The Amazing Latvian Two-Man Olympic Lobbying Team: Pure Gold

In the wake of the effort to gain attention for the Latvian Olympic team (see “Dear NBC” article), a great media kerfuffle erupted.  This piece, from later in 2002, tells the whole story.

 

In an Olympiad featuring numerous acts of athletic resurrection and beset by judging controversies, the most remarkable story to emerge had nothing to do with the athletes themselves.

It was the tale of two men, a Massachusetts database administrator and a Salt Lake City real estate developer, men who have never met each other, men who have never competed in sports at any level, men who do not know the slightest thing about PR or lobbying — but whose combined efforts changed the way NBC telecast the Opening Ceremonies, emboldened the spirits of an entire Olympic team, and might just help win their native Latvia its desperately-sought membership in NATO.  Do you believe in miracles?

It is Christmas, 2000, and in his living room in Westford, Massachusetts, Gunars Zagars is reflecting back on a difficult year.  His mother, Zinaida – once a track and field star who had represented Latvia in the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam – had passed away in March.  Later in the year, he had been sorely disappointed when NBC failed to show Latvia during the Opening Ceremonies of the 27th Olympiad in Sydney.  Sandwiched between such alphabetical also-rans as Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Lebanon, Lisotho and Liberia, Latvia had now been sacrificed to commercials for five straight Olympiads, Zagars’ considerable letter writing efforts to NBC and Olympic sponsors notwithstanding.

He decides to try another tack, and with the Christmas meal dishes stacked in the sink and the crumpled piles of wrapping paper still demanding attention, he repairs to another room to jot down his thoughts about his Latvian heritage and the confluence of recent events.  It takes the form of an Op-Ed story, which he sends off in the mail to various newspapers.  It is only a matter of days before Steve Luxenberg, Outlook Editor of The Washington Post, responds.  Yes, they will run the piece, but they would like to wait until January of 2002, when the Winter Olympics will be at hand.

Although no one knows, it The Campaign has begun.

 2079 miles away, in Salt Lake City, Utah, Peter Staks was also watching the Opening Games from Sydney, and could not believe what he saw.  Or didn’t see.  Not that he was counting or anything, but it did seem like this had made several Olympiads in a row in which Latvia was nowhere to be seen.  You only get a chance to see them every two-to-four years, he thought, and this just seemed so sad and unfair.

Never much of an activist, except perhaps to gather support for some for the projects he had worked on as a city planner, he nevertheless was motivated to send an e-mail to NBC, along with many other Latvian-Americans.  “It didn’t hit me at that time that the next Olympics would be right here in SaltLake.  I guess I didn’t really think there was anything I could do about it except to register my complaint.”

Zagars did not come to this little lobbying effort by accident.  Born in Riga, Latvia, he and his family fled their homeland during World War II after the Nazis raided their apartment in the middle of the night, eventually settling in Pennsylvania.  Memories of his Latvian boyhood dimmed with the years, but were rekindled when the country regained its independence from the Soviet Union after more than 50 years of continuous occupation.  This momentous event, in August of 1991, brought great joy and hope to Latvian-Americans, many of whom eagerly awaited the symbolic moment when they would get to see their countrymen march under the crimson-and-white Latvian flag, once again a free and independent country.   Hence, it was bitterly disappointing when commercial breaks blotted out the Latvians during Opening Ceremonies coverage in Barcelona, and Atlanta, and Nagano, and in every Olympics.

Staks, on the other hand, was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1953.  His parents, both Latvians, had emigrated to the U.S. in the late 1940s.  He spoke only Latvian until he was about 4 years old, and throughout his youth retained a strong emotional tie to the homeland – going to a Latvian church, even attending a Latvian school, along with 25 or 30 other kids, on Saturdays.  But when he left Milwaukee to go to college in tiny Whitewater, WI, and later to graduate school at the University of Utah, the bond was broken.  Of course, by then the Cold War was at its peak, the Baltics had been completely taken over by the Soviets, and there was not much to be gained by telling your friends that your real name was Peteris and that you were of Latvian descent.

After Latvia regained its independence, he went over to visit in 1993, but his overwhelming impression was of how underdeveloped it was.  “You could see there were some beautiful buildings beneath it all,” he said, “but it had a long, long way to go.”

Just what is there about this country the size of West Virginia that inspires the efforts of people like Zagars and Staks?

During the long decades of German and Soviet occupation, hundreds of thousands of native Latvians were killed or deported.  In their place came hundreds of thousands of Russians to fill the jobs in the railroad engine plants, appliance manufacturing factories and other trades that served as the western commercial hub of the USSR.  As a result, Latvia today is a country of clear and sometimes startling contrasts: Russian and Latvian, old and new, poor and nouveau riche.

 

In Riga, a city of 815,000 that is sometimes referred to as “the Paris of Eastern Europe,” ethnic Russians make up a plurality of the population.  There are still some Russian-only restaurants, some store signs written in the Cyrillic alphabet, and a Russian-language version of the Discovery Channel playing on TV.  But the resurgence of Latvian pride is everywhere evident.  The Latvian language is making a strong comeback, and Latvian currency has long since ousted the Russian Ruble.  The Brivibas Piemineklis, or Freedom Monument, originally erected in downtown Riga in 1935 but overshadowed during the Soviet years by a statue of Lenin, is once again the spiritual center of the city.  The new Occupation Museum boldly tells the story of what happened to the natives during the years of Nazi and Soviet rule.  And every few weeks throughout the spring and summer, young people in native folk costumes flood the city as part of the many song-and-dance festivals that seem as central to cultural fabric of the country as sports are in America.

In the Central Market, a sprawling complex of old zeppelin hangars and open air booths that is Europe’s oldest marketplace and one of its largest, an incredible bounty of produce, fish, baked goods and other food defies every pre-conception of the paucity of food available in the old Soviet Bloc. Yet the people buying the goods there seem to be mostly poor old men whose shoe heels are worn to a 45-degree angle from overuse, and gray-haired old women in shawls who look suspiciously from left to right as if anyone might be KGB.

Just a few blocks away, amidst the many colorfully reconstructed buildings in Vecriga, the tourist part of the city, are thoroughly modern shops and museums and hotels, and seemingly endless numbers of beautiful, tall, angular young women, confidently striding down the boulevards on their lunch hours in somewhat risque business attire and heavy makeup (in the modern Russian style).

Travel west 20km toward the Gulf of Riga, and you come upon Jurmala – once a posh string of resort towns favored by the Soviet elite, today a bizarre contrast of expensively reconstructed oceanfront estates with wrought iron fences, alongside dilapidated houses weathered by the salt air and awaiting some westerner with money and a dream.

Go 65km south toward Lithuania and you find Rundale Pils, an ornate 18th century palace that is slowly being restored to its grandeur.  The palace once featured marble and gilt walls and was home to Baltic royalty, but fell into horrible disrepair during the years of occupation; the Soviets even converted a second-story ballroom into a basketball court.  Today Rundale Pils has primitive index cards on the walls to identify works of art, and some of the rooms are even rented out for parties; the Latvians are eager to find any source of funding to restore this historic jewel to its greatness, but in a country still struggling to develop a market economy and in which the average Latvian earns US $230 a month, this is simply not a priority.

And in the land of contrasts, with its tumultuous past and proud, exuberant populace, one major paradox still lies ahead: this former Soviet republic is eager to gain membership in NATO.  Yet despite Latvia’s decidedly western orientation and progressive attitudes, so far this has proven an elusive prize… and if one believes some of the rumors floating around international circles, Baltic neighbors Estonia and Lithuania may get there first, leaving Latvia to mill about in the ante-room of history still awaiting its introduction to the world stage.  Can anything else be expected of a country that cannot even get six seconds of Olympic respect from NBC?

Throughout 2001, Zagars continued to try to get to NBC.

He tried to persuade other Latvians to picket outside the NBC affiliate offices in Boston. He wrote to NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol and other NBC executives. He e-mailed Olympic sponsors such as Kodak, Lucent and Qwest, and persuaded a handful of other Latvian-Americans to write, as well. The sum total of the response? One correspondence from an executive at Blue Cross and Blue Shield, which concluded in brusque block caps: “THE ASSOCIATION WOULD NOT BE IN A POSITION TO RESPOND TO YOUR REQUEST. PLEASE DO NOT CONTACT ME AGAIN.”

Then in mid-January of 2002 came a ray of hope. Chuck Fruit, a Senior Vice President with Coca-Cola, sent him an e-mail. “Dear Mr. Zagars. Thank you for contacting us at The Coca-Cola Company to express your concern about the possibility that NBC may not show the Olympic teams from smaller countries during the Opening Ceremonies parade of nations. We think you are raising a very important issue for NBC to weigh as it plans its coverage of the Opening Ceremonies. Not only do you and millions of other viewers have particular interest in some of the smaller countries competing in the Games, but often these smaller delegations are fascinating for all of us to see and learn about because of their unique cultures and colorful outfits.”  Fruit promised to have his ad agency, McCann-Erickson, contact Keith Turner, President of Sales for NBC TV Networks, with a specific request on behalf of the Latvians – and Zagars was elated.

Meanwhile in Salt Lake City, Staks, unaware of Zagars’ efforts, had a breakthrough of his own. On a lark, he decided to send an e-mail to Bruce Lindsay, a news anchor at NBC affiliate KSL, who was hosting a nightly show about the Olympics called “Eyewitness to the Games,” calling attention to the Latvian snub. A few hours later he got a return phone call.

“Is it really true?” asked Lindsay.  “How would you know this?”

So Staks recounted his Latvian upbringing, and what had happened in Sydney, and the e-mails that had followed.  “When you’re a free nation you should be able to come in under your own flag,” he told Lindsay, “and people in the U.S., of all places, should be able to see that and appreciate it.”

Lindsay invited Staks to come on the program and tell his story. Staks, not sure if he wanted to go on TV and take on this cause, waited for a day, then agreed. The live interview was conducted on January 17.

The reaction?  “My wife laughed, and my daughter said I looked really old,” said Staks. “But all of a sudden people at work started asking me, ‘Where’s Latvia?’ Contractors I work with started asking me about it. My son had 10 fraternity buddies all watching, and they became interested, too. I started to realize that maybe the rock had gone over the top of the hill.”

As part of the interview, Lindsay promised to broadcast regular updates on the Latvians. But he went well beyond that.

Adopting the Latvian cause with a wink and a nod, KSL began to provide coverage that was reminiscent of the way many U.S. media embraced the Jamaican Bobsled team in 1988. With Staks providing occasional information about the athletes and other story ideas, KSL began airing nightly “Latvia Updates.” One night they covered the hockey team. Another night they ran a story about a local elementary school that was making lap quilts for the Latvian athletes. KSL even tacked up a Latvian flag in the background of the set, visible behind the news anchors. Lindsay kept the pressure on night after night.

“Hey all you NBC guys out there,” he declared in one broadcast, “give Latvia a break.”

On Sunday, January 27, Zagars’ Op-Ed piece ran in the Washington Post with the headline “Dear NBC:  Please Don’t Rain on our Latvian Parade” and a big photo of his mother with her 1928 Latvian Olympic team; network executives couldn’t have missed it. The response was dramatic and immediate. First came a phone call from someone in Arkansas who was trying to find investors for a Latvian woodchip business. Then came dozens and dozens of e-mails from supporters, most of them part of the Latvian-American community in Boston, or those who exchange ideas through LatviansOnline.com. Then came word that, in support, the Joint Baltic American National Committee would hold a “public viewing” of the Opening Ceremonies in Washington to try to apply additional pressure to NBC. Within a couple of days came an invitation from the U.S. Baltic Foundation to fly to Washington and attend a luncheon at the Capitol with Vaira Vike-Freiberga, the dynamic Canadian-reared woman who has served as Latvia’s President since 1999. Then came a call from the Boston Globe, which wanted to do a story about how this simple man had gotten the attention of the world’s most important TV network.

Just days later, on January 31, Lindsay was planning to conduct an interview with NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol on KSL. Staks saw another chance.

“I realized I’m within one person of getting to the right guy,” he said. He and Lindsay discussed giving a Latvian t-shirt as a present to Ebersol, but Staks wondered whether Lindsay would really raise the topic during the live interview.  KSL is, after all, an NBC affiliate.

In the interview, after addressing such topics as how Salt Lake City would look on TV compared to Nagano, and the longevity of the Olympics as a television event, talk came around to the Opening Ceremonies. Lindsay held out the t-shirt.

“By the way, my Latvian friends asked me to give this to you.”

By now aware of the many complaints about the Latvian issue generated by Zagars’ and Staks’ efforts, Ebersol put his hand to his forehead, then covered his eyes. “Oh no,” he said in mock embarrassment.

Lindsay asked Ebersol point blank about the Latvian issue, and in a move that was either well rehearsed or brilliantly improvised, Ebersol said: “Well, let’s make some history here tonight.” Then and there, he pledged that the Latvians would get their few seconds of airtime.

Watching from his home, the usually imperturbable Staks screamed aloud. It was 11:00 at night. The battle had been won.

There were still eight days to go before the Games. The Latvian team was already in Salt Lake City, and the publicity generated by KSL had made them into celebrities. Cheered all around town and at the Olympic venues, the athletes began to take on celebrity status, although they hardly knew why. Latvian t-shirts and flags popped up all over the place. At the Green Street Social Club, where the Latvians frequently dined, manager Garrett Wilson hung seven or eight large Latvian flags and even marked the restrooms “Kungi” and “Damas.”

On LatviansOnline, former Latvian Ambassador to the U.S. Ojar Kalnins was joyous. Kalnins, who now runs the Latvian Institute – a non-governmental organization that is trying to promote Latvia around the world and especially in the West – referred to Zagars and Staks as the “fervent polishers of Latvia’s image,” and wrote, “In my opinion, they have earned Latvia’s first gold medals.”

Now it is Friday, February 8, and Zagars is back in his living room in Massachusetts ready to tune in the Opening Ceremonies. Staks, an Olympic volunteer, is helping escort the Latvian athletic delegation into Rice-Eccles Stadium.  Around the country, thousands of other Latvians, made aware of the symbolic importance of the evening through the stories in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, the coverage on KSL, and the forums on LatviansOnline, are tuned in as well.

Somewhere in the makeshift studios and control trucks in Salt Lake City, Dick Ebersol watches, too.

And he is true to his word.

In two simple but innovative changes in broadcast policy, NBC opts to load up the first hour of its telecast with commercials, leaving fewer interruptions for the actual parade of nations that follows. And it decides to show every team marching in the parade, some live and some – initially obscured by commercials – on tape.

We see Israel and Italy, Japan and Kazakhstan, Kenya and Korea. Then the Kyrgyzstani delegation parades through.  NBC has not gone to a commercial break for several minutes. But instead of ducking out for a word from McDonald’s, the feed continues as the crimson-and-white flag approaches.

“Which brings us to Latvia,” Bob Costas intones, “and they score points with an effective campaign to appear on television during this Opening Ceremony after years of being relegated to commercial oblivion.”

“So hello, Latvia,” adds Katie Couric.

As a publicity-induced cheer began to rise from the 52,000 assembled at Rice-Eccles Stadium – NBC breaks quickly to a commercial, like a little child who has held out as long as he can but now just has to go to the bathroom.

Ironically, Latvia’s long-awaited moment in the spotlight was devoted not to the rise of a former Soviet republic, not to the joy of a long-repressed people… but to the very grassroots campaign-to-be-televised itself.

Since February 8, good things keep happening to the Latvians at the Olympics.

The hockey team – which had only played together six times before and had qualified for the Olympics in its very last game – performed surprisingly well. It won its opening round game against Austria, 4-2, before a raucous pro-Latvian crowd, then they game back from a three-goal deficit to tie favored Slovakia, 6-6, before eventually being eliminated by Germany.

A group of fans in Latvian shirts, who had made the trip from Riga to support their countrymen, were stuck in Provo looking for the place to catch the shuttle 30 miles back to Salt Lake City. They stopped into a Wal-Mart to ask directions and were mobbed by autograph-seekers. When the store manager found out they were from Latvia – beloved Latvia! – he arranged for the Wal-Mart shuttle to drive them instead.

Meanwhile, Gunars Zagars’ Washington Post article has been reprinted as far away as Tokyo. In a recent homily, the pastor at his church cited his efforts on behalf of the Latvians as an example of how one man can make a difference.

In Salt Lake City, in between his job responsibilities and his duties as an Olympic volunteer, Peter Staks is enjoying his Latvian renaissance. At one point he was even called on to translate as a member of the Latvian delegation was rushed to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy. Recently, he received a special invitation to return to Riga… and he might just go.

Both men, however, are also casting an eye toward the future. Because with Latvia suddenly on center stage, perhaps this is the time to try to drum up support for the country’s efforts to gain membership to NATO and the European Union. Last year, a national petition to support Baltic entry into NATO garnered only 10,000-odd signatures. Maybe now, maybe this time, the publicity would help, the support would be there.

Still, there are databases to be administered in Massachusetts, and real estate to be developed in Salt Lake City, so that lobbying effort may have to wait a little bit longer.