The Vancouver Olympics could not have started on a more somber note. On Feb. 12, a fateful Friday that broke the hearts of those who strongly believe in, or genuinely scoff at, the so-called Olympic ideal faster, higher, stronger Georgian luge athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili died in a horrific crash during a training run. The opening ceremonies, held later that evening, were tainted. Fingers were pointed. It was a tragedy that will forever question the intelligence of selling outrageous risk as global sport.
After the shock of Kumaritashvili's accident wore off and face it, we tend to quickly move on from such tragedy the Vancouver Games offered the wonderful highs, and head-scratching lows, typical of any Olympics. In hindsight, all the early whining about glitches, like the need for snow to be helicoptered onto a dry mountain, and malfunctioning ice machines, seems silly. We'll remember the likes of Joannie Rochette, the Canadian figure skater who displayed genuine bravery while toe-looping and triple-axling two days after her mother died of a massive heart attack. We'll also feel for Sven Kramer, the Dutch speed skating legend who lost the tortuous 10,000-meter race because he illegally switched lanes, which is like an innocent man going to jail on the smallest technicality.
How about a little love for Marit Bjoergen? Who's that, you ask? She's the Norwegian woman who won three golds, a silver and a bronze in cross-country skiing, and epic achievement for a country that obsesses over that sport. Most Americans are a little guilty of viewing the Olympics through a parochial, U.S.-centric lens. So here's to you, Ms. Bjoergen, undisputed queen of the Olympics. And you, Simon Ammann, the Swiss ski jumper who won his third and fourth career Olympic medals, a new ski-jumping Olympic record. And you, figure skater Kim Yu-Na, the South Korean wunderkind who electrified an entire nation, and set a new standard for greatness in her sport.
While looking beyond these shores, let's also appreciate a stunning development: Team U.S.A. kicked a ton of butt. The U.S. topped the medals table, winning 37 in all, the most by any single country in Winter Olympics history. The heavily hyped faces, like snowboarder Shaun White, downhill skier Lindsey Vonn, long-track speed skater Shani Davis, men's figure skater Evan Lysacek, all delivered golds. Apolo Ohno now has eight medals, more than any other U.S. Winter Olympian. Bode Miller, the Torino pariah who came out of retirement to give the Olympics one more go, showed that when expectations are lifted, and extracurricular drinking stilted, a supremely gifted skier can pick up a gold, silver and bronze.
How did all this American dominance come about? "During my first Olympics, in Nagano in 1998, we felt like a fringe team," says American Nordic combined skier Billy Demong, of the U.S. attitude during those Olympics. Demong won an individual gold in Nordic combined, fellow American Johnny Spillane won two silvers, and the U.S. won another silver in the team event. Thanks to Demong and his mates, we Americans now know Nordic combined is a sport that mixed ski jumping and cross-country skiing, not a menu item at a Scandinavian restaurant. "Now, when we come to these Games, there are so many athletes across a breadth of sports who would not be satisfied unless they won a medal," says Demong, who carried the American flag during the closing ceremonies. "We wanted it, and it showed."
Rank these Olympics wherever you choose. Were they more inspired than Torino, but lacking a transcendent moment like Lake Placid? Perhaps more accomplished than Salt Lake City, but short of the juicy tabloid fodder of Lillehammer? Such arguments are why sports are fun. But a decade or more from now, please remember a singular fact about Vancouver: though the beginning was awful, the ending was pitch-perfect.
On Feb. 28, players from the U.S. and Canada took part in a little hockey game. Forget about what was at stake; that in Canada, hockey ties together the nation in way that no other sport can even dream of uniting all Americans; that a Canadian win would give the country 14 gold medals, a record haul; that if Canada lost to its overbearing neighbors to the south, on home soil, the streets of Vancouver could have turned perilous.
Put all that aside, and appreciate that these millionaire pros just played a splendid hockey game, with the same spirit as puck-crazed kids skating on the frozen ponds of Manitoba and lakes of Minnesota. The passes were fast, the checks crisp, the saves clutch. With 30 seconds left, and Canada holding a 2-1 lead, the 18,000 fans at the Canada Hockey Place, thousands in the streets of Vancouver, and millions watching on television across all North America, could sense it. Canada would realize its dream and take the men's hockey title.
But a shot trickled off the pads of Canadian goaltender Roberto Luongo, who plays for the hometown Vancouver Canucks and was serenaded with chants of "Louuuuu" throughout his exemplary game. American Zack Parise pounced on the puck, and knocked the rebound past Luongo to tie things up. Are you kidding me? Do you believe in miracles? Going into overtime, the Americans controlled every molecule of momentum. "We thought we were going to win, for sure," says U.S. defenseman Jack Johnson.
Before overtime started, I ran into the concourse of Canada Hockey Place to talk to a few fans. I wanted to grasp Canada's collective panic for letting the gold slip away so late in the game. But here's the thing: Canadians know hockey. They know that at the end of games, when the other team pulls the goaltender to gain a man advantage, and applies dizzying late-game pressure, these things happen. No one was crying or holding their hair in the aisles.
Why bother straining the scalp? Nearly eight minutes into overtime, Canadian Jarome Iginla, probably the team's second-most recognizable and beloved star, shoveled a neat pass to Sidney Crosby, No. 1, the modern-day Great One. Crosby's shot slipped through the wickets of American goaltender Ryan Miller, who was so terrific throughout the Olympics that he was named tournament MVP long before the game was decided. Iginla to Crosby for the gold medal? Are you kidding me? "You're going to see a lot of kids growing up now, dreaming they were Sidney Crosby, scoring in overtime in the Olympics," says Canadian defenseman Chris Pronger. "That's pretty special."
Perfect, actually. Canada caught a fair amount of grief for its "Own the Podium" rallying cry, especially after it struggled to win medals early. But as I write this in an cold, empty hockey arena (why am I here, and not taking in the joy in Vancouver's streets?), a bunch of volunteers, who so graciously offer themselves up to the thankless task of guiding confused, angry guests around these Olympics, are popping bubbly upstairs, and singing "Oh Canada!" They deserve this moment. And the world was lucky to witness it. Just like we were lucky to witness these Vancouver Games.