A Trove of Olympic-Gold Moments

As near as I can figure, I've spent three months at the Winter Olympics since 1980. That's a long time walking around in thermal underwear and snow boots. In fact, one of the unexpected pleasures of "working" the Winter Games as a reporter was sitting sock-footed at day's end, after hours shod in thick leather.

The trusty footwear that carried me through four of my five Winter Olympics is still going strong, as is the parka I purchased before heading off to Sarajevo in 1984. My wife hurriedly stitched my name and address inside it. I never lost or misplaced the jacket, and it hangs in our front closet. Spying it there brings back many memories, especially with the Winter Olympics about to begin in Nagano, Japan.

The recollections gathered at the Olympics have a special staying power. The magnitude of the event ensures that, as does the scheduling. The quadrennial Olympics become waymarks in an adult life that lacks the clear-cut divisions school creates. Super Bowls and World Series can cause confusion, but each Olympics has plenty of breathing room.

This year, I've handed off my Winter Olympic duties to Doug Looney. That leaves me free to recollect some of my favorite Olympic moments. This guided flashback begins in...

1980, Lake Placid, N.Y.

For Americans, these will forever be the Olympics of speed skater Eric Heiden and the stunning United States hockey victory over the Soviets.

This game was so remarkable that the old dictum about "no cheering in the press box" was temporarily suspended. American writers, including this one, sprang up to cheer when US team captain Mike Eruzione scored the winning goal.

This was huge. Every reporter reached for his "A" stuff. The moment produced what I have come to call "the greatest lead I never wrote." Bob Hey, an inspired editor back in the Boston office, had the perfect opening sentence: "It was alchemy on ice." No argument there.

The Games swirled around the high school, as did the speed skaters, who raced on an oval outside. An upper-floor lavatory became a makeshift press box where I viewed Heiden's historic fifth gold-medal triumph.

1984, Sarajevo

Sadly, this city now needs no introduction. At the time, though, many Americans had to reach for an atlas. Sarajevo lies at an ethnic crossroads in the former Yugoslavia. Iit's where the 1914 assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand precipitated World War I.

At the time of the Olympics, the modern realities of Olympic security were evident. A machine gun-toting soldier patrolled outside the media complex where I lived.

For me, these Games were an introduction to a part of the world I hadn't anticipated visiting. Getting to Sarajevo via train from Zagreb seemed to take an eternity. The local cuisine was unappetizing and the air thick with cigarette smoke, but the people were wonderful - a fact more evident the longer I stayed.

This is one of the beauties of attending any Olympics: Visitors discover the best in their hosts, who, in turn, come to better recognize it in themselves. Goodwill soon envelops the Olympic landscape.

A personal highlight at these Olympics was a silent encounter with British ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean on the night their "Bolero" routine received a string of perfect marks for artistic impression. The two had been on the bus I boarded to the Zetra arena. They were sitting across from each other, each by an empty seat. They were making their final mental preparations in the crowded, darkened vehicle. They were in no mood to have their concentration interrupted.

I chose to stand in the aisle.

1988, Calgary, Alberta

I arrived in Canada's rodeo capital on a teeth-chattering, subzero day. Then the region's famous Chinook winds blew, and turned it into perhaps the warmest, brownest Winter Olympics on record.

From a sports standpoint, two figure-skating duels hogged the high ground: the "Battle of the Brians," in which American Brian Boitano outskated Canadian Brian Orser, and the women's competition, in which East Germany's Katarina Witt prevailed over Canadian Liz Manley and American Debi Thomas.

These were traditional impressions at a Games dotted with unconventional images - of a bespectacled, Walter Mittyesque British ski jumper (Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards), of experimentation with ski ballet, aerials (now an Olympic fixture), and events for disabled skiers. Then there was the Jamaican bobsled team.

1992, Albertville, France

The fusion of national culture and Olympic ceremony was never more stunning than at these Opening Ceremonies. France's romance with circuses and the avant garde produced a show that included placard carriers wearing huge snow globes and acrobats performing a bungee ballet.

The French Alps rose majestically all around. I stayed at a ski resort reached by 20 minutes of switchback driving in a minibus or van. It was dizzying at first, but mercifully less so with each trip. A neighbor requested that I bring him some rocks for his bonsai plants, a task I tackled with unexpected delight one night in a rock-strewn Olympic plaza.

It was another example of an alluring Winter Olympic locale working its charm.

1994, Lillehammer, Norway

The last shall be first: These are my favorite Winter Games for any number of reasons. Norway just fits this event so well.

If there was a day I wish I could have bottled and shipped home it was Day 9. On a perfectly gorgeous Sunday afternoon, thousands of Norwegians frolicked and picnicked in the huge snowfield at the heart of Olympic Park. They listened to radio broadcasts of the nearby ski jumping, admired the snow sculptures, cooked, sledded, and basically communed with nature.

It was a glorious, gold-medal Olympic moment if ever there was one.

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