Week One in Salt Lake: A Pretty Fair Olympics

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The snowy hills and valleys of Utah represented the warmest place in America last week. Even when the wind blew cold, fine sportsmanship and fellow feeling, traditional to the Winter Games, was lifted last week to an absurd height by the love-everybody snowboarders, the new let?s-do-right IOC and the continuing sympathy for the U.S. of A.. It was lovely to see, and to partake of. The concern going in was, in post-9/11 America, the Games would be inconsequential at best, perhaps even joyless. Stringent security would put everyone on edge; Ugly Americanism would ruin the party.

As it happened, however, the magnetometers were the gates to Oz. On the other side of them, everyone was smiling, playing, boosting one another. Much of this was informed by last September, yes, but hardly in the way expected. Even the Great Skating Scandal couldn?t overwhelm the Games, if you were there in person as opposed to via NBC. And when I got around to making phones calls I learned, as you?ll see, that such scandals are nothing new under the sun. An American judge approached by an American team coach, no less, to perhaps trade one vote for another? Read on.

Every Olympics is special but a Winter Olympics is more so. The Summer Olympics are a vast, bustling city of sport. The Winter Games, even with whacked skeleton riders and board-grabbing dudes and dudettes invited in, are a village. It has ever been this way. Lake Placid, a true village and in 1980 the last town so small to host the Games, was just a big, mitten-clapping, gather-round-the-punch-bowl party. Sarajevo was a large, old, industrial city, but when a week-long snowstorm settled upon it in 1984 and the athletes went out to slide and schuss, it was transformed into a winter wonderland, a fairy-dusted kingdom apart from the real world. Think Lillehammer, Innsbruck and Albertville. Then consider L.A., Seoul, Atlanta.

In ordinary times, a village is easier to secure than a city. It does not bear mentioning again that these are not ordinary times, and there is no need to rehash the effort and expense that went into protecting Salt Lake City, its people and its guests. Suffice to say, in the Games? first week, the system worked. At any Olympics, people on the scene talk about three things before they get around to sport: the weather, the traffic and the lines. Salt Lake was and still is, in quantity and quality of complaint, no different.

I take that back. The quality of the complaint is more refined. It?s nicer. People apologize before complaining: I know you folks have a job to do, but, really, it?s the metal eyelets in my Sorel boots, not an explosive device. Really.

Yes, there was a scandal. It was a scandal — just like the Games-buying case that nearly cost this city this Games — that was bound to happen, sooner or later. No one bothered to feign shock that judges might have conspired to fix a figure skating event. They did, however, express shock — true shock — that a quick and nimble International Olympic Committee leapt into the fray and, in a mere matter of days, set things aright. Even the precious few clouds in Salt Lake City had silver linings.

Salt Lake has already announced a new era for the Olympics, with radical athletes as heroes, honorable behavior by leaders and a firm resolve to go forth in a violent world as a symbol of peace. Let these Games continue.

And they will, in Utah, through this coming week. The weather threatens to turn now, with snow moving into the Wasatch Mountains, thereby ending a string of brilliantly sunny days. That?s okay by me. Gives me a morning to sleep in, then open the old laptop and reflect for a moment on the fine week past.

America acquitted itself with a lovely, not too-overblown opening ceremonies, and that allowed some of us to breathe easier. I had been in the camp that felt U2?s scroll at the Super Bowl was in questionable taste, and that the jingoistic pageants at Atlanta and L.A. were hardly a way to welcome visitors. Not Riefenstalian, perhaps, but at least a tad Screw You. There was some real emotion, this night in Salt Lake City, when skeleton rider Jim Shea Jr., whose grandfather the great old speed-skating champ was killed in a car crash in Lake Placid last month, carried the flame. Though I dig the Dixie Chicks, this night I dug much more the Sting/Yo Yo Ma duet on "Fragile," a perfect, moving choice for a performance that was being sent out worldwide from America, five months post 9/11. This was a Don Mischer production, yet it was tasteful: an accomplishment of Olympian proportions. In the finale the miracle hockey boys lit the light and Salt Lake was off to a luminous start.

Other things happened last week — did you hear? Way back when, far on the other side of figure skating, snowboarders caught the public?s fascination in a way they hadn?t four years ago. Their exploits in and above the half-pipe were the very definition of radical, and their carefree style and evident joi de vivre was the illustration next to the word "tude" in Webster?s Collegiate. That Kelly girl and the three bad boys were something to see; even my dad, in his 85th year, agreed. I was talking to him back home in Massachusetts one night and he said, "Did you see the Vermont boy won? It was very exciting. One thing, though: They get points for grabbing their boards? I would think they?d lose points for that." Dad was starting to make sense to me, so I quickly said good-bye. "Work to do, Dad."

And this arduous duty included watching, either live or in TV grabs as I was moving about, some side-by-side GS snowboarders (that was fun, too, with the regular threat of crashes), a bit of speed-skating in different varietals (I?m starting to admire the rock ?em, sock ?em short-trackers, or maybe it?s just Mr. Ohno?s arena-filling charisma; I felt for him when he fell, but as a big Aussie booster, I thought it a hoot that the short-track pile-up allowed this grinning veteran, who had skated a brilliant strategic race and was a safe 14-meters behind the wreckage in the last lap, to come through to victory), some Alpine (more on the bodacious Bode next week, I promise) and some figure skating (ice dancing used to be so splendid, and now is such trash; were they dead, Torvill and Dean would spin in their graves). I relished in particular these things — Bode?s slalom run in the combined; the Russia-U.S. hockey game; Casey FitzRandolph; the fabulous Aanon, wunderkinder ski jumper with the Harry Potter specs. I relished them, but do I remember them? Barely. In all my experience at Olympic Games, this being my ninth, I?ve seen nothing to overwhelm a week like the Great Pairs Figure Skating Scandal. Nothing. And that nothing includes the bomb in Atlanta.

A friend of mine, Rick Telander, who writes for the Chicago Sun-Times was walking down the Salt Lake sidewalk circa Wednesday and bumped into a friend of his, Bob Ford. Rick asked "Howyadoin??" and expected a "Howyadoin??" in return. Instead he got a tight grimace and a sullen: "Figure Skating. Stay away from it. It?s a tar baby."

It is for sure, and if Rick had any sense he would have taken the advice. Instead, like all of us, he went dangerously near, and got stuck but good. By week?s end he was feeling gooey and dirty and he didn?t smell too very fine. Not that my friend Rick ever smells dear, but. . . .

Earlier in this piece I refrained from rehashing a couple of other already-well-hashed items, and I?ll refrain again. I can bring nothing new to what happened on that weird Monday night when the Russians didn?t really beat the Canadians but pocketed gold. I don?t even really understand figure skating very well. I find myself constantly asking my esteemed colleague Alice Park about axels and quads and Salchows and bare-minimum sequin requirements. But sports generally and cheating specifically, that I understand. What I took from the night in question was this: The Russians choked, the Canadians were sublime, the fix musta been in. So all I could do was sigh deeply and say silently, "Business as usual."

I went home. And then, along with everyone else, I became fascinated by — and thoroughly mired in — the aftermath.

In a week of constant conversation and regular meetings, the International Olympic Committee, behaving in a manner that can only be called "historically uncharacteristic," worked at the highest levels to make sure action was taken — and fast — in the skating scandal. I spoke about this late in the week with Olympic Committee General Director Francois Carrard, who worked "hand in hand" with IOC President Jacques Rogge on this issue as he does on all things. "I'm very proud of the work we did on this for the athletes," he told me, having returned my call. "And I am pleased that we found a solution this week."

He works for the IOC, and he returned my call. It was a dizzying time on the sports beat.

Carrard sketched the behind-the-scenes action of that busy week: "At first, it was rumors around. We were saying, 'Well, there may be a problem.' In the first 24 hours of so we were following, but not involved in, the investigation. At this point, for us, it was a matter for the federation. But on Tuesday the rumors became much more precise, and of course our President contacted [skating federation head Ottavio] Cinquanta and said he wanted this solved quickly and, on Wednesday, our executive board met and drafted a letter to that effect to the federation. We saw the controversy developing and said we have to ask him, in the interest of the athletes, to act. We didn't step in on the merits of the matter, but wanted it expedited as quickly as possible."

The IOC was pleased with the response from Cinquanta, said Carrard, who added that all conversations between the two groups were cordial. But then the IOC was disappointed when, on Thursday, Cinquanta said nothing would be announced until after the ISU's board meeting on Monday. "When he said the 18th, we felt perhaps he should go more quickly," said Carrard. "Sometimes it is not easy to go so fast, and he was trying to move fast, although perhaps at that time it looked like he was trying to buy time. He understood that, as far as we were concerned, we had hopes he would act swiftly to make recommendations." Although no IOC representative was present at the Thursday night meeting when the ISU drafted its plan to award two sets of golds, "I think the message was clear at that point from our president to President Cinquanta, 'You must act quickly.' "

Cinquanta did act fast, the recommendations were delivered to the IOC and, on Friday morning, the IOC board ratified them by a 7-1 vote (China against), with Russia abstaining. We may, in fact, have entered a new Olympic epoch.

I looked around for places to go with the story that others weren?t going. Since more ink was being spilled on Bladegate than any story since September 11, I figured if I wanted anything fresh, I?d better get out of town — by phone, at least. At the urging of my friend and former colleague Ed Swift of Sports Illustrated, I called Franklin Nelson, a longtime, highly respected figure skating judge and referee. Nelson is also a past president of the United States Figure Skating Association; he?s a mover and shaker of the highest order. He was extremely cordial in telling me that, yes, he knows judges are approached by those who would influence their vote. It had happened to many friends of his, he said. And, in fact, it had happened to him, in an instance when the go-between was a U.S. coach.

"Wow," I said silently to myself. I asked no follow-up question at this point, hoping Nelson would continue. He did.

The decision of what to do once the overture is made rests solely with the judge, Nelson said. He said further that he has no illusions about all judges doing the right thing: "Yes, there's pressure, no question there's pressure. I have always tried to do what's right, but am I worried that others don't? Yeah, I am."

Nelson, a physician on Bainbridge Island in Washington, remembered, with lingering discomfort after 30 years, The Incident: "It was back in the '70s, and one of our coaches came to me before one of the first international competitions I was going to judge. He indicated a judge from another federation wanted to talk to me about my voting. I told him I can't and I won't. The coach was a personal friend and I was a little surprised this person would even have entertained the thought that I might want to discuss this. He figured my answer was no, but I was surprised and disappointed he would be in the position of intermediary — and I told him so."

So in the figure skating community judges are pressured and threatened and sometimes even coaches — not just anonymous "federation officials" — are bagmen.

"That was the last time I was approached," Nelson said.

Was this because Nelson had developed, early on, a reputation as one of the honest ones?

"Perhaps. You hear rumors that certain judges are approachable. I've talked to several of my fellow judges who do get approached. For my part, I try hard not to get myself involved socially, but others aren't so concerned about this."

Whether the pressure comes from within one's own federation to help the team in a quid-pro-quo, or whether the offer comes from an outside team looking to improve its own chances in a straight trade, "all of it is dastardly," said Nelson.

I called Ben Wright, an historian of the International Skating Union and a retired, longtime judge and referee. I wondered if he saw any difference in kinds of corruption. He did, in mild disagreement with his former colleague. "I think the pressure, when it comes from your own federation, is the worst," Wright told me. "Then, they've really put a gun to your head, saying this is for your country."

"I don't really know what you do to get rid of the corruption," said Wright. "During the Cold War, over a period of years, the Soviets demonstrated obvious bias and in 1978 we suspended all of them for a year — 25 or 30 of them. It made no difference in the results the next year."

Wright said that when he watched the pairs final from his home in Belmont, Mass., he was not immediately suspicious. Across the country, Nelson felt the same way. Then he saw the scores. "When you looked at the placements, it looked like the old Cold War days. I couldn't quite figure our how the French judge came into it." Then the story broke and, "it did make sense. Only too much sense."

Franklin Nelson, an honest and intelligent man, speaking calmly and without rancor, had, finally, put the skating scandal in some sort of perspective — at least for me. What he sketched wasn?t pretty, but it was simple. Nelson showed me just how dirty and lowdown the whole thing was. Coaches approaching judges to see if they?ll join the network! I was in the belly of the tar baby.

Then, finally, the week was over. The golds were handed to the Canadians on Sunday night, right at the fulcrum of the Olympic fortnight, and the Games tipped into their second week. I was at the rink, watching the Canadians and the Russians smiles and hug. Across town, Chris Witte, the phenomenal speed skating veteran, was coming back from a bout of mononucleosis to set an Olympic and world record and win a gold medal in thrilling fashion. I was watching folks covered in tar. Across town was Olympic sport of a sensational kind. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The next six days, I?m going to watch games. They say clouds are moving toward the Wasatch Mountains, but I?m looking for sunnier times.