The Gold Medal Dream: Taking Your family to the Olympics
By Susan Kerr

Maybe it’s that stirring, cheesy music that plays during the television coverage, or maybe it’s the long-held dream of winning a gold medal in figure skating (okay, so I need to learn how to skate first), but I love the Olympics. Since my hopes for a personal, or even team medal, are pretty marginal now that I’m in my 40s, I did the next best thing: I attended an Olympics with my family.

It’s never been easier to go the Olympics, and going with kids makes you see the games through new eyes. My husband, Jack, our two daughters, then aged 11 and 8, and I weren’t even planning to go to the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Games but thanks to the Internet, we booked a last minute trip that lasted eight magical days. Two years later, my girls say that this was absolutely the best trip of their lives.

A DOABLE FAMILY TRIP

As the recent Athens games showed, the Olympics offer a unique opportunity for a classic travel adventure. The next games will bring winter athletes to Turin, Italy, from February 10-26, 2006. Cold weather not your style? Then think about summering in Beijing, China, which will host the games August 8-24, 2008. If you prefer to wait for the games to come back to North America, then get set to enjoy Vancouver, Canada from February 12-28, 2010.

The Olympics offer an amazing venue for families. While my family is filled with avid (read "crazy") skiers, it turned out that watching the sports were only a minor part of our adventure. Television doesn’t even begin to do justice to the huge organization behind the games, ranging from music and cultural events to huge zones filled with activities for kids.

As with all the other games, I was aware that the Salt Lake Olympics were coming up, but the reality of going seemed too difficult. "It’ll be too hard to get tickets, too tough to find lodging, too crowded, too expensive"…these were all the excuses I had in the back of my mind. So I did nothing.

That was until the music started and the four of us were watching the Salt Lake opening ceremonies at home. Suddenly my younger daughter, Vanessa, turned around and asked, "Why aren’t we there?" Why not indeed?

BUYING TICKETS

We kicked into action. We first went on the official website for the games to see if any tickets were available. There were a few. We then jumped on eBay. Sure enough there were tons of tickets for sale. Since the games had already started, sellers seemed quite willing to deal. We then looked on Expedia and booked the plane and hotel. In a few hours of work, we had set up an eight-day Olympics fun fest. Within a week, our family of four was in Salt Lake City, and the girls only had to miss two days of school since it was during a winter break.

Clearly this spur of the moment trip might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I was ready to do it again once the Athens games started in August. Unfortunately, the games conflicted with my older daughter’s first day of High School. Sometimes one’s love of the Olympics has to take a back seat.

The beauty of the Internet is that even if you are not into planning, the Olympics give you the perfect opportunity to set up the trip of a lifetime.

The best place to start is with the official websites for each of the games (see listing at the end of story). Tickets for the Turin (officially called "Torino" in Italian) games go on sale this November. Europeans can buy tickets directly through the official Torino site; all others, including Americans, need to go to their national Olympics site. In the U.S. it is www.olympic-usa.org .

Tickets purchased through the 2006 organizing committee start at 20 euros. As of this writing, one euro equals $1.22. The top price listed is 370 euros or approximately $450 for the best figure skating tickets. If you don’t get tickets through the organizers you’ll have to pay whatever the going scalping rate is or you can go through travel firms offering full package deals. Many ticket brokers such as tickco.com will offer tickets once they become available. And don’t forget ebay.com. If you want to buy something, it’s probably there.

In our case, we ended up buying tickets from multiple Internet sites for eight different events ranging from $35 to $95 each. With the exception of skating, most were held quite early in the morning, but with our kids, early rising isn't much of a problem. The big surprise was realizing how spread out the Olympics are, thus requiring a fair percentage of our days on the road.

The 2006 winter games will be no exception. It will feature 170 events in 15 disciplines in eight different towns. If you’re planning ahead, study a map of event locations. You may want to tailor your trip to one area. In our case, we drove from one event to another without much difficulty because parking is plentiful in Utah. That’s probably not typical, so check out public transit options. At the Utah Olympics, events were held as far as 50 miles apart.

THRILL OF A LIFETIME

We went to the games thinking the thrill was going to be watching the big name events and instead found real joy in the lesser-known sports. Given my life-long dream of skating gold, it was surprising that attending ice dancing turned out to be the least interesting event. Sitting in a big cavernous skating arena, literally in the last row (the high-priced seats seemed to be populated by corporate types wearing suits and name tags) didn’t hold a candle to attending a cross country ski event held out in the woods. There we were surrounded by hordes of wild Scandinavians who really brought home the Olympic spirit.

For my daughters, the sporting events weren’t the main draw. People-watching took priority over paying close attention to the intricacies of ski jumping or speed skating. There were many elementary school-aged kids and lots of teenagers from all over the world.

Indeed, some of the events can be a bit wearisome for kids. The bobsled, for example, is virtually impossible to watch since you fight for a little corner by the track and see the sledders for a fraction of a second. Remember most events will last for hours and some are less appealing than others to kids. What they will take home is the memory of sitting in a shuttle bus listening to dozens of different languages being spoken and marveling at people carrying flags from nations whose names they can barely pronounce.

ACTIVITIES FOR NON-OLYMPIANS

Other than watching the athletes compete, there’s plenty to do. Cultural exhibits, tourist versions of sporting events, outdoor concerts are just a few of the many activities available in an Olympic village.

Pin trading could be an Olympics event in itself. Each game, each sport, each company even remotely doing business at the Olympics creates special little pins. It was fascinating wandering through huge kiosks set up for folks to buy or trade pins from this and previous games. Even better is to find pins not for sale. Vanessa lucked out by sitting next to a man from the U.S. speed skating team who gave her a special team pin.

Lots of fun events were set up for families within the Olympic Village. Our two favorites were curling and the bobsled where they actually sent you down a small indoor track. (Both were operated without ice). As one of the daily "gold medalists" of the simulated curling, I found that my Olympic dreams are still very much alive!

For my older daughter, the highlight was the nightly concerts in the Olympic Village where we got to see big name acts such as Alanis Morrisette and Creed perform. Although they were free, visitors needed a ticket to get in.

And don’t count out shopping. Each Olympics has its own "official mascot" which typically looks like a cross between Bart Simpson and a chipmunk. Prepare to surrender yourself to the games and buy one as a souvenir of your Olympics adventure!

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WHEN YOU GO, BE SURE TO...

  • Check out a map of Olympic venues to see how far apart the events are. The 2006 winter games will be held in 8 different towns.
  • Be prepared to walk and ride shuttles. Even if you can drive to an event, you 'll probably have to ride a shuttle from the parking lot to the sports site and then walk some distance to get in. Keep this in mind if you are dealing with strollers.
  • Allow extra time for security screenings, and be prepared to empty your pockets.
  • Book one event a day. If you are hardy and events are nearby, you can book two, but be prepared to be tired! One event per day seems to be the limit for elementary-aged children and younger.
  • Book events that are age appropriate. Some events are loud, noisy affairs so it doesn't matter if your child is boisterous. However, others such as figure skating, do not appreciate the sounds of little ones.
  • Remember that toddlers will not be interested in most events, but would love the extracurricular activities. They can go to competitions held without assigned seating where spectators walk around.
  • Don't worry if you don't understand the sport. Much of the fun at an Olympics is in people watching and being in the middle of a global event. So go ahead and book tickets for that biathlon.
  • Check out the food policy; eat before you go to an event. At the Salt Lake games, no outside food was allowed into the venues. Plus, the food they sold was limited and terrible! Chances are this will not be the case in Italy.
  • Consider attending the Paralympic Games. These equally special Olympics take place after the closing ceremonies of the larger games and showcase world-class athletes with disabilities.

NOTEWORTHY WEBSITES:

Writer Susan Kerr lives in San Francisco with her husband and two daughters.

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