The Winter Olympics: Hope and Glory

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Big fireworks were the big finale of a magical night. Now on to the games.

There was a moment in the fall, back when baseball was suspended and planes were empty, when the prospect of the 2002 Winter Olympics was confounding at every turn. We were waging war; who could think of fun and Games? Some Salt Lake City residents, sensing a bull's-eye painted on their town, wished it would all be canceled; students petitioned that their school be closed for security reasons. The athletes, like the rest of us, were disturbed, distracted; a couple had lost relatives in the attacks. NBC was worried that its $545 million investment for broadcast rights might be wasted, and started polling to see if anyone planned to watch.

But as the Olympic torch burned its way from Olympia to Atlanta, then started winding toward Salt Lake, the ground began to warm. The flame will travel 13,500 miles by dogsled and wheelchair and snowshoe and tennis shoe and tugboat. Rudy Giuliani carried it, exempted from the organizing committee's rule against elected officials as torchbearers. Lyz Glick, widow of Jeremy, a hero of Flight 93, carried it, along with 11,498 others, through frigid streets lined with cheering people—and that was just for the torch.

Olympic organizers, more determined than ever to market the meaning, began talking about the Games as a chance for restoring America's hope. There were recollections of the 1980 U.S. hockey team that won its proxy war against the Soviets, who themselves were then at war in Afghanistan. These Games would transcend even politics and patriotism on their way toward therapy. "This is an important event under any circumstance," Utah Governor Mike Leavitt had said a few weeks after the attacks, "but fate may have fallen upon this state and city to host an event where the world will come together to heal."

That's a lot to ask, given the history: 2002 had been called the Bribery Games, for the million-dollar booty dangled before Olympic bigwigs by Salt Lake officials in hopes of its being picked as host. Once the financial scandals passed—bribery charges against two of the local organizers were dismissed, although the government is appealing—the security nightmare erupted. Ever since the Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta in 1996, law-enforcement agencies have known they would have to reinvent Salt Lake's security. The Atlanta budget was more than doubled for Salt Lake, and after Sept. 11, it increased an additional 25%, to $300 million, for the creation of the Bubble. There will be metal detectors and spy cameras everywhere, antibiotics and vaccines stockpiled, F-16s overhead and the Secret Service on snowmobiles. It's a whole new team sport, the FBI and Secret Service for once sharing information, patrolling in tandem. Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge has called Salt Lake the safest place in the world; but, he adds, there is no guarantee that the system is fail-safe.

And then there is the host-country code of conduct and the debate over just how red-white-and-blue the Games should be. It's great to cheer the home team, but the Olympics is meant to celebrate the international community. "To ask people to love one another is merely a form of childishness," said Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Games. "To ask them to respect each other is not utopian, but in order to respect each other they must first know each other." For all the talk of Patriot Games, the hope is that Americans will be particularly gracious to their global guests, aware that playing host to the Games is not the same as owning them, and conscious, in a whole new way, of being part of a community larger than the U-S-A! U-S-A!

Ultimately competition at this level is a celebration less of country than of character: of the will to do better, push through pain, leave the fear at the top of the mountain in pursuit of speed, come to the ice like a soldier in sequins; to defy the laws of physics and nature, bury the effort under the grace. That's what makes it fun to watch and useful as well. Games have always been a handy mirror for every challenge we face, every test we take. But we may be especially grateful for the chance to stop and watch this spectacle on ice and snow. The last time we were transfixed together, it was in horror. In the next two weeks, some image will grab us once again, if much more gently. Will Sasha Cohen be the first woman to land a quad in competition? Will Apolo Anton Ohno sweep all his races? Will Picabo Street withstand one last downhill dash? A few months ago, how much would we have cared? It is a pleasure now to pull up a chair and give these athletes our full attention, to savor their fervor and cheer them on.