The Winter Olympics, which began with choirs on five continents
singing Ode to Joy and peaked with the Czech hockey team
joyously linked by the arms like a chain of paper dolls, were so
infused with human life in between that one ski jumper was moved
to describe his tumultuous day, appropriately, as "life itself."
C'est la vie, said a favored figure skater who failed to win the
gold medal: That's life. And that was life. The whole of human
history unfolded in 16 days in Nagano--filled, as they were,
with man's better nature, and with Beethoven, and with
earthbound creatures trying to fly.
In Nagano, man, like God, was in the details. When Hong Guo, the
goalkeeper on the Chinese women's hockey team, expressed her
humble desire to meet Wayne Gretzky in the Olympic Village, the
Great One didn't merely introduce himself to the Great Wall of
China, he made certain she knew that the honor was his, bowing
deeply from the waist.
Here was a millionaire hockey player--happily housed in a
college dormitory in which he was allotted 10 clothes
hangers--so humble that he refused to take a team captaincy or a
microphone at a team press conference, even when so many
journalists rushed to him on stage that officials feared the
platform would collapse. The point seemed to be that Gretzky was
no better or worse than his fellow man, a fact driven home, on
this occasion at least, by the Czechs, who beat the short pants
off the Canadian Dream Team in a semifinal for the ages. The
victors threw their sticks into the air at the end, so that two
seconds later the roof appeared literally to be falling down
Then again, something similar happened nearly every night of the
Olympics. In the women's figure skating final last Friday, Surya
Bonaly of France brought down the house during her program by
abruptly backflipping onto one skate, a life-affirming feat that
puckered the judges' mouths, which now matched their rear ends.
Backflips are illegal, and Bonaly compounded the felony with her
spectacular land-on-one-skate maneuver. "I wanted to please the
crowd, not the judges," she said afterward, and good for her.
Even the head of the International Skating Union said he
disapproved of her derring-do as the ISU president, but approved
"as a human"--suggesting, against all odds, that those two roles
are not incompatible after all.
March 2, 1998
There was so much to approve of as a human in Nagano. Take the
champion Canadian women curlers who looked like women in
curlers, like a suburban bridge club, weeping throughout the
most moving medal ceremony of the Games: Five women, four of
whom had given birth in the last 20 months, were astonished to
be given the same flag-raising, anthem-playing pomp that Carl
Lewis gets. Talk about Ode to Joy.
And what of Alberto Tomba, who is better described by another
musical composition, a pop song, The Last of the Famous
International Playboys. Last Saturday the 31-year-old Italian
slalom legend passed his torch--and very possibly his little
black book and Hai Karate cologne collection--to a new,
pink-haired, 22-year-old slalom champion. Hans-Petter Buraas of
Norway was once asked to write down which person, living or
dead, he would most like to have dinner with. "Lolo Ferrari
[Miss Airbag] or Pamela Anderson," Buraas replied. The King is
dead, long live the King.
If you'd never seen a cross-country race but were a paid-up
member of the human race, you appreciated the men's
4X10-kilometer relay last week, in which Team Norway, after
covering a distance very nearly equal to that of the Boston
Marathon, defeated Italy by .2 of a second, or the length of one
ski tip. This was exactly the opposite of the result in
Lillehammer, when Italy beat Norway by a ski tip. Eight
men--including Bjorn Daehlie, whose three gold medals brought
his career total to eight, the most by a Winter
Olympian--trained for four years to redress this difference, and
11 people saw it. But then even the Dream Team hockey games were
played out in a tiny venue. Nagano was Sinatra playing a small
room for tips.
Speaking of tips, nobody in Japan accepts them, as opposed to
most other countries, where you have to shoot off a confetti
cannon full of small bills every time you walk through a hotel
lobby or restaurant. The Nagano Games were not about taking or
selling, but about giving, about people looking to help. Which
made the behavior of a few village idiots on the U.S. hockey
team all the more disgraceful. A bar called Police 90 became an
athletes' watering hole during the Games, and a running joke in
Nagano went, Police 90, USA 0.
What a shame, when you consider the hospitality of the host
city, which is ordinarily home to only 100 or so Westerners. At
the White Ring figure skating rink, a citizen picked up a piece
of litter, folded it into an origami swallow and placed it atop
a pay phone, which itself featured an electronic image of a
woman bowing whenever you hung up the handset. Restaurant
patrons pulled up chairs to practice their English on
foreigners, and you always knew exactly what they were saying,
even when you had no idea whatsoever. A handwritten sign in a
Nagano flower shop window simultaneously made no sense and
provided a pithy summation of these Olympics. It read, WELCOME
NAGANO THANK YOU IMPRESSIVE.
It was not merely in winter sports that the Olympics displayed
the best that humankind has to offer. The Games were full of art
and technology and heart-stopping marriages of the two. Cell
phones played Beethoven's Fur Elise when they rang, so that
instead of glaring at the call's recipient, you hoped he'd
quickly get called back, that you might hear the end of the
composition. A brass band played a Christmas song, Gloria in
Excelsis Deo, after Marianne Timmer's victory lap in the women's
1,000-meter speed skating race last Friday, for no other reason
than that it sounded appropriately soaring.
Soaring. Wanting to fly is among the oldest and most human of
aspirations, and the undisputed star of these Games was a 5'8"
Japanese ski jumper named Masahiko Harada, a corporeal version
of the comedy-tragedy masks, forever smiling and weeping
throughout the fortnight. It was his very humanity that made him
aspire to the heavens, of course, and his humanity that had
prevented him from getting there for so long.
"When I get the top place in official practice events, I cannot
sleep well at night," Harada said long before the Olympics
began. "When I expect to get the gold, I become nervous, my body
becomes stiff, I cannot fly."
Harada, whose dying-quail jump in Lillehammer cost Japan what
seemed to be a certain team gold medal, finished a disappointing
fifth in the 90-meter jump in Nagano. He was in sixth place
after the first jump in the 120-meter event, then landed an
absurd 136-meter jump on his second to salvage a bronze, a
flight so long and freakish that it had to be hand-measured. But
the team is what matters most in Japan, the concept of wa, and
in the team jump on the 120-meter hill last week, Harada's first
jump came in zero visibility during a blizzard. He traveled only
79.5 meters, 18 meters less than his ridiculously short team
jump in Lillehammer. "I thought I gave trouble again to the
team," Harada would say, and even Japanese scribes were choking
back grief, wondering if this jump was a cosmic joke or a
"What a big burden does God give him," wrote the man from one
newspaper, Asahi Shimbun. Echoed the correspondent from Chunichi
Shimbun: "It seemed like a god's mischief."
In Harada's second and final team jump, with conditions not
radically improved and the Japanese squad in jeopardy, the
father of two made his approach and a nation held its breath.
"At the best times," Harada said in White Forest, White Hill, a
book about Japanese ski jumping, "I could fly far without
consciousness. Put on the skis. Enter the gate. Fly."
Minutes before, Harada's teammate Takanobu Okabe had gotten off
a jump of 137 meters, one meter farther than Harada's shocking
leap of two days earlier. Okabe's feat was difficult to
translate into American--a five-run game-winning homer,
perhaps--but, amazingly, Harada now equaled the distance,
flying, far and without consciousness, hurtling himself
maniacally off the hill, as if at Kitty Hawk. Harada and
everyone else looked shell-shocked, and no wonder.
Harada still had to wait for teammate Kazuyoshi Funaki to jump,
but the gold now seemed a fait accompli, the remaining action
summed up by another newspaper, Shinano Manichi Shimbun, in
three telegrammatical sentences (literally translated here):
"Harada was so shivered that he almost couldn't stand by
himself. Funaki's jumping brought them the gold medal. Harada
sobbed out in public without hesitation."
He sobbed, he smiled, he was handed a bouquet of flowers by a
kimonoed woman and threw them to spectators, leading 30,000
people in cheers of Banzai!--may you live a thousand years.
He wept in the postjump press conference, wept in drug testing,
wept to journalists who wept when asking him questions. "The
Crying Games," Reuters called these Olympics, but Harada by this
point was smiling through the tears, a man utterly at peace with
himself. The Japanese watched Harada on national television, and
they came away the better for his example. "We have social
problems with children," Yushiro Yagi, the button-down head of
Japan's delegation said last Saturday. "I think we have to be
grateful to Mr. Harada for his role."
The host nation was exemplary, too, it must be said, because the
hosts were not about to say it themselves. Japan won five gold
medals in Nagano, or two more than it had won in all previous
Winter Olympics combined. "We do not wish to boast of our
achievements," Yagi said, but he just had, for modesty was one
of those achievements, and it spread to most everybody, a happy
Between periods of a China-Finland women's hockey game, a
chivalrous man moved quickly to open the gate in the boards as
the players skated off the ice. It was Gretzky, who had been
watching from a nearby seat and was now hastening to hold the
door for a fellow hockey player. As she passed, it happened
again: The Great One bowed to the Great Wall of China.
It was enough to make you sob out in public without hesitation,
or at least leave you so shivered you can't stand by yourself.
These Olympics left you happy to be human and, banzai, hoping to
live a thousand years. All the Japanese who tried out their
English on visitors ought to know that their English was
impeccable. In fact, it was poetry. Goodbye Nagano Thank You
Even Japanese scribes were choking back grief, wondering if this
jump was a cosmic joke.
It was not merely in sports that the Olympics displayed the best
that humankind has to offer.