Let the Games Begin

The just-in-time, let's-party, fear-no-evil Winter Olympics get ready to rip in the country that needs 'em now more than ever

Austria's Franz Planegger races in skeleton, a daring sport returning to the Games after a 54-year hiatus.     Photo: Stefan Matzke/Newsport

AN UNPRECEDENTED 3.5 billion people are expected to tune in February 8 and watch the opening ceremonies of the XIX Olympic Winter Games, including, quite possibly, you. But try for a moment to look beyond the events, the athletes who compete in them, and those silly Lycra spiderman suits that U.S. Ski Team members have been forced to wear for almost a decade. Fast-forward to day 17 of the Salt Lake City Games and imagine the collective sigh of relief as the Olympic flame is doused, the razor wire is rolled up, the F-16s have departed, and the M-16s have been stacked and stored. Consider how these Games will be remembered.

With luck, the carryover will be fervor, not fear. Well in advance of winter, this year's international sports pageant seemed destined to go down in Olympic annals as the Comeback Games—for those athletes who've overcome grueling personal battles just to show up; for the host city itself, which has grappled with a doozy of a sports-bribery scandal; and for the host nation as a whole, which has had a rough five months.
Few doubt that what is intended as a global celebration will be a rallying point for a country in serious need of a good time on its home turf—a fact that has not escaped NBC, which holds exclusive U.S. broadcast rights to the Games. While David Neal, the network's head of production for the Olympics, insisted in an interview last fall that "jingoism is not in our vocabulary," he also allows that the televised Games, which run through February 24, will "take on an enhanced American flavor." Translation: NBC will paint its on-screen graphics with stars and stripes, and roving cameras will, says Neal, "document whatever spontaneous displays of patriotism there may be."

And don't expect any shyness on the flag-waving front. In November, the Salt Lake City Organizing Committee began draping downtown office towers with 141-by-97-foot banners depicting sports like skiing and skating—the largest Olympic pennants ever—but these were dwarfed by the football-field-size Old Glory that had decorated the group's own building two months before.

If the Games do play out as a comeback party, then Picabo Street makes a fitting homecoming queen. Salt Lake City represents the second against-the-odds return for the 30-year-old Street, who rebounded from a blown ACL to wear silver in Lillehammer, and then ripped the same knee again but rebounded to win gold at Nagano—only to tear, fracture, and shred her knees and legs in a crash in Switzerland one month later. She will compete this month with enough pins and plates in her lower extremities to set off every metal detector in Utah.

For other athletes, the Games will offer a chance to heal wounds of the self-inflicted variety. Coach Peter Foley promises that the U.S. women's snowboarding team is primed for victory, and that, unlike in Nagano, where nearly every member of the team crashed, they won't be spending the day before competition sightseeing and playing video games.

But it remains to be seen how much the flag-waving will really matter when it comes to the hard facts of gold, silver, and bronze. Though the U.S. ski team is strong this time around, America is not traditionally a Winter-Games powerhouse, and the competition—including Austrian downhiller Michaela Dorfmeister and Norwegian slalom champ Kjetil Andre Aamodt—won't easily be cowed. David Wallechinsky, author of The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics, puts his money on Yankee victory in short-track speed skating, women's bobsled, and two-man luge. He's also predicting a nail-biter match between the U.S. and Canadian women's hockey teams. As for men's hockey, things can only get better: At Nagano, after losing to the Czech Republic, America's puck men went on a Mötley Crüe-style hotel-room rampage, breaking chairs, emptying fire extinguishers, and chucking the resulting debris off a fifth-floor balcony.

A successful Games will also offer redemption for the good people of Salt Lake City, determined as they are to move beyond a scandalous Olympic bid tainted by more than $1 million in alleged bribes. Back in July 2000, a federal grand jury indicted former Salt Lake City Organizing Committee bid chief Tom Welch and deputy Dave Johnson for plying International Olympic Committee members with Super Bowl tickets and other gifts. Having dismissed four of the charges last July on the grounds that they amounted to a misapplication of the law, a federal judge threw out the remaining 11 counts in November. An appeal could still keep the case rolling through 2002, but for now at least, the affair is off the table. Which is just fine with the locals, who all along insisted that their town had won its Olympics based solely on its outstanding snow and hospitality.

If preparation counts for anything, Salt Lake City will get high marks. Anxious to avoid the logistical disaster that was Atlanta (those Games flunked out on security, transportation, and technology), Utah organizers constructed $322 million worth of cutting-edge facilities such as the splashy Utah Olympic Oval, where even the Zamboni is environmentally correct (it runs on natural gas). Meanwhile, the state invested $1.5 billion to revamp local highways and $431 million to build an urban rapid-transit system. Olympic maestros are crossing their fingers and hoping for no traffic snarls, no computer glitches, and no Tom Clancy terrorism nightmares. Pointing to a $300-million-plus security budget, three times what was spent to batten down Atlanta, International Olympic Committee member Gerhard Heiberg promised reporters last fall that Salt Lake City will be "the safest city in America" during the Games. More than 7,000 soldiers, federal agents, and police officers will be there to make the point clear.

In the end, organizers hope the 2002 Winter Games will be remembered as a rallying point for national and international resolve in the face of terrorism and war. Like most athletes, Picabo Street understands that there's more riding on her Všlkls than a medal. She hopes her Olympic runs will "give America something to smile about," she says, "because it's been a little bleak." And while some foreign athletes—French slalom champ Pierrick Bourgeat, to name one—have suggested Salt Lake City might as well paint a bull's-eye on itself, most athletes feel sure that going ahead with the competition only makes sense.

"That's one way that we can show that we're not afraid," says Emily Cook, 23, an aerials specialist on the U.S. Ski Team. She should know; she lost a cousin at the World Trade Center—an attendant aboard American Airlines Flight 11.

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