by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

NAGANO, Japan — The Games began, for many of us, the moment we took off our shoes. It is a Japanese custom politely — but forcefully — inflicted on visitors as soon as they step inside. And in retrospect, it serves as a fitting symbol of these mild and friendly Olympics, which often required stepping out of old-heeled ways and getting used to a new soul, or what Monty Python might call
“something completely different.”

These were, after all, the Games that brought us snowboarding. Off with the traditional shoes, dude, here’s some rad boots. Suddenly, expressions like
“stoked” and “catching air” carried gold-medal ramifications. Dyed hair? Pierced tongues?

“Who have you gotten to know at the village?” I asked

Brendan Shanahan one day.

“Lots of other athletes,” he said, “like Ross.”

“Ross Rebagliati? The snowboarder who flunked his drug test and got to keep his gold medal anyhow?”

“Yeah. He’s actually a nice kid.”

Brendan grinned.

“Rock on,” he said.

Rock on? These are the Olympics? Well, wait a minute. I was talking to Shanahan, an NHL star sharing a bathroom with five other NHL stars at the Olympic Village. Nagano was the Games that brought pro hockey into the five-ring fold. Funny. Not too long ago, you got tossed out of the Olympics if you earned money from your sport. Now we celebrate when millionaires consent to mingle.

And what’s equally funny? The happiest hockey innovation — at least for Americans — wasn’t the NHL, but the G-I-R-L-S. The women’s gold ranks as an the most joyously unexpected highlight of Nagano.

The newness didn’t end with hockey. These were the Games that gave us the clap skate, which endangered or obliterated virtually every record at the speedskating track. These were the Games that offered the first bob and luge run that had uphill portions. And these were the Games in which an explosive kid finally beat a graceful ballerina in ladies’ figure skating. Does that happen at the Olympics? Was that really Tara Lipinski, screaming like a girl at her first rock concert when she won the gold medal?

“She’s very much a teenager,” said Lipinski’s coach, Richard Callaghan, of the youngest-ever figure skating gold medalist. “But she’s also an adult. Does that make sense?”

Take off your shoes.

A Picabo surprise

The truth is, when you look back on the results from these Games, Lipinski’s surprise was just middle of the road. So little went the way it was predicted. In skiing, Picabo Street was supposed to win the gold in her specialty, the downhill. Instead, she took gold in the super-G by skiing with abandon — yet finished out of the medals in the downhill, by skiing, as she put it, “like a pansy.”

Likewise, Austria’s Hermann Maier was supposed to own the downhill. Instead it threw him off in one of the most spectacular crashes ever witnessed in an Olympic run. It made the “Wide World of Sports” crash look tame. It would have killed a mortal man. But they don’t call Maier “The Herminator” for nothing. True to the pattern of these Games, he not only shocked us by coming back a few days later, he won two gold medals — super-G and giant slalom — when the rest of us would have been pressing the button for the hospital nurse.

Expectations? Did anyone expect that five-time medalist Alberto Tomba, with his great tradition of rising to the moment, would ski away from his last event without even bothering to finish it? Did anyone expect veterans Todd Eldredge or Nicole Bobek to fall like beginners in the figure skating? And who expected America’s first gold medal in Nagano to come from someone named Jonny Moseley in something called freestyle moguls? Moguls? How many of you even know what that is?

“I was on the plane over here and the flight attendant said, ‘So what event are you in’?” Moseley said. “So I said ‘moguls,’ and she was like, ‘Oh, great.’ But I know she’s thinking, ‘Who’s this guy? What is he, kidding?’ “

What if you get her on your flight back, he was asked?

“Yeah,” he said, fingering his medal, “that would be cool.”

Take off your shoes.

Good Behavior Games

Of course, it wouldn’t be the Olympics without a few nonsensical episodes. Nagano always will be the Games that let a snowboarder stay with pot in his system, but threw out a hockey player for having two passports. It also tossed out an Austrian snowboarder who spilled beer in a hotel’s computer system, but somehow didn’t notice seven destroyed chairs in the Olympic Village until the U.S hockey team already had left.

Nagano postponed its downhill five times — too much snow, too much wind, too much fog — cut the four-man bobsled from four runs to three — too much rain
— and even suffered a minor earthquake during the men’s slalom. Yet it also staged one of the most elegant and understated opening ceremonies anyone can recall, highlighted by scantily clad sumo wrestlers braving the cold to honor tradition.

That spirit prevailed. Honor tradition. Behave yourself. If the 1994 Lillehammer Games were forever stamped by the bad behavior of Tonya versus Nancy, then these were the Good Behavior Games. From the consistent grace of the Japanese athletes, to the understated humility of Norwegian cross-country skiers and Dutch speed-

skaters, to the American luger, Wendell Suckow, who finished his last run, missed out on a medal, but pulled out an engagement ring and asked his girlfriend to marry him. Now that’s getting caught up in the moment.

Even the NHL Dream Teams — with the exception of the United States’ farewell party — behaved splendidly, embracing the Olympic Village, never acting as if money made them better. Check out Wayne Gretzky’s tears when he realized he wasn’t going to play for the gold medal. Who says pros can’t bleed for the Games?

Tara Lipinski and Michelle Kwan kissed on the medal stand, with Kwan hiding her heartbreak in a brave show of manners and respect. No Tonya theatrics. No Nancy two-face, rolling her eyes when she thought the cameras weren’t looking.

“I don’t want to ruin this moment by worrying about who I lost to,” Kwan said, holding her silver medal. “This is a special moment all by itself.”

Oh, if they could all be that way.

CBS turns a blind eye

Then again, at least you got to see that moment. Figure skating was about the only sport that interested CBS enough to show in its entirety — even though it wasn’t live. The fact is, you saw more of figure skating practice than you saw of many actual competitions.

This is not to be taken lightly. For better or worse, the Olympics have married television. TV pays the bill; TV calls the shots. And if the rights-holders such as CBS continue to try to overproduce by undercovering, interest in the Games will wane, because most people can’t see the competition. Detroiters are lucky to have the CBC on their airwaves. But your liking the Games shouldn’t hinge on a network’s entertainment decisions. Based on the ratings, most of America simply shrugged and tuned to something else — and that’s a terrible insult to the athletes who have worked all their lives to get to this wonderful stage, only to find the curtain pulled down in favor of a four-minute fluff piece on a Japanese McDonald’s.

What made this worse is that, as is often the case in this strange yet subtle land, there were so many moments when you just had to be there. For me, there were two that stood out. Both symbolized the sub-theme of these Games: change.

The first came in the little-watched cross-country ski events, when Bjorn Dahlie, the winningest athlete in the history of the Winter Games (and still lesser known in America than the alternate on the figure skating team), was talking with reporters after finishing another gold-medal race. The race was long since over, but as fans filed out, the announcer said, “Wait! We have one more skier on the course!”

The skier turned out to be Philip Boit of Kenya, who had learned to ski only two years ago. His form was awful, but he was trying, and Dahlie watched on the large screen, then began leading the cheers, urging Boit on. Finally, at the finish line, the last-place finisher fell into the arms of the first-place finisher. It was a meeting of old and new, a legend and a competitor from a country that never tried the sport before. Dahlie whispered to Boit, “You’re a champion, too.” Nice.

The other moment took place at the Hakuba ski jump, the team competition, with the largest crowd of Japanese spectators assembled for any of the Nagano sports. In the last Olympics, Japan lost the gold medal because of one man, Masahiko Harada, a clownish, rubber-faced jumper who earned his nickname
“Happy Harada” for his effervescence after winning.

In Lillehammer, however, it was Unhappy Harada after he flubbed his last jump so badly he made Eddie the Eagle look good. He dropped his team to silver, and had to live with that shame for four years — in a country where shame is its worst sort of punishment.

Now, here in Nagano, the team was counting on him again. But his first jump was, again, uncharacteristically poor. Whereas all the other contenders were landing 120 to 125 meters, Harada plopped to Earth at under 80 meters. The massive crowd at the bottom of the jump groaned, and a Japanese nation watching at home was thinking the same thing: Can’t we replace this guy? Do we have to suffer again?

But Harada had one jump left. He came down the ramp, staring at a life of being labeled a “sempan” — Japanese for “choker” — and he lifted off and flew 137 meters, tying the course record, helping bring his team the gold.

In the winner’s circle, he was so overcome with emotion he wept until the Japanese interviewer began weeping, too.

Take off your choker shoes, Harada. You are a hero now.

Change. For the good. For the weird. For the inspirational. That’s what Nagano was about, and that’s what those who were here will remember. Every day, in the media cafeteria, near the cash registers, there was a “lost items” board that the Japanese displayed. Along with keys, combs and buttons, there were coins and bills — one yen, five yen, 1,000 yen. Workers had found them, and instead of keeping them, had put them up for the rightful owners to claim.

So, too, did the Japanese give us these Olympics, up on the world board, for the athletes and viewers to claim as their own. It is an approach that for many of us was as unusual as removing our shoes. But by offering up these Games so selflessly, the people of Nagano ensured that they would, in a very real way, always remain their own.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.


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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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