Olympic reflections

A look back at the Winter Games

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— Take your pick. Now that all the flag waving is done, the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics were one of two things. Either they were the last place where the world comes together to celebrate the commonality of human athletic achievement, or a $200 billion tribute to marketing and commerce. Perhaps they were both.

The Salt Lake Organizing Committee pulled off an amazing feat, putting the controversy of the Olympic bribery scandal behind it and welcoming the world. For the most part, it was accomplished with style, humility and warmth.

The logistics of hosting the winter Olympics are staggering. Those who were not there will have a hard time comprehending how many city buses were pressed into service to move Olympic spectators between remote parking lots and competition venues. There were buses from Denver, San Francisco, Baltimore, San Diego, Cleveland and other American cities. The bus rides were free and they ran with regular frequency into the wee hours of the morning.

The security measures were reassuring without casting a pall over the Olympic experience. We never saw an automatic rifle. Fighter jets flew combat air patrol over the Wasatch, but at such high altitude they were silver specks in the sky even when it was apparent they were refueling from a larger aircraft.

True, a Blackhawk helicopter made a daily ritual of flying a figure eight over downtown Park City, but it wasn't like it was bristling with Sidewinder missiles, or whatever kind of armament they are capable of launching.

Actually passing through security was no different from going through security at the airport, except for the fact that the volunteers who checked to see if your cell phone was authentic were cheerful. If the soldiers in fatigues who backed up X-ray screening with handheld wands were armed, it wasn't apparent either. If one wanted to nitpick at a few things, it wasn't hard. The food concessions at the competition venues were abysmal. The Olympic chili was fine, but so many people avoid beans when they're traveling, you have to wonder about the decision to put it on the menu. After all, isn't it reasonable to expect that Olympic chili begets Olympic gas? The barbecue beef sandwich made me sick, and that limited the entree selections to a $3.50 hot dog washed down by a $3.50 cup of coffee.

Remarkably, at those prices, the food was cheaper than the fare at the Pepsi Center.

The remote parking lot at Soldier Hollow, where all events involving cross country skiing were held, must have measured at least 200 acres. But as far as I could tell there was one standard with a sign bearing the letter "B" on it in the entire parking lot. I couldn't spot any other signs.

"Hey man, do you remember where we parked?"

"Yeah man, we're in section B, right over there, no ... there ... ... I think ...."

Fortunately, there was an alfalfa field next to the parking lot with irrigation equipment parked conveniently close by.

"Hey man, we're parked exactly seven sprinkler heads from the end."

When you leave for the Olympics, you're apt to think it's all about the competition. And whether viewed in person, or on the television, it was undeniably thrilling to see so many underdogs win. But when you get down to it, winter sports that typically fly below the radar screens of most Americans, from luge to short track speed skating (and let's be honest Nordic combined skiing), become most memorable when they are the vehicles for a compelling human story.

Who can ever forget the courage of American woman speed skater Chris Witty? It took guts just to lace up her skates given that she was diagnosed with mononucleosis.

So, how can one possibly explain the fact that Witty won an Olympic gold medal in world-record time, while suffering from an illness that robs people of their energy? It cannot be explained and that's what the Olympics are all about.The intensity of the human spirit burns a hole right through all of the scandals and thrills us with its intensity.

The cost of these Olympics was mind boggling. It would be easy to make a case that at a time when hunger is destabilizing the governments of emerging nations, and those places are susceptible to anti-American terrorists, that there are far better uses for the money. But you could say that about many of the traditions that enrich our lives.

The cost of the Olympics also makes it likely that the winter games will return to Utah before too many cycles go by.

And when they come back to the Rocky Mountain region, do what so many Steamboat people did. Even if you don't have tickets go to the Winter Olympics. You can purchase tickets, often at face value, in any parking lot. And you'll never regret it.

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