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End games

Posted: Monday, February 25, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY -- The world came together for fun and games, only to get a big dose of scandal along with it. American athletes soared and the home crowd cheered anyway, refusing to let anything spoil their party.

The Olympics came to a close Sunday after more than two weeks of memorable performances, Cold War flashbacks and one big tizzy over two figure skating gold medals.

On the snow and ice, athletes displayed brilliance and human frailty. Boosted by huge flag-waving crowds, the home team won medals at a rate beyond wildest expectations -- and a black athlete claimed gold for the first time ever at the Winter Games.

''The field of play was superb,'' Salt Lake Olympic chief Mitt Romney said.

Behind the scenes, though, the games couldn't escape controversy, turning ugly at times with accusations of favoritism and influence that belied the notion that 77 countries could come together in harmony.

Canadians yelled so loudly they were awarded a second gold medal in a pairs figure skating scandal that dominated the first week of the Olympics. Russia was so angry it threatened to pull out of the games in the final days because of decisions it said might have cost the country at least two gold medals.

And, even as Canada celebrated its first hockey gold in 50 years Sunday, Olympic officials said they threw two cross-country skiers out of the games and stripped each of them of a gold medal for using a performance-enhancing drug.

For 17 days, it wasn't always magical. Sometimes it got downright vicious.

But it was always entertaining -- and it was a hit with the 1.6 million spectators and huge audiences who followed the sometimes soap operalike happenings on NBC.

Top Olympic officials were impressed, too. A Summer Olympics that fell below expectations in Atlanta had left some wondering about the future of the games in the United States.

They are no longer wondering.

''We are extremely pleased,'' said International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge. ''They have done a superb job. The venues were superb. The crowds were warm and supportive. The athletes were very happy.''

At times, it seemed as if the athletes were the only ones happy. The figure skating mess loomed large, and Russia was so upset that President Vladimir Putin suggested the Americans and Canadians were being favored.

But by the time KISS rocked a closing ceremony Sunday night that began with 'N Sync singing the national anthem, all seemed forgiven. The Russian and Korean teams frolicked with other nations in the stadium, and fireworks illuminated the Wasatch Mountains.

Through it all, the 2,526 athletes who came with Olympic-sized dreams were content to perform. And, boy, did they ever.

Americans had expected to do well, but they never expected this: A country that had never won more than 13 medals in the Winter Games exploded for 34, much to the delight of home fans who braved security checks to pack mountain slopes and city arenas.

They saw images that were gripping and memorable. Organizers had promised that these would be magical games, and the athletes delivered just that in a series of stirring performances.

There was Jimmy Shea sliding to gold with his Olympic grandfather's funeral card in his helmet, and teen-ager Sarah Hughes bounding gleefully on ice on her way to an improbable gold in figure skating.

Apolo Anton Ohno didn't always win, but he never complained, either.

Yes, the athletes were overshadowed at times by the furor over a pair of Canadian skaters and the anger of Russians and South Koreans who believed they were being picked on. And, yes, a decision to award the second gold medal to Jamie Sale and David Pelletier might always be debated.

But even the biggest scandal would make it hard to forget the snowboard run that made Chris Klug a bronze medalist, 19 months after a liver transplant saved his life. Or the moment when 39-year-old Brian Shimer finally won a bronze medal in bobsled in his fifth and last Olympics.

''This is a fairy-tale ending,'' Shimer said. ''Who doesn't like that?''

Indeed, there was a lot to like about what was happening on the snow and ice. Crowds cheered loudly for Americans, but also cheered Russians, Norwegians and Lithuanians.

Off the playing field, they were just as friendly. Eager to shape a new image for itself, Salt Lake City extended a friendly hand to a world that had known it only as a Mormon-dominated enclave where it was tough to get a drink.

The Mormon Church kept its pledge to keep missionaries from spreading the word among Olympic visitors. In return it got a public relations bonanza from journalists who found a church that didn't seem as weird as they had believed.

''Some of the misconceptions that people have about the church have made a giant step forward,'' said apostle M. Russell Ballard, one of the church leaders. ''I think that we've made a lot of friends. I hope we have.''

Perhaps it was only fitting, though, that an Olympics born of a bribery scandal found itself mired in another one only days into the games when a French judge was accused of misconduct in scoring the pairs skating final.

Through no fault of its own, Salt Lake City might always find itself remembered more for the scandal than athletic performance. An Olympics that cost a record $1.9 billion to stage went off almost perfectly, but there were some things organizers could not control.

''There will always be controversy about judging and refereeing and doping,'' Romney said. ''That will be with the games forever. It won't characterize or distinguish one games from another.''

What organizers could control, it turned out, was the safety of the athletes and fans attending the games. A massive effort involving 15,000 police, troops and security volunteers worked so well that by the end of a quiet first week some volunteer officers were already leaving.

Athletes who had voiced fears of marching in the opening ceremony shed them quickly. The Olympics had a military presence, but it didn't have a military look.

''As a template it is the best one I've ever seen, period,'' said David Tubbs, executive director of the Utah Olympic Public Safety Command.

The snowy Wasatch mountains provided a gorgeous backdrop and the city down below bustled with spectators and ticket scalpers. Volunteers were as cheerful on the last day as they were on the first and even the weather cooperated beautifully.

At night, Salt Lake City partied as never before, with nightly concerts at the Olympic medals plaza and bars packed with fans who grumbled about $6 beers but drank them anyway.

The games began on a high note with a tribute to past athletic glory as the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team lighted the glass and water filled torch over Rice-Eccles Stadium.

America's athletes then set out on making some glory of their own. Freestyle skier Shannon Bahrke won the country's first medal the first day of competition, and by the time the U.S. hockey team played Canada for the gold medal Sunday the Americans had pocketed 34 gold, silver and bronze.

But the medal total didn't tell the whole story about a games that became America's winter coming-out party.

The faces of those winning them had changed, too.

In one of the most homogenized places in the country, America's minority athletes shined. Bobsled pusher Vonetta Flowers became the first black ever to win a gold medal in the Winter Games, and speedskaters Derrick Parra and Jennifer Rodriguez added some Hispanic flavor with a couple of medals of their own.

The United States finished second in the medal count behind Germany, separated by a lone medal. Traditional winter power Norway was well back with 22, while Russia and Canada had 17 apiece.

The medal count made organizers proud. They were even prouder of salvaging a games that teetered on the brink of ruin a few years earlier, mired in scandal and with a horribly unbalanced budget.

Romney came in, took no salary, and turned things around. By Sunday, he had earned the right to brag just a little.

''It was more wonderful, more significant than we ever imagined,'' he said.



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