The Memory Count

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"So many memories," mused Freddie Powell, the Jamaican bobsledder, "so many friends." As the Olympic Village was emptying and students at the University of Calgary were retaking their campus (and planning a "Tear Down the Fences Party"), the last looks at the XVth Winter Games were long and longing.

Were the walls really coming down, though, or were they going up again?

So many images, so many of them conflicting. America's gold-medal speed skater, Bonnie Blair, 23, was the picture of invulnerability or delicacy, depending on whether she was all packed up in her peppermint suit, streaming across the ice, or her hair was falling down afterward in curls. (It's the color of maple syrup in the morning.) "I'm just a person who likes to chase someone," she said in a voice that sounded too small for a champion of the world, 5 ft. 5 in. tall.

In their skating tug-of-pulchritude, Katarina Witt and Debi Thomas bared their claws and other whatnot. Referring to no one in particular, Witt observed, "I think every man prefers looking at a well-built woman to someone else who is the shape of a rubber ball." Thomas declared, "I think I have a great body." But the silly argument dissolved into stark drama. Thomas stumbled to a stunned third and Witt won.

Alberto Tomba, 21, Italy's self-proclaimed beast and "La Bomba," buried his ski boots in what little snow remained at Nakiska on the day of the giant slalom in the second week of the great chinook. He feared they might soften halfway down the mountain under the weight of his incredible confidence. Immediately posting the best time for the first run, Tomba waited only long enough to see that Pirmin Zurbriggen was slower before telephoning home to Bologna (collect). "You have seen Tomba once," he advised his parents. "But now, for the second run, you must turn on all three TV sets and watch Tomba win three times in parallel."

And yet, when he did win, the Italian zigzagger was overtaken by something close to modesty. "I am not a beast or La Bomba today," he said. "I am just a happy man." Two days later he won a second gold medal and wept.

At the Village entrance, where eight bronze figures (women and men) strain to support the archway, athletes milling in and out of the sunshine wore similar expressions. "We've been babied so much," sighed Ruben Gonzalez, the Argentine luger from Texas, "it's going to be hard to go back to the real world." Swiss Bobsledder Andre Kiser said, "The Canadian people have been so warm. Maybe that's why there's no snow."

An example of a warm Calgarian, a grandmother named Jean Newsted, came scurrying along with a loom in one hand and a nervous-looking rabbit in the other. Just then the Soviet silver-medal ice-dancing team of Sergei Ponomarenko and Marina Klimova materialized by the happiest chance. Hastening up to them, Newsted explained through a handy interpreter that she was a weaver of Angora fur and had been so taken with Ponomarenko and Klimova's performance that two of her rabbits now bore their names. In fact, here in her arms was Benjamin Sergei. It is difficult to describe the Soviet's expression, other than to say Ponomarenko blinked like a rabbit before smiling. "Thank you," he responded formally. "Is great honor."

A gaggle of hockey players was also about, including Mike Richter, 21, the American goalie. "These breakups are the worst," he said, chomping on an apple. "A rushed goodbye after being together so long: How do you do it?" The U.S. hockey team finished seventh and was even jeered by International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch, who roller-skates a little. "I feel hollow," Richter admitted, "but I'll remember the quality of the competition too, and the nod I got once from the Soviet goaltender Evgeni Belocheikine, going into the cafeteria. It was pretty nice. I liked it."

Canada's hockey team at least got to the medal round, but a 5-0 loss to the U.S.S.R. deflated much of the country. Backup Goalie Rick Kosti was worried: "Next time they may just grab a bunch of National Hockey League guys at the last minute and see what they can do. Even if they're a great deal better, I don't think it will mean half as much to them as it did to us." Over the entire 16 days, the nearest Canada came to a gold medal was Figure Skater Brian Orser's second-place finish to Brian Boitano of the U.S. Softly Orser said, "Apart from the competition, my memory will be of Americans even more than Canadians. I already knew the kindness of my countrymen, but so many people from the U.S. have come up to me to say they just wished there were two gold medals."

Men of less generous spirit, America's patchy playground directors were so dismayed by their meager share of the plunder (two gold, one silver and three bronze, in contrast to three gold medals for Finnish Ski Jumper Matti Nykanen alone) that they brought in New York Yankees Owner George Steinbrenner to help them harrumph. Promising importantly to look into it, he made noises about cost-effectiveness, dropped a few cold war phrases, filled a lot of newspaper columns and went home. Meanwhile, in front of the Village, one of the enemies of capitalism, G.D.R. Figure Skater Alexander Koenig, 21, politely priced a taxi and apologetically demurred. "Three dollars to the Chinook Center? I'll wait for the shuttle," he said. "Not much money. C'est la vie."

A bobsledder who looked as if he had the fare, Len Murrain of Britain, was questioned about the chances of romance these past two weeks in the Village. "Quite high," he replied Britishly, and sure enough speed skating's resilient sweethearts, American Dan Jansen and his Canadian fiancee, Natalie Grenier, have been seen strolling hand in hand. By Murrain's account, the mixing and matching of the different-colored warm-up jackets preceded by days the dousing of the flame, when the kids always go dancing, and the Canadian, French and Greek flags are raised like songs. It even snowed at the end. The next stop in 1992 is Albertville, France; Greece represents the start of the Olympics 2,700 years ago and the restart in 1896.

Alpine Skier Thomai Lefousi, the only woman on the Greek team, if 16 can be called a woman, brought the flag. Her memory of an Olympics in which she slipped as much as she skied will be of friendly Turks and girlish conspiracies over ice cream. A Rumanian counterpart has pledged to be her pen pal, but their common language was mostly hand signals, and how will they send them in the mail? "Some English maybe," Thomai said. "My sister will help." She thought, "It's been very beautiful here. I have two little bears to take home." And what, in the cosmic world, has she found to be the difference between North America and home? She mulled it over for a moment before answering, "Nine hours."