For several days heading into the Olympics, an atmospheric
inversion capped Salt Lake City's fumes and dimmed its wonderful
vistas. Wasatch Range? Where? The skies were gunmetal gray, and
in the gauzy gloom you couldn't see a thing. The funk was
strictly meteorological but worrisome all the same. It was a
reminder that no matter how exhaustively organized an event
might be, something is left to chance. In this case the
atmosphere would not yield to crisis management (or, as those
formidable-looking trucks at checkpoints are euphemistically
lettered, INCIDENT CONTROL).
Then by Sunday, as if by divine proclamation, the inversion
layer had vanished and the mountains, now splashed with
sunlight, reappeared. Just like that. Then cowbells tinkled in
the canyons, and crazy people (who know better than to ever
bring this act to the Masters) began their odd warbling as even
crazier people carved a snowy crust at 85 mph. The games were
on, baby, and--schwoop!--there goes another guy off the ramp in
the Nordic combined, skis splayed, sailing through miles of
sunshine. Millions of viewers around the world gawked: My God,
that looks like fun!
From here on out, it would be snow play. And what a relief it
was that finally, geopolitical conflicts would be played out, if
only for a few prime-time hours, in an ice rink. Short
track--Korea or the U.S.? The Olympics' curative powers have
long been overstated, it's true; no peace has ever been forged
by pairs figure skaters. Still, the Winter Games have always
been more than a World's Fair on ice. Cooperative sport, all
these different people on the same slope together, ought to be a
calming example for nations that are on edge.
Until that first cowbell sounds, though, the Olympic ideal is
suspect. What's more, Salt Lake City, which bought itself a
bidding scandal along with these Games, was shrouded in more than
smog. For starters, what would the world--or, more interestingly,
the rest of America--think about the Mormon culture of its hosts
for 17 days? Salt Lake City has always seemed faintly exotic and
insulated; witness its annoying liquor laws and history of
polygamy and near-total lack of ethnic diversity. The
nonagenarian leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
Saints may or may not have been reassuring when he told visiting
reporters, "We are not weird."
February 18, 2002
The church, which dominates the city, does not intend to treat
the Olympics as a missionary opportunity and is lying
surprisingly low. Good behavior and good cheer are presumably
influence enough, but what are we to think of those buckets of
red pennants at crosswalks, and of pedestrians who obediently
hoist the flags to halt traffic and replace them at the opposite
In a country transformed by recent terrorism, a far bigger
concern than local culture was whether any public event could be
conducted safely. Even before terrorists knocked down our
skyscrapers, there was a history of Olympic tragedy. What could
we possibly do?
Apparently we can encircle every venue with chain-link fencing.
Salt Lake City and the points of competition beyond it have
become a community of compounds, each presumably impenetrable and
terribly inconvenient and not a little ugly. As a result of the
virtual lockdown, it has become impossible to move around freely
or quickly. Volunteers at the gates switch on visitors' cell
phones, open eyeglass cases, look under hats--though nobody seems
to mind. If it took you 1 1/2 hours to get inside Rice-Eccles
Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremonies, that was the price
you paid for not worrying during the next two hours.
And this is just the part of the $310 million security operation
that you can't miss. Men with high-powered rifles who are not
part of anyone's biathlon team blend into the snow. They stand on
rooftops. They hang overhead in Black Hawk helicopters or motor
through the woods on snowmobiles.
Even if these Olympics are safe, they still resonate with
memories of 9/11, when our self-assurance was forever skyjacked.
That's because these days any U.S. event, particularly a sporting
event, becomes a convocation in which we must share our grief.
Our self-absorption would ordinarily be annoying to all these
visitors from abroad, but this time, in a spirit of good
sportsmanship that we must remember later, they seemed more than
willing to acknowledge our loss, to lend a shoulder.
When the U.S. contingent asked permission to march in bearing the
flag that flew over the World Trade Center, the IOC said no on
grounds of jingoism. Lots of countries suffer loss and are not
allowed to demonstrate their sorrow on a world stage. Why must
the U.S. insist on its agony above everybody else's? Anyway,
hadn't that tattered flag already traveled to the World Series
and the Super Bowl? Surprisingly, the IOC then compromised and
permitted the flag to be displayed briefly during the opening
ceremonies, as if to say we could all use a little healing here.
It was done early on in the normally festive (if traditionally
baffling) proceedings and got the only response that made any
sense: a moment of silence.
The opening ceremonies took off from there, in their goofy way.
The warmup act for a stadium crowd of 55,000 frozen souls was
affable NBC weatherman Al Roker, so you could recognize the
unholy provenance of the show to come. Made-for-TV extravaganza
or not, it was a lot of fun. The floor of the stadium was covered
with ice, which lent itself to repeated forays by spark-shooting
It seems necessary in these events to make a show of civic
instruction. So, at yet another Olympics, a pioneer movement was
reenacted, although young children should not think that
locomotives and covered wagons actually traveled over frozen
ponds to settle the West or that American Indians danced on ice.
It's at times like these the Olympics seem like a World's Fair,
although choreographed really nicely (and punctuated, as they say
in the opening ceremonies trade, by lots of "pyro").
As always the best moments were unscripted and independent of
cultural themes, fog-making machines and costumery (which was
admittedly inventive). For the duration of the show, while those
55,000 souls waited for the West to be tamed and the torch to be
lit by the 1980 miracle U.S. hockey squad, President Bush sat
with his home-team athletes, nestled among snowboarders and
curlers and all manner of other snow players. It was a rather
generous gesture, returning this whole bloated affair (budget:
$1.9 billion) to the kids, the ones who, for another couple of
weeks, can't imagine anything more important in life than
getting downhill faster than the next kid. It was more uplifting
than any flag or march to see the President engulfed in this
innocence, to see the skater next to him, Sasha Cohen, hand him
her cell phone to prove their proximity back home--I AM SO
standing next to President Bush!--and to see him chat happily
into the phone, as if this were the most important thing he
could be doing.
The next day, with the sun shining and cowbells ringing and
shoppers and diners clogging the retro retail drag in Park City,
it was possible to think these Games might work out after all.
The theme of victimization that has been haunting this country
seemed to have departed with the clouds. There were determined
security forces, there were determined organizers, and there were
determined politicians who were finally taking their cue from the
fiercely determined athletes--those with the only Olympic ideal
that matters. They would all make their own luck, from here on
What a relief it was that finally, geopolitical conflicts would
be played out, if only for a few hours, on an ice rink.