Nothing can kill spirit that Olympics kindles

Posted: Monday, February 11, 2002

The 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics have been dogged by controversy: the vote-buying scandal, the subsequent shake-up of the International Olympic Committee, bickering over drug testing and -- especially since Sept. 11 -- the insistence on airtight security. Now there's a flap over NBC's decision to wrap events in "storytelling" packages to run hours later in prime time. Delays may be forgivable when the Games are half a world away. But in Utah? And as for the "storytelling," the syrupy bathos of past Olympic broadcasts was as painful as a face plant on hard ice.

Alas, TV ratings and ad dollars reign supreme.

Now, though, let's do our best to forget all that. With the opening ceremony ... it becomes the athletes' Olympics. That means performance, skill, effort, concentration, frustration, victory, defeat and fun, even. It's exchanging pins with a skater from Russia or a ski racer from Slovakia,

swapping e-mail addresses and learning to say "Good luck" in Swedish or Japanese.

Athletes have been pointing toward this moment since childhood, and these Olympics will be the biggest of all: 2,654 athletes from 80 countries, 477 medals in 15 sports, hundreds of thousands of visitors. Salt Lake City is a marvelous setting with its backdrop of the Wasatch Range. Security, of course, is extraordinary and may cause massive people and traffic jams. We may never know whether this is overkill. If a terrorist attack occurs, we'll know instantly that it was anything but.

We must hope that the only drama comes on the ice and snow -- and there's always plenty there. Who would have thought that Hermann Maier could recover from his spectacular crash in the downhill at Nagano to win gold in the super-giant slalom? Or that Nancy Kerrigan would rebound

from the vicious whack on her knee to come within a whisper of gold at Lillehammer? Or that Andrea Mead Lawrence could win the slalom in Oslo in 1952 after falling on her first run and losing precious seconds?

There are favorites this year, of course. Many pick Michelle Kwan to finally win a gold. Apolo Anton Ohno of Seattle may have a lock in short-track speedskating. Austrian Maier isn't here because of a motorcycle accident, but teammate Stephan Eberharter is likely to win the men's downhill. Everyone's pulling for Picabo Street.

The magic is that even with all the slick, unwelcome television packaging, no one knows how any event will unfold. Unless, of course, they live on the West Coast and can't see the Games in real time. But a great downhill run or slap shot can't be extinguished by delay. Nor can the Olympic spirit.

-- Los Angeles Times

Feb. 8

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