An Intoxicating Cauldron Another opening, another great show: Why the Winter Games are sport's headiest brew

February 18, 2002

After the Mormon Tabernacle Choir did the Wave last Friday
night, and a Bermudian luger marched into the opening ceremonies
in Bermuda shorts and kneesocks, and the French athletes
abruptly stopped marching while Georgians and Germans jackknifed
behind them--resulting in a grisly three-nation pileup--those
crosswalks in Salt Lake City finally began to make sense to me.
The walk signals at downtown intersections beep with the sound
of an electronic cuckoo clock. Which is perfect because the
Winter Games are exactly that: cuck-oo...cuck-oo...cuck-oo.

Cuckoo, isn't it, that a man born in 1906, in a log cabin outside
Beaver City, Utah, should--31 years after his death--enable half
the earth's citizens to share in the unfolding spectacle in Salt
Lake City, only 200 miles to the north? That's what Philo T.
Farnsworth did last Friday, when three billion people watched the
opening ceremonies on his trifling invention: television. Robbie
Robertson, who sang in the ceremony, said, "It felt like holding
your arms out to the world." The world, one hopes, felt like
hugging back because, cuckoo though they might be, the Winter
Olympics are the most satisfying spectacle in sports.

That isn't merely because of the athletes, though February is
certainly enlivened by the likes of Isaac Menyoli. His coach is
not mouthing cliches when he calls him "a real visionary, a
dreamer," for Menyoli moved to Milwaukee five years ago from
Cameroon, where his psychedelic vision--his fever dream--was to
become an Olympic cross-country skier.
Cuck-oo...cuck-oo...cuck-oo, to be sure. But on Tuesday, he
became one.

"Did you ever read about a frog who dreamed of bein' a king/And
then became one?/Well except for the names and a few other
changes/You talk about me, the story's the same one." The
timeless lyrics of Neil Diamond may as well be the mantra of
these Games, and last Friday they were piped into a teeming
press bus, where Latvian journalists passed the time on Japanese
laptops. (And we're not talking about computers.) Such
international coexistence is inescapable at the Olympics, and
all the more so at the egalitarian Winter Games, where everyone
is just another lumpen parka. That guy who led Great Britain
into the opening ceremonies? Former 49ers quarterback Steve Young.

Never mind why. The Winter Games are full of similarly odd
couplings. Grizzled men with hearts like 60-grit sandpaper will
watch with clenched sphincters as some sprite in a sundress
tries a triple Axel. If she lands it--or better yet, nails
it--those same men will, if you listen closely, exhale heavily
with relief.

Authorities say there's a 45-mile no-fly zone around Salt Lake
City, but that's nonsense, for men and women are everywhere aloft
at the Winter Olympics. I've yet to see a ski jumper take
flight--skis pointed out in a V--without being moved, or thinking
of Churchill's sign for victory.

Alpine skiers have always been the coolest athletes on earth,
Bond extras like Jean-Claude Killy and Franz Klammer, Alberto
Tomba and Hermann Maier. One might argue, too, that the most
exhilarating athletes of the last century made their mark at the
Winter Olympics. So it seemed sad when, with 45 minutes remaining
in the opening ceremonies, every person in the three rows in
front of mine stood at once to leave, as if all were seized, at
the same moment, with an urge to beat the traffic or hit the
men's room. For they were (when you looked at them) all men, all
dressed in the same hooded white ponchos assigned to every
spectator. Their seats were terrible--rows 57 through 59 in a
63-row stadium--but still, what a shame to see them ushered to an
elevator before the Olympic cauldron was lit.

Then one dropped his hood, and another, and their faces began to
register, like a string of firecrackers popping. Bolting for the
exit were Mike Eruzione, captain of the 1980 U.S. hockey team,
and his teammates, who authored the Miracle on Ice. They weren't
beating the traffic or taking a whiz or anything of the sort.

For within the hour, and around the world, Eruzione's right hand
held the Olympic torch--he looked part Statue of Liberty, part
Bob's Big Boy--while his teammates Iwo Jima'd in behind him. They
could have been any group of lucky fans pulled from the stands,
and your heart triple-Axeled as you thought of Lake Placid, and
Philo Farnsworth, and where you were at the moment: Atop a
football stadium at the University of Utah, home of the Utes--a
name that means "high place."

And you thought: Is it ever.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)