice. I don’t know if I should stay here or go to Norway.”

“Sir,” Thatcher said to me, always serious, always officious, but, usually, kind. “Sir, this will be here when you return.”

Lo and behold, I returned to Minnesota in March of 1994 and nothing really had been resolved. And it took another year for Glen Taylor to buy the Timberwolves and the city of Minneapolis to buy the arena.

Atlanta in ’96
Which leads to 1996. I was poised to go to the Atlanta Summer Olympics. And, then, of course, the Twins ballpark debate was heating up. I was getting distracted from my Olympics preparation by all the Twins politics and the notion that our state had more important priorities than stadiums while immigrants were losing food stamps and day care centers were underfunded.

“Paul,” I said to Mr.Thatcher, “geez, I hate to miss this Twins stadium story as it gets good and sociologicial. Here I am heading to Atlanta to watch kids from country clubs swim from wall to wall while some serious public policy action is occurring in Minnesota. I wonder if I should let some other ink-stained wretch cover the Olympics in Hotlanta.”

“Sir,” Thatcher said to me, now with a knowing twinkle in his eye, “this will be here when you return.”

The Twins stadium isn’t open yet.

Now, it’s 2008. As I readied for Beijing and all its issues, challenges and possibilities, there go those Vikings and that darn Sports Facilities Commission with yet another plan to redo the Dome.

On July 17, the commission unveiled a flurry of documents, reports and plans that will, for better or for worse, surely get the Vikings debate jumpstarted for the 2009 legislative session.

When the meeting was over, I chatted with Paul Thatcher. He asked about my preparations for China. I mentioned Olympics and stadium deals always seem to dance together for me.

I didn’t miss a beat.

“Sir,” I said to Thatcher, “this will be here when I return from China.”

Paul Rexford Thatcher, in his finest dark suit, deepest voice and most knowing eyes, said, “Sir, of that I am certain.”

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