The Message of These Games

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Apolo Anton Ohno of the United States holds up his gold medal

Yes, there was that first-week scandal and some world-beating, second-week whining, but these, finally, were as fine a Winter Olympics as could be dreamt. In Salt Lake City, winter sport was not only elevated to Wasatch heights by a 16-year-old figure skating marvel from Long Island, it was reinvented day by day, the idea of an ice-and-snow athlete thoroughly redefined. The United States, host and reformer, fielded a team that was as multihued and symbolically resonant as the Olympic rings. Yankee athletes came through wonderfully, and when they didn't, they were, by and large, good sports. The message, which is pretty close to the heart of that ever elusive Olympic ideal, was unmistakable

Focus on just one moment. It is dusk when, at the top of the bobseld run, Jill Bakken and her push partner Vonetta Flowers, a 24-year-old from Birmingham who had once wanted to be an Olympic track star, toe the line for their final run. Bakken stares toward the first, floodlit turn for a long minute — visualizing, focusing. Then she and Flowers pump their fists, pump up the volume, leap into their sled and are off.

Elsewhere in the Olympic cosmos at the same time, a 5'4", 34-year-old man named Derek Parra churns several swift laps in the 1,500-meter speed skate race, and charges toward the finish, hoping to hold on. Meantime, the Games' marquee event, women's figure skating, is well underway. The usual suspects — Irina Slutskaya of Russia and American teenagers Sasha Cohen and Sarah Hughes — are already placed 1-2-3 as the elegant 21-year-old veteran Michelle Kwan skates to center ice to begin her short program.

When the ice chips settle all over town, Bakken and Flowers have upset the mighty Germans and set off a frenzy at Olympic Park, Parra has broken the world record and Kwan has spun and jumped flawlessly. More significantly, Flowers has become the first black athlete to win a gold medal in the Winter Games. She is joined in success on this magical night by Bakken, a former soccer player at Oregon State who was one of many U.S. National Guardsmen in attendance in Salt Lake last week; Parra, a Mexican American who had learned to skate on rollers in the streets of San Bernadino, Calif., and Kwan, the star from La La Land, perhaps the country's most famous citizen of Asian descent. The Winter Olympics had never before looked like America, but during this night — this fortnight — they looked just like America.

Of course it was marvelous to behold the triumphant visitors, too. Aamodt and Annan and all the cross country skiers (all those who didn't test poisitve, anyway) — and curlers, even. I watched some curling, and liked it. I apologize for any and all curling jokes made by me or my ink stained brethren in the past.

If I had to pick a favorite foreigner it would be Janica Kostelic, whose story might be the most compelling of the Games. She and her brother, who also competed here, grew up poor in Zagreb when it was part of Yugoslavia. Their dad drove them to the hill when he could. They became champions, but Janica's career was constantly interrupted by injury; she's had three knee surgeries in the past few years. She came in here hoping for perhaps one medal, any shade. She left with four, three of them gold. No skier had ever won so many and no woman had ever finished first that often (only Jean Claude Killy in 1968 and Tony Sailer in 1956 had been triple-gold among men). Kostelic alone made Croatia look like a pretty formidable team. U.S. alpine women, by contrast, didn't reach the podium. That provides a brief glimpse of how formidable the courageous and charming Kostelic was.

But I want to return to what I see as the key to these Games (and as I do so, I hasten to claim, if defensively, that this isn't mere jingoism, though it does involve the U.S. effort). American athletes, who won an astonishing number of medals, came from Florida, New England, Washington State, Southern California and all points in between. They included slacker dudes on snowboards and distinguished veterans like the magnificent speed-skater Chris Witty, who fought through a pre-Olympics bout of mononucleosis to set a world record at 1,000 meters. They brought American flavoring to such traditional sports as figure and speed skating, and red, white and blue pizzazz to the newer events. A few of the world's top snowboarders bypassed the old, gray Olympics, but surely they now regret their decision, as their sport juiced what became, in Salt Lake, a vibrant, joyous pageant,

Russia didn't enjoy itself much, apparently, and South Korea felt hard done by in a speed skating race. After a precedent had been established with a second set of gold medals for the Canadian pairs skaters, everyone was asking for arbitrations and replays and re-runs and extra medals. It wasn't pretty, all these sore losers. What was pretty was the sight of the heavily favored German bobsledders hoisting Vonetta Flowers on their shoulders at Olympic Park. Those four Germans, who among them had won every single race on this season's World Cup bobsled circuit, never entertained any thought of boycotting the Closing Ceremonies.

Flowers' was only one of many feel-good stories in Salt Lake City. Chris Klug, liver transplant recipient, won a bronze medal in giant slalom snowboarding. Bode Miller, with his ferocious final runs in event after event, established himself as the most exciting comeback kid in skiing history. Parra, separated for much of the last year from his wife, who was back home in Miami giving birth to their first-born while he was training with the team in Utah, said he hoped his dedication would inspire kids of Latin heritage. Cuban American speed skater Jen Rodriguez, who won two bronze medals, said the same. Apolo Anton Ohno, the smooth, smart, diamond-studded, hyper-charismatic short-track speed skater from Seattle, proved himself a wonderful sportsman when a late-race crash left him in second place in the 1,000-meter event. He was then rewarded for his graciousness with a gold medal at 1,500 meters to go with his silver in the 1,000.

Ohno, a 19-year-old Japanese American who just may be the coolest teen on the planet, is an avatar of the new breed of Winter Olympian. Jim Shea Jr. is the ultimate throwback, and his triumph in the age-old but just reintroduced sport of skeleton was a fairy tale to top all others, except possibly Kostelic's. Riding with Shea inside his helmet was a photograph of his grandfather, a former speed-skater who had been America's oldest living Winter Olympics champion until his death in a car crash just before the Games. The Sheas are legends in Lake Placid, America's Cooperstown of winter sports tradition. Now Jim Jr. is a legend throughout the land, having slid through the storm on his small sled to dramatic, unexpected victory. And he, alone among athletes in Salt Lake, tried to take it to another level. He said medals and golds and winning were not important. He said what was important was doing it, along with all these other different people: doing what his granddad had done, doing what his father had done in combined in the 1960s. Doing it, and doing your best. That was all that mattered, said Jim Shea.

Rather old, astonishingly young, man, woman, boy, girl, in all ethnic variety: The American Olympian who turned the Salt Lake Games into precisely the triumphant and joyous moment needed by this bruised country was marvelous to behold. Two weeks ago there was no predicting that a cauldron supporting a flame represented the melting pot. On Sunday that flame was extinguished, but the spirit of what was accomplished in its realm lives on. The Winter Olympics, once the domain of elites representing ski, skate and toboggan clubs, has been changed forever. What a glorious thing these new Games are. They are Olympian.