SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- An Olympics scarred by scandal and tinged with fear opens with a proud new label in a city dominated by Mormons and mountains: America's Games.
A patriotic celebration just waiting to burst out, the Winter Olympics return to the United States for the first time in 22 years, eager to shed a troubled past and be embraced by crowds of flag-waving, cheering home fans.
European stars will come and win most of the medals, but these games will play to a United States much more patriotic because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Heartwarming ceremonies and a best-ever showing by the U.S. team could be exactly what the country needs.
It will unfold in the towering Wasatch Mountains and the valley below, under the tightest security imaginable. At a cost of nearly $2 billion, it will be the most expensive Winter Olympics ever.
But for 17 days beginning Feb. 8, it figures to be quite a show.
''It will be very powerful emotionally,'' Salt Lake Olympic chief Mitt Romney said. ''I think people will go away and say, 'What a magical games.'''
If they do, it will be quite different than the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., where it took the ''Miracle on Ice'' by the U.S. hockey team to help soothe a nation upset over the Iranian hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Organizers call these the ''healing games'' in deference to the rest of the world. But NBC will wrap them around the American flag for television, and chants of ''USA, USA'' will reverberate in arenas and on the slopes.
Spectators will pay an average of $82 a ticket to endure traffic jams, security searches and long lines in the cold. Once they get in, they will cheer on the home team in events such as skeleton and short-track speedskating that Americans usually pay little attention to and know little about.
At night they'll party with hot chocolate and entertainers like the Dave Matthews Band in the shadow of the granite spires of the Mormon Temple that dominates downtown.
The slogan is ''Light the Fire Within,'' and the games will celebrate the American West. But the world won't be left out.
Armed with plenty of antibiotics in case of an anthrax attack and enough booze to get around Salt Lake City's strict liquor laws, 75 countries will bring their best on frozen surfaces.
The Hermanator -- Austria skier Hermann Maier -- will be missing, but teammate Stephan Eberharter is a favorite in the downhill and Super G, and Germany's Hilde Gerg could sweep the same gold medals for the women.
Norwegians and Swedes will win more than their share in cross-country skiing, Germans will be among the favorites in all the sliding sports and Russia's Irina Slutskaya will try and deny Michelle Kwan a figure skating gold.
America won't be lacking, either, with speedskating sensation Apolo Anton Ohno, skier Bode Miller, and some dysfunctional female bobsledders among the gold-medal favorites.
Then there's 1998 Olympic champion Jonny Moseley, planning to show off the Dinner Roll jump in which he flies off a mogul and rotates twice with his body parallel to the ground. The sport's lingo is almost as dizzying as his moves.
''If I can come down, throw a 360 mute grab up top, ski the middle clean, and do the Dinner Roll at the bottom with a bute grab, that's the run,'' Moseley said. ''It's over. K.O. punch. Right there.''
By the time the Olympics end Feb. 24, 2,654 athletes will have competed for 477 medals. The games have 10 more competitions than Nagano, and more athletes than any other Winter Games.
Women's bobsled makes its Olympic debut, along with the 1,500-meter freestyle race in cross-country skiing for men and women. Skeleton -- a headfirst, belly-down version of luge for men and women -- returns for the first time since the 1948 Olympics.
Athletes, fans and officials will be guarded by a 16,000-member security force that includes sniper teams, Blackhawk helicopters, federal agents and volunteers ready for possible terrorism.
Officials say Salt Lake City will be the safest place in the country during the games, despite an Associated Press poll that says a third of Americans believe the games will be the target of terrorists.
''Terrorism will not prevail. Fear will not prevail,'' Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said.
The city's downtown high-rises have been wrapped in images of athletes, but to most residents the Olympic image is already one of barricaded streets and National Guardsmen on patrol.
A $310 million plan to protect the games -- much of it at taxpayer expense -- will give them a military look, although top Olympic officials hope that image will change when the games begin.
''All elements are in place to have excellent games,'' International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said. ''I'm quite sure the atmosphere will take over as it has taken over at all the previous difficult games.''
Once foreign visitors get here they'll find not every man has more than one wife and they can actually get a drink in restaurants and bars.
Even the town's Mormon-owned television station is getting into the act, hiring a party specialist to report on the goings on around town because, as an anchor intoned recently, ''We're not known as party people.''
The games are being met with a mixture of indifference and excitement in Salt Lake City, which has coveted the Olympics for more than three decades.
Many residents are leaving town for the games, not willing to put up with the traffic and crowds and fearful of their security. But more than half the tickets were sold to Utah residents and 60,000 of them applied to be Olympic volunteers.
Even some of the homeless who panhandle downtown are in the Olympic spirit.
''I want to go to see it,'' said 63-year-old Albert Vasser, sitting in a wheelchair outside a state liquor store. ''Maybe I'll borrow my check to go.''
Salt Lake City chased the games for more than three decades. To finally get them, frustrated organizers resorted to offering gifts and payments to IOC members, leading to a bribery scandal that brought down the first leaders of the organizing committee.
These were the ''Scandal Games'' when Romney took over a dispirited organization that was also in deep financial trouble in 1999. He turned it around, enlisting the Mormon church to help out, and the Olympics quickly became the ''Mormon Games,'' a name city officials tried hard to shake.
''People think this is a boring, one-dimensional place where you can't get a drink and is full of polygamists running around,'' Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson said. ''I don't think there's a doubt that there are huge misconceptions about Salt Lake City.''
Many of those revolve around The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, who fled persecution to settle here in the mid-1800s. About 70 percent of the state's residents are members.
Among them is Romney, who enjoys telling the story of his great-grandparents as polygamists, and praises the church for donating a parking lot for the medals plaza and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for the opening ceremonies.
''The Mormon Church is part of the fabric of this community and will be part of the story of the games. It would have been impossible for us to hold the games without the church,'' Romney said. ''But I think the world is going to see a diversity here that will surprise some.''
Church leaders had planned during the games to aggressively market the 11 million-member religion -- which counts on its youth to serve two-year missions spreading the faith -- but backed off for fear of being viewed as too pushy.
Still, the church's stake in the games is huge. Mormon elder Henry B. Eyring said they are seen as the fulfillment of a prophecy.
''It goes clear back to the book of Isaiah, which says that Zion would be established at the tops of the mountains and that the nations of the world would come there,'' Eyring said. ''Here we are in the tops of the mountains and people are coming up to see us. In a sense we expected it. Only the prophecies didn't say anything about downhill skiing.''
Most of the estimated 220,000 visitors from outside the state, however, will be more interested in how fast someone is skiing or how well they are skating than taking the free tours at Temple Square in downtown.
If they can escape predicted traffic jams and make it through long security checks, they'll have plenty to see, as will the millions watching on television.
NBC hopes a U.S.-based Winter Games will help it reverse the fall of recent Olympic ratings. The network, which paid $545 million for broadcast rights, is coming off the Sydney Olympics, which got the worst ratings since the 1960s.
Television viewers will get 3 1/2 hours of Olympics nightly on NBC, nearly half of it taped from the day's events, while hockey fans will enjoy six hours of games a day on CNBC. During the afternoon, MSNBC will show events that don't attract much attention in the United States.
And, of course, viewers will be offered features that introduce them to athletes they know nothing about.
''You need to go heavy, heavy on the storytelling, whether from the announcers or features, to let the public know who they should be rooting for,'' NBC sports chairman Dick Ebersol says.
In NBC's case, they want people rooting for Americans. The network ran promos leading up to the games featuring Neil Diamond's ''Coming to America'' and featuring the line, ''This is my house.''
Indeed, few Americans have heard of many of the athletes they will be cheering for over the next few weeks. Moseley's name might have a familiar ring because he won a gold in Nagano, and Picabo Street might be the most recognizable U.S. skier.
Then there's Kwan, who will be cast as a sympathetic figure in search of a gold medal that Tara Lipinski took from her four years ago in Nagano.
U.S. Olympic officials have set a goal of 20 medals, seven more than the country has won in any Winter Games. That might be conservative with the home-field advantage for perhaps the country's strongest team ever.
American gold medalists will get $25,000 each, in addition to sponsorships that have made some of them rich.
Everything about these games is pricey, though, from the $885 opening ceremony ticket to the figure skating finals seats that have gone for thousands of dollars in Ebay auctions run by organizers.
Hotel rooms in the Salt Lake City area are going for as much as $1,000 a night, while renting a compact car at the airport will set you back $200 a day.
After a rocky financial start, the games should break even -- and leave a $40 million endowment to run the area's winter sports facilities after the games -- thanks largely to Romney, who came rescued the games from a bribery scandal and near financial disaster.
End Adv for Jan. 26-27
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