At the Winter Olympics an all-access pass is called an E
credential, and it's rather like the old E ticket at Disneyland,
which granted entry to all the best rides. The 2002 Games pass,
emblazoned with a black E, is roughly the size of the golden
ticket tucked into a Willy Wonka bar. Remember? It allowed the
lucky holder to tour the chocolate factory. I have a golden
ticket--an E credential at the Olympics--and a week to use it. Its
privileges are exactly as Wonka sang: If you want to view
paradise/Simply look around and view it/Anything you want to, do
it/Want to change the world?/There's nothing to it.
So we are standing, at a private party in a Salt Lake City club
called Splash, before a chocolate waterfall. Jim Craig, Marion
Jones and Danny Kass--Olympians past and present, summer and
winter--marvel at the machine that produces it, which appears to
have sprung from Wonka's own mechanical pencil. The confectionary
contraption, about the size of the Stanley Cup, issues an endless
cascade of liquid chocolate, into which partygoers dip
marshmallows and strawberries impaled on skewers. "It's like
something you'd see at Caligula's bar mitzvah," says a dumbstruck
diner. He's right, of course, and already it's clear: This week
with the golden ticket will be unlike any other. So: Make a
wish/Count to three/Come with me....
The Winter Olympics, like Willy Wonka's and Walt Disney's
kingdoms, belong to the young. So our E ticket takes us first to
the halfpipe final in Park City. There, a P.A. announcer
introduces the sport's first star, Terry Kidwell, as "the
grandfather of snowboarding." He is 38. An emcee asks a
12-year-old in the grandstand if he'd like tickets to tonight's
Foo Fighters concert, which will follow the medals ceremony in
Salt Lake City. The 12-year-old shouts into the microphone, "That
would be sick!"
Six hours later the boy is there, at the Olympic Medals Plaza in
Salt Lake City, when the American snowboarders who swept the
halfpipe shamble onstage. Kass, hair in his eyes, hands sucked
into the sleeves of his jacket, looks like a child dressed
against his will for Sunday school. For five minutes the New
Jersey native stands stoically in the spotlight with his
teammates. Then at 9 p.m. Mountain time, before 20,000 spectators
and untold millions watching on television, he dips his head to
accept a silver medal, and a magical thing happens: The glint on
his chest is matched, unmistakably, by one in his eyes.
February 25, 2002
Picabo Street can see it from 44 miles away, while watching
television near the Snowbasin ski resort. "Some of them are
little tough guys who tried to act like it wasn't their childhood
dream to win an Olympic medal," says Street of the snowboarders,
"but even the toughest one, the one from New Jersey, got a little
tear in his eye for a second. That's what the Olympics are about:
making childhood dreams come true."
Evidently so, for the medals podium now mechanically slides from
the stage, and in the snowboarders' place stand the Foo Fighters.
The band's lead singer is 33-year-old Dave Grohl, the former
drummer for Nirvana, the biggest rock and roll band of his
generation, and still Grohl professes honor and astonishment to
be playing the Olympics. "I want to dedicate this next song to
Jim Craig, goalie on the 1980 Olympic hockey team," he says.
"When I was a kid, that guy was my hero, man. I swear to God. I
talked to him on the phone today, and that was just the coolest
thing in the world." Grohl adjusts his guitar and says again, "I
swear to God."
Then he plays the first chord of the song My Hero, and the sea of
people in front of the stage begins to pogo up and down for
warmth. But it apparently doesn't work, because everywhere one
looks, goose pimples are in evidence.
They're also in evidence the next morning at Snowbasin, site of
the men's and women's downhill courses, two narrow slopes that
come together at the finish, a white wishbone cut into the
mountainside. The men's course is pitched at 38 degrees. The
stairs in your house are pitched at 27. To get a feel for the
downhill, simply steepen your staircase by almost half, coat it
in ice, increase its length a thousandfold, insert hairpin turns
and--this part is crucial--remove the stairs. Then try skiing down
On this day the women are traveling at interstate speed, flying
40 yards in the air off Lindh's Launch, farther than some
professionals can kick a football on Sunday. Petra Haltmayr of
Germany is skiing only nine days after dislocating her right
shoulder. Every woman removes her helmet at the finish to reveal
perfect teeth and uncanny eloquence. The top American finisher--in
11th place--is baby-faced Jonna Mendes, of Heavenly, Calif., who
holds a giant novelty rose in her hand. "I'm only 22," she says,
"and I've already had plenty of injuries and surgeries. But it's
worth it. Because how could you not want to be out here doing
Picabo Street is only eight years older than Mendes, but they
have been dog years. After winning gold at the 1998 Games, she
had a horrific crash in which she tore up her right knee and
broke her left leg. However, during the last three years she has
competed again, mostly in Europe, far from her hometown of
Triumph, Idaho. Says Street, "My parents used to wait for a 3
a.m. phone call that said, 'I won again, Dad!' But in the last
three years it's been, 'I'm done, and I'm safe.'"
After safely negotiating the downhill on this day--finishing in
16th place--Street announces her retirement. In an instant her
youth has been returned to her. "I look forward to sliding around
on skis, rather than making the perfect turns," she says. She
smiles and says that from this day forward, "I'll always be a
child on my skis. It will be a way of staying young forever."
If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it: In
Park City two members of the Iranian ski team are giddily
camcording one another in front of a chalet. It is hard to think
of them, in their black-and-purple Mizuno ski jackets, as an Axis
of Evil. Perhaps when their competition is over, they'll
patronize Salt Lake City's Dead Goat Saloon, whose urinals each
contain a plastic screen stenciled with the likeness of Osama bin
Laden and the salutary message STOP TERRORISM.
Imagine there's no countries. It isn't hard to do at the
Olympics, especially in the grandstand at the 120-meter ski
jumping final, at which Imagine plays on the public address
system. What is it about this sport, about these men soaring in
space suits, that so captivates the imagination? On his second
jump Simon Ammann of Switzerland, his skis in a chevron--like
geese flying in formation backward--looks as though he'll never
alight. When he says afterward, "I never would have believed this
could be possible," it isn't clear if he's referring to his gold
medal or the physics of the 133-meter jump that won it for him.
Ammann receives his gold hours later at the Medals Plaza. He is
followed onstage by Barenaked Ladies (and offstage, no doubt, by
barenaked ladies), whose surprise guests tonight are fellow
Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, the wronged pair of
pairs skaters, whose Lutzes and Axels have been replayed
endlessly all week on TV in Zapruder-like slow motion. "We'd like
to congratulate them for the tremendous class and dignity with
which they handled the controversy," says BNL singer Ed
Robertson, who wears only a banjo and a Canada speed skating suit
that looks like sausage casing. "Because when we lost the Grammy
to Brian Setzer, we didn't handle it well at all. We were like,
'Fix! He sucks!'"
Speaking of barenaked Canadians, Francois Gagnon is a
sportswriter for Le Soleil, a Quebec City newspaper. After a late
night out, Gagnon returns to his hotel room in suburban Salt Lake
City. Unable to sleep, he rises from bed, opens his door and
stoops to retrieve the complimentary newspaper lying there like a
doormat. As he does so, the scribe hears a dismaying click. The
door has closed, and locked, behind him. Francois Gagnon is
standing in the hallway of the Crystal Inn, in Murray, Utah,
stark naked at three o'clock in the morning. So he wraps USA
Today around him like a bath towel and reports his problem to the
desk clerk, who escorts him back to the room and opens the door.
Ten minutes later, according to Gagnon, there is a knock on his
door: the police. If he doesn't check out, they may charge him
with indecent exposure. Gagnon complies, but not before telling a
policeman, "Good thing it was a broadsheet and not a tabloid."
At the Winter Olympics one gets the most out of life, to say
nothing of the Life section of USA Today. Which is how it happens
that early in the morning, Dutch speed skater Gianni Romme is
photographed--for a Netherlands newspaper--naked at the speed
skating start line, inside the Utah Olympic Oval. In these Winter
Games of Wonka and Lennon, some people nevertheless leave nothing
to the imagination.
We'll begin with a spin/Traveling in the world of my
creation/What we'll see will defy explanation. Canadian speed
skater Catriona LeMay Doan is married, preposterously, to a
Zamboni driver. Bart Doan is also a rodeo cowboy, and when his
wife wins the 500-meter final, she skates a victory lap in his
black ten-gallon hat. The night before her big race, LeMay Doan
confesses, she was a basket case. "It was," she says, "like I was
12 again." Reverting to childhood: Picabo Street, Dave Grohl and
Danny Kass know the feeling.
Punching our golden ticket at the aerials skiing is Guo Xin Xin,
a tiny Chinese woman attempting to land--on skis--a twisting triple
somersault off a jump that is three times as tall as she is. Xin
Xin, alas, makes a quarter turn too many and falls, from the sky,
flat on her back. Lying there in her helmet and goggles, she
resembles the victim of a skydiving accident. But suddenly--and to
great applause--Xin Xin stands, and then she does something even
more remarkable: She takes her second jump, another attempt at a
triple somersault. She lands it, though only by the hair of her
Xinny Xin Xin.
Among Xin Xin's colleagues on the Chinese Olympic team are two of
the world's finest female short-track speed skaters, Yang Yang
and Yang Yang. To help Western journalists distinguish between
them, Chinese officials have designated them Yang Yang (A) and
Yang Yang (S). Yang Yang (A) was called, for a time, Yang Yang
(L), for Large, though she is precisely the same size as Yang
Yang (S), for Small. When Yang Yang (L) objected to her nominal
inflation, she was christened Yang Yang (A), which doesn't stand
for anything, or--for that matter--Anything.
Implausible, yes, but then who would have believed--only a week
ago--in chocolate waterfalls? "Skiing is all about balance," long
shot Carole Montillet of France said after winning the women's
downhill. So is life. Only four months ago Montillet's friend and
teammate Regine Cavagnoud was killed after colliding with a coach
on an Alpine run. Montillet was at the scene of the accident, and
for weeks after she was, in her words, "fed up" with the world.
In recent days, however, for reasons she chose to keep private,
Montillet had found her equilibrium restored. "Now I'm a very
happy person," she said upon punching her own golden ticket in
Utah. "I feel I have a full life." Not a single skier expressed
disappointment at having lost to her, given all that Montillet
had gained. "If you're paying attention," said Street, "you see
God's hand in this."
Such yin and yang--or yin and Yang Yang--make sports ceaselessly
interesting. In the Olympics there really are world-class
athletes from Heavenly and Triumph, and several times a day,
every day, someone is realizing a childhood dream.
All it takes is imagination. Imagine: Twenty-two years ago, when
the U.S. hockey team played the Soviets in Lake Placid, the two
nations were engaged, eternally, it seemed, in a game of nuclear
chicken. The Olympic teams, too, were sinister strangers to each
other. Today the Russians are little more--or less--than our
"economic partners," as U.S. defenseman Brian Rafalski puts it.
Almost all of the players are colleagues in the NHL. Imagine.
Evil Empire to Economic Partner, in only two decades.
Our week with the golden ticket, the E credential, expires at
midnight Mountain time this evening, and--as luck would have it--so
does the U.S.-Russia hockey game. It ends, aptly, in a 2-2 tie,
and all about the arena fans benignly fly the flags of both
nations. It is an astonishing sight. Simply look around and view
Want to change the world? There's nothing to it.
At Snowbasin the women downhillers are traveling at interstate
speed, flying 40 yards in the air off Lindh's Launch.
At the Medals Plaza Ammann is followed onstage by Barenaked
Ladies (and offstage, no doubt, by barenaked ladies).
At the Games there really are athletes from Heavenly and Triumph,
and every day someone is realizing a childhood dream.