Three writers reflect on Olympic opportunity, unexpected glory
and the spirit of Salt Lake
This is an article from the Feb. 24, 2002 issue
Once in a Lifetime
One chance, every four years. That's the thought I haven't been
able to shake for two weeks now. It is a central element of
sports that the ratio of preparation to performance will always
be enormous. Thousands of jump shots taken each day. Hundreds of
miles run in the mountains. For a few games or a few races. But
the Olympics are uniquely cruel.
Five weeks ago I sat with U.S. skier Kristina Koznick in the bar
of a modest hotel in a tiny village high in the Austrian Alps.
She is a delightful person: smart, dedicated and tough enough to
leave the U.S. ski team to train on her own for the past two
seasons, at a cost of more than $250,000 a year. She is also one
of the best slalom skiers in the world, yet without an Olympic
medal she is largely anonymous in her own country and destined
to struggle financially.
With this knowledge tucked away in her mind, she skied the
Olympic slalom on Wednesday, slashing down the face of a Deer
Valley run called Know You Don't through wet, blinding snow.
Koz-that's what everybody calls her-skied terrifically well
until losing both edges and crashing four gates from the bottom.
Four gates, maybe 50 yards.
She lay on her side for a moment, her helmet stuffed into the
soft snow. Had she rolled a quarter-turn, she could have spread
her arms and legs and made a beautiful snow angel. Instead, she
was struck by a terrible reality: "I don't want to wait for
Torino." Imagine, she is lying in the snow, a four-year dream
killed in an instant, and already she is dreading the next
She has not been alone among U.S. skiers in need of buzz. Sarah
Schleper skied out of a binding minutes after Koznick's crash in
the slalom. Daron Rahlves, who won a spectacularly improbable
world title in Super G last year in Austria, was never a threat
in the downhill or Super G. Erik Schlopy rescued himself from
the obscurity of the pro ski tour, finished third in the World
Cup giant slalom standings last season and then crashed in the
For all of them the Games were the biggest stage of their lives.
And all of them leave Salt Lake City with little more than
memories and a blue beret.
Yet, there are others who inhale the pressure and grow stronger.
Janica Kostelic of Croatia hadn't won a World Cup race this
season when she arrived in Salt Lake City. She won three golds
and a silver. Each time an opponent was asked the secret to
Kostelic's success, she would point to her head.
Bode Miller came here as the Great American Hope, assessed the
pressure, then took a nap. Silver in the combined. Silver in
giant slalom. Yesterday he crashed in the second slalom run
because he refused to ski slowly and settle for another silver.
Between runs of the slalom fans clamored for his autograph. Bode
threw a smile and said, "After the second run, dude." He comes
away as famous as Koznick is forgotten.
I don't know what makes one athlete rise and another fall when a
life-altering moment is at hand. I only know this: The window
of Olympic opportunity is open only briefly and then slams shut.
There is no sadder sound at the Games. --Tim Layden
There is no such thing as destiny in these Games, else Michelle
Kwan would have won gold. She was deserving in her own way, and
it would have been a fitting and popular reward for unusual
perseverance. But as even her biggest fans would have to agree,
there is that element of surprise, and its value can hardly be
discounted in Olympic times. Actually, surprise is sort of the
whole point, isn't it?
Still sport likes a good story, and often enough, events seem
biased toward drama. Take Jim Shea Jr., only third at the U.S.
skeleton trials, who screamed down the ice this past week to
take the gold medal. Shea had been one of those Olympic
characters whose appeal was expected to last right up to his
performance but not beyond. Like the Jamaican bobsled team, for
example. You did your Jim Shea Jr. story-third-generation
Olympian-well in advance of disappointment.
And it was a good story. Grandfather Jack Shea won two gold
medals as a speed skater in the 1932 Olympics. Father Jim
competed in the 1964 Nordic combined and cross-country. Now Jim
Jr. was entered in the skeleton, that headfirst sled race that
had been absent the Games since 1948.
It was good enough to become an ad campaign, even, which was
astonishing when you think about it. Neither Shea nor skeleton
had enjoyed any profile until his family tree was discovered.
But there you have the power of novelty.
The story became even more compelling when Jack Shea died last
month in a car accident. He was 91 but healthy enough to star in
that phone commercial and to have planned another Olympic
visit-family reunion. So Jim Jr.'s little run down the mountain,
which would take less than a minute, was now invested with the
TV-ready twin pillars of melodrama-novelty and tragedy.
All he had to do to complete the story was compete. He had
already honored his lineage by appearing at the opening
ceremonies, reciting the athlete's oath, just as his grandfather
had 70 years before. There was, really, nothing more to do to
satisfy our interest.
Well, he could surprise us. In our preoccupation with his gene
pool, we overlooked the drive that got him here. It turns out
that Jim Shea had not been funded with anything more than DNA in
his Olympic quest and that all the exposure had come far too
late to do him any good, assuming he wanted a medal more than a
Before he was even that famous he had toured Europe on his own,
just trying to get better. When the U.S. team went home after
three races in 1997, he stayed for two more months, sleeping
bobsleds and barns, doing track maintenance to afford extra
runs, just surviving, getting better.
Still, coming into the Games, he was overshadowed even by
teammates Chris Soule and Lincoln DeWitt and was not expected to
be a factor in an event dominated by Swiss and Austrians. But
this was the one-day story, and surprise cooperated, with Shea
magically making up time at the end to win by all of
five-hundredths of a second.
When Shea finally gathered himself at the end, and with his
father weeping nearby, he pulled a picture of his grandfather
from inside his helmet and waved it in the softly falling snow.
It was not destiny, of course, because who can believe in that.
It was much better. --Richard Hoffer
This Was the Place
For me, the best moment of the 2002 Winter Games came every
evening about midnight and continued until sleep fell. The
streets of Salt Lake would grow quiet--cars gone, incessant
Olympic greeting from Alex Trebek switched off--and then the sound
would rise in the air and carry throughout the city. Rails
rumbling. Train whistles wailing. The sound of the West blowing
across the valley, washing the Games clean.
Remember: Atlanta was an abomination. The last time the U.S.
hosted an Olympics, in 1996, what had been a celebration of charm
in Barcelona in 1992 and Lillehammer in 1994 devolved into a
disorganized mess best remembered for a bomb left in a backpack.
Few came away from the Atlanta Games feeling anything but vaguely
abused, and it was valid to wonder if the U.S. could ever again
host a Games that didn't smell like a sales convention.
Salt Lake City, God bless her, couldn't pull that off in a
thousand tries. It puts on none of the cosmopolitan airs of its
more celebrated Western rivals, but then, Dallas and Denver try
so damned hard to be big time that you almost forget you've left
the East Coast behind. Salt Lake reminds you of nowhere else. The
hair is blond, the grin wide, but look close and you'll see grit
in those teeth; downtown had been buffed and polished for the
Olympics, but its essential roughness remained. A report released
last June and brought to light during the past fortnight revealed
that Utah ranks first in the U.S. in per capita use of Prozac.
Walk down the street, and you'll see an occasional flash of Gary
Gilmore right there beside Donny Osmond, a hint that all is not
Alexei Volin, a Russian cabinet spokesman, said on Friday, "What
we are witnessing in Salt Lake City can be described as wild
Olympics in the Wild West," and he was more right than he knew.
Beneath Salt Lake's overarching blandness, there's a subculture
bristling with energy. Music, gay clubs, nightlife: You're apt at
any moment to bump into a suspiciously hyper pack of paragliders
or a woman handing out cards for her escort service or a
laser-eyed zealot intent on saving your soul--all of them
overjoyed to talk to someone from out of town. When Robert Earl
Keen, who sings of the West better than anyone else alive, came
to Salt Lake's Zephyr Club last week, he sang about the wild
wind, and a packed room swayed, old and young drinking and
dancing without a bit of hostility in the air. A pair of American
lugers, Chris Thorpe and Clay Ives, reached up to place their
bronze medals around his neck, and Keen leaned down and grinned:
The modern cowboy had earned himself an Olympic prize.
"This is the place," Brigham Young said, and he was right then
and now. America needed a nice Olympics, but not a saccharine
one. It got an Olympics that was clean and polite but with a
mystery at its core; it got an Olympics that rolled up the
streets at night and then filled those streets with the loneliest
sound made by man. Here I come, the whistle cried through the
night. Goodbye. --S.L. Price
ON THE BLOCK
How much would you pay for a speed skate used by gold medalist
Dan Jansen at the 1994 Olympics? The skate, which sold for
$1,825 on eBay earlier this week, is among hundreds of items
being auctioned on the site by Olympic Aid, an international
humanitarian relief organization. Items will be available on the
site through March 16, with all proceeds going to Olympic Aid.
Among the items are a turtleneck and sunglasses worn by U.S.
aerialist Joe Pack (above) and a headband worn by Norway's
Kjetil Andre Aamodt during his gold medal runs in the Alpine
combined. Autographed items include ice skates signed by Tara
Lipinski, Michelle Kwan and Sarah Hughes; a ski signed by Bode
Miller; a Team Canada sweatshirt signed by figure skaters Jamie
Sale and David Pelletier; and an American flag signed by the
three generations of Sheas: skeleton gold medalist Jim Shea Jr.;
his father, Jim, a nordic skiier at the 1964 Games; and his late
grandfather Jack, speed skating champ at the 1932 Games. Jim Jr.
also donated the speed suit and shoes he wore while winning the
gold this week in Salt Lake. The outift will either go on eBay
later this month or be auctioned at a charity dinner. --Brian
For the Record
Yesterday's winners, notable results and a look at the overall
the medal stand
LEADERS [Gold] [Silver] [Bronze] TOTAL
Germany 12 16 7 35
Unites States 10 12 11 33
Norway 11 7 4 22
Russia 5 7 4 16
Canada 5 3 8 16
Austria 2 4 10 16
France 4 5 2 11
Switzerland 3 2 6 11
Italy 3 3 4 10
The Netherlands 3 5 0 8
China 2 2 4 8
Finland 4 2 1 7
Sweden 0 2 4 6
Croatia 3 1 0 4
South Korea 2 2 0 4
Estonia 1 0 2 3
Great Britain 1 0 2 3
Bulgaria 0 1 2 3
Australia 2 0 0 2
Czech Republic 1 0 1 2
[Gold] Jean-Pierre Vidal FRANCE 1:47.06
[Silver] Sebastien Amiez FRANCE 1:41.82
[Bronze] Alain Baxter GREAT BRITAIN 1:42.32
Men's 50-km Classical
[Gold] Johann Muehlegg SPAIN 2:06:05.9
[Silver] Mikhail Ivanov RUSSIA 2:06:20.8
[Bronze] Andrus Veerpalu ESTONIA 2:06:20.8
[Gold] GERMANY-2 3:07.51
[Silver] USA-1 3:07.81
[Bronze] USA-2 3:07.86
[Gold] Marc Gagnon CANADA 41.802 (OR)
[Silver] Jonathan Guilmette CANADA 41.994
[Bronze] Rusty Smith UNITED STATES 42.027
[Gold] Yang Yang (A) CHINA 1:36.391
[Silver] Ko Gi Hyun SOUTH KOREA 1:36.427
[Bronze] Yang Yang (S) CHINA 1:37008
Men's 5,000 Relay
[Gold] CANADA 6:51.579
[Silver] ITALY 6:56.327
[Bronze] CHINA 6:59.633
[Gold] Claudia Pechstein GERNIANY 6:46.91 (WR)
[Silver] Gretha Smit THE NETHERLANDS 5:49.22
[Bronze] Clara Hughes CANADA 6:53.53
Powered by Alexei Kovalev's two goals, Russia earned a bronze
medal in men's hockey with a 7-2 victory over Belarus. Maxim
Afinogenov and Pavel Bure also added goals for Russia. Canada
and the U.S. face off this afternoon at the E Center in the gold