The tunnel that leads to your seat at the Delta Center--there's
a reason it's called a vomitorium. When Sarah Hughes finished
her free skate last Thursday, those tunnels and seats belched
forth a rain of roses, a Biblical plague of plush toys, a
Day-Glo green football. A mass suicide of teddy bears leapt
majestically from the third deck, the crowd coughing up
everything save Stanley Cup octopi. All the while, in every
vomitorium, uniformed arena staff stood in silhouette and
applauded along with the paying throng. If that applause was, as
the cliche goes, the sonic equivalent of a jet engine at
takeoff, it was only appropriate. For the arena had felt, before
this catharsis, as palpably pressurized as any airplane cabin.
The Olympics have made biennial bulimics of all of us. We binge
(on games) and purge (our feelings) and suffer, throughout the
17 days, from emotional exhaustion. Every hour or so in Salt
Lake City we witnessed genuine joy, anguish, inspiration and
despair--often in a single athlete. After the men's 1,500,
Korean short-track skater Kim Dong-Sung went from gilded to
jilted. One second he was waving his nation's flag, the next he
was using it for an underhanded javelin toss after being
disqualified. Of course, there is always a second side of the
seesaw, and on this sat Apolo Anton Ohno of the U.S., his mood
swinging in inverse relation to Kim's.
More often than not, though, the Games are less a seesaw or
roller coaster than a bungee jump. There were no soft
undulations to ease the transition from emotional highs to lows
and back again. Three hours before Hughes skated so rapturously,
Russian Olympic committee president Leonid Tyagachev raged
against "asthmatics" and other anti-Russian conspirators. The
next day the U.S. beat Russia in a men's hockey semifinal that
left spectators and players alike agog with overstimulation.
"We've become children," said U.S. forward Doug Weight. "We're
The photographic negative of giddy had been on view days earlier
in the same arena, at the U.S.-Germany hockey quarterfinal. A
German journalist seated on press row when the Americans went up
1-0 rose from his seat, raised his hands and--neck veins
bulging--flipped double birds at the celebrating Yanks. With
each successive U.S. goal in a 5-0 game, the German journo's
gestures waned in effusiveness, like some malevolent windup toy
losing its energy.
March 4, 2002
Such devotion to emotion is difficult to sustain. In the same
hockey game, when John LeClair had a tooth knocked out by a
German high stick, the U.S. forward calmly picked it up off the
ice and moved on. All week it went like that--players having
their faces pressed against the glass, like specimens on a
microscope slide, and the crowd looking on unfazed, as if each
flattened face were nothing more sinister than a suction-cup
Garfield doll in a car window. We were drained.
Athletes often describe themselves as emotionally drained, and
this was almost literally the case countless times at these
Olympics, such as when women's bobsled gold medalist Vonetta
Flowers or figure skating bronze medalist Michelle Kwan
threatened to tap out their tear ducts entirely. You could
scarcely attend an event without seeing an athlete whose liver
was just implanted, whose boyfriend was recently murdered or who
was simply landing a triple-triple in an atmosphere so intensely
gag-inducing that Joe Montana or Michael Jordan might well have
required the Heimlich.
So it was that--even after the Games had ended--my every nerve
ending was still humming, vibrating like a tuning fork. It is the
full-body equivalent of a ringing in the ears, the best souvenir
of the Salt Lake Olympics.
For the most part Salt Lake City was a wonderful host for the
Games, and--in the international spirit of the Olympics--I idly
typed that phrase ("Salt Lake City was a wonderful host for the
Games") into an Internet translator. I first had the sentence
translated from English to German and then back into English:
"The city of salt lake was a wonderful landlord for the play."
That phrase was then translated into Spanish and back to
English:"The lake of the salt was a wonderful skin of the
proprietor." That phrase was translated into French and back to
English:"The lake of the salt states a marvelous skin." Finally,
that phrase was translated into Portuguese and back to
English:"The lake of the salt indicates a wonderful skin."
All you had to do was look at your arms--pebbled like a
basketball, with goose pimples--to know that it was true. For 17
days the lake of the salt really did do wonders for the skin.