WHAT A GOLD RUSH
The U.S. Olympic committee predicted 20 medals, Salt Lake Organizing Committee president Mitt Romney forecast massive traffic jams and the Feds poured some $400 million into security as they hinted darkly of terrorist attacks. Smart moves. As the 19th Winter Olympics drew to a close, the worst security problem was the discovery of four vials of a stinky but apparently innocuous liquid in a downtown office building; the worst traffic jam was one that Romney himself helped untangle by playing traffic cop in week one, and the American athletes roared to a record 34 medals. By the time Canada and the United States met in the men's hockey final to bring down the curtain on the Salt Lake City Games, these Olympics had cleared what you might call the New Hampshire primary hurdle: they did Better Than Expected.
For American fans, the story of the Games was the astounding medals showing by the home team. How come? The home-snow advantage counted for a lot. American speed skaters (eight medals) practically carved grooves in the Utah Olympic Oval with all the practicing they did there, learning how the rink cornered and how to pace a 5,000. Sliders (eight medals) got the hang of every curve in the luge, skeleton and bobsled runs. But there was no getting around the fact that greenbacks greased the American juggernaut. While it would be an insult to the hard-training, sacrifice-making athletes to conclude that medals are for sale, money does count. Under its Podium 2002 program, the USOC spread around $18 million. "We targeted specific athletes, teams and disciplines that we felt had the best chance to medal," says the USOC's Mike Moran. That's why biathlon got only $309,000 from the Podium program (the United States has never medaled in the sport) but speed skating got $1.7 million. What does the money buy? A sports psychologist for the women's hockey players; living costs in Park City, Utah, for the lugers; heart-rate monitors and ice time for the speed skaters, and a training trip to Europe for the bobsledders. "We think we can become a Winter sports power," said USOC president Sandy Baldwin.
Being cheered on by a home crowd also inspired the Americans to never-before-scaled heights. Tristan Gale, who won gold in skeleton, was only 10th on the World Cup tour. Derek Parra (gold in the 1,500-meter speed skating and silver in the 5,000) was 15th in World Cup competition in the 5,000. Bobsled pilot Jill Bakken (gold) was sixth in the World Cup this season.
The sourest notes were sounded when whining, petulance and litigiousness threatened to become the newest Olympic sports. The Russians protested the judging in freestyle skiing, saying their Olga Koroleva deserved better than fourth. American ice dancers Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev, who finished 11th, groused that judges had them irrevocably pegged as nonmedalists. "We're always disappointed," said Lang. The Lithuanian ice dancers whined that the judges deducted more points from them than from two other couples who fell. South Korean fans in Salt Lake City--apoplectic that skater Kim Dong-Sung had been disqualified from the men's 1,500-meter NASCAR on ice (officially, short track)--screamed, "Home fix! Home fix!" when American Apolo Anton Ohno was declared the gold medalist. Those back in South Korea crashed the USOC's Web site with their e-mail flames--and someone sent Ohno death threats.
But all that was nothing compared with the extraordinary back-to-back announcements by Russia and South Korea on day 14. Complaining of bias, favoritism and incompetent refereeing, the Russians threatened to pull out of the Olympics, even boycotting the Athens Summer Games in 2004. The immediate cause of their pique was the disqualification of their cross-country superstar, Larissa Lazutina, from the 4x5-kilometer relay (in which Russia won the last four Olympic golds). A drug test found her hemoglobin levels to be 5 percent above the International Olympic Committee's legal limit, often a sign of the doping agent erythropoietin (the Russians said the high reading was related to her menstrual cycle). But the Russians first got ticked off when the gold medal awarded to their figure-skating pair was diluted by the duplicate gold given the Canadian duo Jamie Sale and David Pelletier after allegations of vote trading among judges. They fumed when their hockey team got nailed with seven penalties (to the Czechs' three) in the quarterfinals, though Russia won 1-0 anyway. "I think we are seeing a witch hunt," said Russian Olympic Committee president Leonid Tyagachev.
The South Koreans adopted a "when in America, do as Americans do" approach to their short-track beef: they planned to file suit against the chief judge and assistant refs. Disqualifying Kim, which made Ohno golden, was an "absurd judgment," said South Korean Olympic chief Park Sung-In. The poor sportsmanship was enough to erase the good memories of South Korea's marching with North Korea at the opening ceremonies in Sydney.
If the guests sometimes lacked manners, the hosts shone. The last time the United States held an Olympics was in the summer of 1996 in Atlanta, and the contrast with Salt Lake City could not have been starker. Atlanta looked like a tacky flea market, with wall-to-wall sidewalk vendors and omnipresent in-your-face corporate logos. "We all learned from Atlanta," says the SLOC's Romney. He convinced sponsors that less is more, banning logos from inside the venues (which is why Sarah Hughes didn't triple-toe-loop to a backdrop of Visa and Samsung signs). The toughest sell was probably "working out," as Romney delicately puts it, the little matter of billboards. Once sign companies got wind that buildings were going to be wrapped in those now famous Olympian murals, they gobbled up rights to plaster other buildings with ads--and were prepared to file a First Amendment suit if someone tried to thwart them. "We got them to agree not to insist on their right to put up ads," says Romney.
The television audience was enchanted. The "stone cam" captured the curlers frantically brushing their stones home, the "lip cam" caught ski jumpers as they flung themselves into the azure sky and the "skate cam" shot the short trackers miraculously passing on the inside. But as always it was the athletes who charmed, from skeleton's Jim Shea tucking his grandfather's mass card into his helmet for his gold-medal run to teammate Gale bouncing up and down in her seat at a press conference before finally bursting out, "I really gotta go pee" (which was helpfully translated into German for the Deutsch press). Ohno summed it up: "I come here, perform my best and get a gold medal. I'm good now. They can just go throw me in the desert and bury me." At least until 2006.