SALT LAKE CITY — The flame went out, the night got quiet, and these XIX Winter Olympics, America’s first in 22 years, came to a close. They were 17 days rife with protests and pageantry, new stars, fallen heroes, rock concerts, world leaders and more Star Spangled Banners than were ever heard on a winter medals platform. But mostly these Olympics could be summed up this way:
In the end, they didn’t all get what they wanted. But most got what they deserved.
The Canadian hockey team didn’t want the early criticism, but it finally got the deserved gold medal its nation had coveted for 50 years. Michelle Kwan certainly wanted that elusive Olympic title after four years of hype, but her performance was worthy only of the bronze she won. David Pelletier and Jamie Sale wept one night in disappointment, not what they desired, but a week later, before a worldwide audience, they got the coronation they deserved. A German and a Polish ski jumper brought their world-class rivalry to the Salt Lake Olympics, each wanting to establish supremacy once and for all, but a Harry Potter-like Swiss kid outjumped them both, stealing the two gold medals they coveted.
And he deserved it.
Apolo Anton Ohno never actually crossed a finish line in first place, but the medals he deserved came his way in the long, weird end. Jim Shea Jr., who wanted his grandfather to see him race, was denied that with a car-crash death. But Shea competed with a special photo in his helmet, and when he won his skeleton event, the two souls were as they deserved to be, as one.
The Russians wanted everything changed, but the judgments against them seemed mostly deserved. NBC wanted high ratings; and for once, they got them not because of their marketing or focus groups, but because the competition warranted it.
It was sometimes an Olympics of noise and confusion, midnight news conferences, athletes howling, judges suspended, protests filed. That’s not what anybody wanted — least of all the organizers of these games.
But lost in the cacophony was what Salt Lake actually achieved: a peaceful, non-terrorized, 17-day international event.
Somebody say thank you.
Now. About all those showdowns.
U.S. vs. Russia vs. Canada
It is hard to remember a recent Winter Olympics where so many anticipated matchups came to pass. The ladies figure skating saw the top four hopefuls in the top four spots on the last night, but with a shocking conclusion: the youngest was the first.
Sarah Hughes, who beat Kwan and Irina Slutskaya, may have been the most delightful star of these games, and her primal scream at winning — she is, after all, 16 — reminded us of the eternal youth that pure sports holds.
“Somebody handed me a phone, but I think it was a congressman or something and I hung up!” she said.
Is that perfect?
The United States and Canada in hockey — after the U.S. beat Russia in hockey? How much better could that tournament get? And the men’s game followed the Canadian and American hockey women squaring off for gold. It may not have gone the Americans’ way, but you can’t complain about the marquee.
The men’s luge had the best sliders in the world taking first and second. The men’s giant slalom had Austria’s kingpin Stephan Eberharter and America’s Bode Miller grabbing the gold and silver. The men’s figure skating was supposed to be decided between two Russians, Evgeny Plushenko and Alexei Yagudin, and, after some early weirdness, it was.
Yet for all the major players, this was also an Olympics in which fame and headlines did not equal gold. Kwan is a multimillionaire, but winless at the Olympics. Picabo Street had hype, but was an also-ran in her race. Dominik Hasek, the world’s greatest goalie, didn’t reach the semifinals this time. And the money-earning, much ballyhooed women’s bobsled team of Jean Racine and Gea Johnson lost the podium to two Americans who called themselves “the other team,” Jill Bakken and Vonetta Flowers, who didn’t have an agent or much in the bank before these games.
Of course, that’s going to change.
Flowers, the first black gold medalist at a Winter Olympics, had to share that title by the time the games were done, thanks to Canada’s young hockey whiz Jarome Iginla. They were both part of what could be called “The Diversity Games,” with Derek Parra, of Mexican descent, winning gold in speed skating, and Jennifer Rodriguez, of Puerto Rican descent, taking two medals in the same sport.
The Winter Olympics are rapidly spreading out to include more than the traditional Nordic gods winning all the medals. You have Australian aerial jumpers taking gold and Chinese speedskaters doing the same. Even the Alpine ski events, the hallowed ground of traditional Olympics, were ruled this year by Janica Kostelic, who took four medals, three of them gold. She does not come from Austria, Switzerland, Germany or Italy, the traditional breeding grounds for alpine queens.
She is Croatian.
The other countries wanted it.
She deserved it.
That patriotic feeling
There were, as always, stories of overcoming heartbreak or physical disaster. Chris Witty, who won a speedskating gold, did it with mononucleosis. Ohno won his first gold medal with stitches in his thigh. Simon Ammann, the 21-year-old Swiss who shocked everyone with two golds in ski jumping, had been out of the sport for the previous month, after a horrific crash that still scars his face.
It didn’t affect his smile, however. Nothing, it seemed, could crush certain beaming expressions. Shea was a beacon of celebration, despite his grandfather’s absence. Becky Wilczak finished just out of the medals in luge, but her father, who is in deathly need of a new liver, was at the bottom of the track, waiting to give her a hug, and their smiles could have melted Curve 13.
Lessons learned at these Olympics? There were several. Through the figure skating controversy, and later the short-track speedskating controversy, America got an interesting sports-tinted glimpse of how the rest of the world often views us: as privileged, spoiled, expecting of advantages, and powerful when unhappy — enough to get a medal changed.
We are disliked for this in many countries, and while we may feel we’ve done nothing wrong, the world is a big place, and sometimes the obligation of the rich and powerful is to be sensitive to the perceptions of those who are not. This holds, by the way, not just in sports, as we have learned all too vividly in recent months.
Other lessons? Figure skating was exposed for what it is: a clique in desperate need of repair. We also learned that perhaps the Winter Olympics need to take down the “all extreme sports welcome” sign for a while. With so much snowboarding, skeleton, aerials and short track, the Olympics are teetering on something that people over 30 don’t get. I don’t care what advertisers want and I don’t care about TV ratings. That’s just not right. It may be funny for one snowboarder to say “I’m just here for the babes and the beer,” but when everybody starts saying it, you don’t have an Olympics, you have MTV’s Winter Party.
Biggest story? The pairs skating controversy.
Biggest waste of five days? The pairs skating controversy.
Biggest stars? Hughes, Ammann, Canadian hockey, Ohno, Parra, Kostelic, and, of course, David and Jamie.
Most overlooked gold medalist? Quick. Tell me the Russians who won the first gold in pairs figure skating?
And so it ends, with a record number of American medals and sky-high TV audience. Pop psychologists will suggest that America was in need of a happy diversion, and who knows, maybe they’re right.
If so, we got one. People in Salt Lake City most commonly greeted you with,
“Where you from?” The answer, by the end, became, we’re all pretty much from the same place, aren’t we?
They began with a tattered American flag, a reminder of how badly we can wound one another. But they ended in a universal pageant of song, a reminder of how gloriously we can behave with mutual respect.
A lot of people worked very hard to make these games sporting, spectacular, skillful, social, and most of all, safe. As the flame was extinguished Sunday night, not everyone had what they came for, but all shared at least one thing, the satisfied sigh of a dream well-pursued.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). And catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.