Games triumph over fretful start

Salt Lake events feature pleased fans and self-effacing champions.

They began cautiously, even quietly, Games beset by fear and under the shadow of criticism and corruption. Yet the past two weeks of competition may prove to be the most memorable Olympics in recent years - for positive reasons.

Contrary to concerns, these have not been the Mormon Games, the events have been safe, and the only allegations of bribery have involved Canadians and skates, not cash and Olympic officials.

Every Olympics have their moments, but given the considerable obstacles that have confronted these Games almost from the outset, their success has been particularly poignant. For Americans, part of it has been their country's record medal haul. Part has been the emotion following Sept. 11. Yet there is more to it than that.

In Salt Lake, the world has found a gracious and welcoming host, where many had thought only to find an insular and judgmental society. And in the sportsmanship and inspired performances of the athletes, America in particular found an ideal antidote to the upheaval of the outside world.

It has come in the tears of Derek Parra or the grin of Tristan Gale. In the end, the sports are secondary. Speed skating will not surpass hockey as the national ice obsession. Skeleton tracks will hardly replace neighborhood basketball hoops. But in a universe of trash talk and discord, the Olympics offer gratitude. Instead of touchdown dances, they offer grace.

When Jim Shea won the men's skeleton gold Wednesday, Gregor Staehli and Martin Rettl nearly toppled him with a bear hug. This from the men seen by many as the two best sliders in the sport - the men who finished second and third because of Shea. Staehli even came out of a five-year retirement just so he could get a chance to win gold in the Olympics.

For several seconds, they bounded around together in a shapeless bundle of elation. Later, at the medals ceremony, the three clinked their medals like fine stemware, threw pins to the crowd, and linked arms to jump in unison with their medals - Shea with his smile, Rettl with his technicolor hair, Staehli with his Swiss-issue Dracula 2000 cloak.

"There is a tremendous amount of camaraderie," says Shea. "Some of my best friends are from the other teams."

These are the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics.

They have shown competition in its purest form, where speed skaters Derek Parra and Jochem Uytdehaage held their own private world championships, each setting a world record in one race, only to see the other turn it to ice dust. For the third Games in a row, Norway and Italy skied for 25 miles, only to be separated at the finish by barely more than a ski length. Finland and Germany each launched themselves off the ski jump eight times - sailing a total of 6,400 feet - only to see the Germans win by one-tenth of a style point: 947.1 to 947.0.

There is disappointment among the losers, surely. But not spite.

There is frustration, yet there is also respect.

Even in the biggest scandal here, when the Canadian Olympic Committee challenged a judge's ruling in the pairs figure skating, skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier became celebrities in part through their restraint and humility.

Moreover - like the Games themselves - figure skating will leave Salt Lake better than when it came. As the Salt Lake bidding scandal catalyzed reform in the International Olympic Committee, so "skategate" has pressured the International Skating Union to ensure fairer judging.

Even Salt Lake City itself has received a measure of redemption.

Chad Dezotell had heard all the stories about Salt Lake before he came here: that clubs in the city of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were about as common as emus. When he and 10 friends from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, piled into a van to come here for Canadian hockey, they expected to have all their fun in the second leg of the trip - Las Vegas.

Not so.

"It's been amazing, I've been surprised," says Dezotell, who wore only long underwear and painted himself with maple leafs for one Canada game. "I actually like this place."

Adds friend Keith Perry, who is wearing a Canadian flag like a cape: "Just the atmosphere of downtown, it's changed my whole attitude about what Americans think of Canadians. They cheer when we walk down the street."

To some, that's just the nature of these Games, and they are happy Utah could share it with the world. "Everyone was so worried about the problems," says city native Josh Hunick in the teeming medals plaza. "But everyone has adjusted to the fact that this should just be a fun experience."

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