SALT LAKE CITY — Two cross-country skiers, running on their last reserves, stopped abruptly at the top of a slope a few hundred yards from the finish. They glared at each other, a Norwegian and an Italian, each silently taunting the other to start first.
It was a game of tactical chicken, scornfully waged, each seeking the favored position of skiing second into their sprint. Finally the Norwegian led off, flinging a snarl at his rival as he did. They traded the lead twice, almost falling from exhaustion. The Norwegian won, and the Italian banged his ski pole in disgust.
It wasn't one of those scenes of overcooked emotion the cameras so love. But it was naked combat at the highest level of athletic competition, and it will be an engraving I'll carry away from the Winter Olympics of 2002 long after the hurrahs and the howls of foul have mutually subsided.
Let me confide, as a newsman who wrote about these Olympics and yet saw most of them as you would - as a spectator completely inquisitive and ready to be amazed.
After a few days as a witness to the extravaganza, I took comfort and staved off neurosis with a breezy mantra. To make sense of the scene here, you have to accept the world as a place where good folks coexist with rogues and thieves. You have to accept that on any given day life nourishes dreams and ideals but it is also grossly unfair, cruel, wacky, and usually baffling. It is full of beauty and chaos. And if you have made your peace with that kind of world, you had to be lit up by the Winter Olympics of 2002.
The heroics of them contended daily with finger-pointing hypocrisies. Heroics won by popular vote. Which doesn't mean that some of the Olympic judging and officiating aren't sick, on all sides, "ours and theirs." They are.
Salt Lake 2002 gave you the whole montage. It spun the glorious with ludicrous. Why? The first and irreversible truth about the Olympics is that they imitate the real world. All of the reformers on earth aren't going to change that. There was enough paranoia from the Russians and others and enough piety and political muscle from the North American side to fill the quotas.
Yet you had to have a heart of brick if the Olympics did not leave you tingling at the sight of athletes drained but transfixed by what they had achieved, standing on a podium in tears at the sound of their homeland hymns. The Olympics turned you speechless at the bravura of a Janica Kostelic. There she plummeted, charging through the slalom gates, smiling in exhilaration at being alive in this tick of time on her way to a third gold medal for Croatia. You were agape at the leaping incandescence of Sarah Hughes, and then her teenage yelps.
But Salt Lake also left you with rolling eyes and a wobbly psyche in the day-after-day crisis provoked by the same forces - nationalism, the smugness of power, suspicion, and envy - that cause nastier conflict and more lethal results in the real world. But if you could handle all that with some sense of entertainment, it meant this: You could leave the Games having achieved enough emotional balance to applaud the beautiful and transcendent without being turned into a grumbling curmudgeon by the bizarre and the hysterical.
I shared America's elation at its athletes' remarkable run on medals from end to end, felt it without being especially surprised. Why would one be surprised? We had the money, we had the home field, we had the incentive and the crowds and, of course, marvelous athletes. I stared at those aerialists-from-Mars who spun and somersaulted and laughed themselves silly; and I wondered how the human body was capable of such contortion suspended from skies and boards and forced to grapple with the humorless demands of gravity. I was stirred by young men and women, some of them wealthy, some of them ice bums, risking it all, bombing the slopes and ice sheets with fundamentally only one fear - that they might not deliver all that was in them.
And yet for all of those spectacles and the fire we saw in the eyes of those who so desperately needed to win, what moved me most about the Olympics was the mingling of the faces and tongues of the world. You don't have to be a romantic to feel that. For two weeks this was Main Street, Earth, almost. It was almost because kids don't grow up playing on snow and ice in Egypt and Indonesia. Throwing out the bureaucratic haggling, it was a global party in which no blows were landed or embassies burned, and for this the security armies could take a bow. I went for walks through the arenas and the avenues to banter with the Scandinavians and the Russians, and I was nearly blown away by a slaphappy Dutch brass combo in front of the E Center. I was not solicited by Mormons, but I was mistaken once for a Uzbeki. If the people of the world intrigue you, this was a Mother Lode. The townspeople were obsessed with offering hospitality and good will. The security was restrained and competent.
There was a hidden tab for all of this. The American public shouldn't be gullible about it in the euphoria over medals. Millions of dollars in taxpayer money will ultimately spin off to benefit people who did not compete for medals. Snow Basin, the scene of the alpine races, profited from a congressional gift of 1,377 acres of National Forest land, the public's land, in exchange for 11,575 acres someplace else in the county.
That, of course, is the current wave of Olympics. The money is so vast now - TV rights, sponsorships, endorsements - that they will be forevermore the Corporate Olympics. But there is one added windfall for an immigrant culture like America's, now grown so rich and dominant, trying to govern the world. Our immigrant blood here flowed back to the veins of those skiers from Norway or the jumpers from the Balkans. And suddenly we were together. A man of the second generation of his immigrant Slovenian family - me - could stand and watch the Slovenian ski jumpers struggle for a solitary medal. Their faces evoked the faces of underground iron miners with whom my father worked in northern Minnesota so many years ago. I recognized the names and faces. They were mine. And when the team's last man jumped and landed and Slovenia won its one medal, I high-fived the woman next to me and said dobro. "Good show." And so it was.
To grasp the magnitude of the harvest of medals by American athletes in the Salt Lake Winter Olympics - standing at 34 by the end, narrowly behind Germany - you have to turn back the calendar 14 years.
In the last Winter Olympics held in North America, in Calgary in 1988, the American team won exactly 6 medals.
"That was practically in our own backyard," said Bob Condron of the US Olympic Committee. "It was embarrassing."
On Sunday, Mr. Condron and the battalions of American skaters, skiers, aerialists, and all of the bureaucratic suits were pardonably ecstatic. They'd been talking about 20 medals, although that was probably an act of lowball gamesmanship. They knew they were better than that. They had never won more than 13. What happened?
"First, the games were in America," Condron said. "But for the last three years a lot of our athletes have been coming together each year on that mountain on Snow Basin. They bonded, got to be friends. Derek Parra was there, so were many others. What happened in snowboarding got to matter to speedskaters. We went after sponsor money." But in the end, he said, it was the athletes. "They came here with that 'give me the ball, I want to do it' attitude." It showed.