The Great One stood in the bed of a pickup, holding up the Olympic flame against the rain. They drove him away from an opening ceremony defined by a torch malfunction, toward an outdoor cauldron that would spark controversy for being fenced off from the public. And critics would later complain that this mode of transportation was beneath Wayne Gretzky (below), Canada's most famous sportsman. But were they in the streets of downtown Vancouver to see the effect the Gretzkymobile had on the people? When they saw Wayne, their instant reaction was to run to him—and I ran with them, having stumbled upon the white Chevy Tahoe after emerging from a back door of BC Place. People hopped off sidewalks and sprinted in the road; they poured out of bars to join the pursuit; they yelled, "Get Gretzky!" and took blurry images of him with their cellphones. A full-on mob trailed the truck and its police escorts by the time the torch approached Coal Harbor, where Wayne would light the cauldron. The revelers stayed for a fireworks display, and buoyed by national pride (and alcohol), they broke into impromptu renditions of O Canada. They were drenched, and I was drenched, but no one seemed to care. So much money and time and effort had gone into the spectacle of the opening ceremonies, but this, for me, is when the Games truly began.
Bode Miller takes great joy in zigging and zagging his way through ski-race analysis. It's not about victory; it's about performance. It's not about results; it's about innovation. It's not about history; it's about right now. I despise the Olympics; I'm inspired by the Olympics. The extent to which he truly believes all this is anybody's guess, and after a while—say, a decade, which is about how long I've been writing about him—it's pointless to try to figure it out. As soon as you think you understand, Miller is going to tell you that you have it all wrong.
March 8, 2010
But the Olympic Games are not a debate. Score is kept, and medals are awarded. On Feb. 21, Miller was in seventh place after the downhill portion of the super combined event. He needed a perfect slalom run to win the race, and he hadn't skied a perfect slalom run in more than five years. He went full gas, as they say in ski racing, assaulting every gate from the straightest possible line. With every turn, you expected him to blow out in a yard-sale crash, wet snow flying. But Miller didn't blow out. He killed it. He went into first place, and nobody could beat him, so he won the first Olympic gold medal of his career. I get what he means when he says medals don't always fully represent performance. The previous night I had held Lindsey Vonn's downhill gold medal in my right hand. It was heavy, but still, I suggested to Thomas Vonn, Lindsey's husband, it doesn't accurately reflect everything that went into winning it. "It doesn't," he said. True to form, Miller would explain afterward that his slalom run was awesome because of the great skiing. It wasn't awesome because he won a gold medal.
O.K., but it was for me.
THROUGH THE PAIN
You just received your Olympic medal. Go on, smile. Give a beauty queen wave. Slovene cross-country skier Petra Majdic could hardly do either. She simply left the podium—in a wheelchair. To win her bronze in the women's 1.4-km classic sprint, Majdic had to fight through more than just four grueling races on Feb. 17. During warmups 20 minutes before her first race, she slid off a curve and fell 10 feet into a craggy creek bed. After Olympic volunteers came to the aid of Majdic, who was shrieking in pain, a doctor briefly examined her and told her that no bones were broken. That was good enough for Majdic, though not accurate. When she was finally thoroughly examined, doctors found five broken ribs and a collapsed lung.
Majdic, a gold medal favorite before the accident, placed only 19th in the first round, but she gained strength with every race—even as she lay in the snow screaming in agony at the conclusion of each one. "I kept telling her, 'It's just pain, you've worked 22 years for this,'" Matej Tu≈°ak, Majdic's sports psychologist, told me several days later. Furiously double-poling in the final, Majdic, who was named Slovenia's most popular citizen—not athlete—of 2009, broke away from Sweden's Anna Olsson on the last straight to earn the bronze, which, given what she had been through, she likened to "gold with diamonds in it." The power of the Olympic stage to inspire athletes to the unimaginable was never more obvious than when a limp Majdic was carried by medics from the Whistler Olympic Park course after the final. "The desire was simply that strong," she said.
At some point these Olympics turned into a northwestern version of Wallace & Gromit in the Wrong Trousers.
Sliding past reporters during a training session the day before his snowboardcross event, American rider Nate Holland yelled, "You guys should ask the Canadians why they're wearing such tight pants." Since he mentioned it, the trousers of the host country's riders did seem more snug than the norm in this antiestablishment sport. Not emo tight, not Elvis tight, but more formfitting than anyone else's on Cypress Mountain.
The decision to tighten Team Canada's trou was in keeping with its thrust, if you will, to Own the Podium. "If you have any experience in wind tunnels," said Canadian rider Drew Neilson, "anything that flaps around, catching wind, slows you down." But in a sport known for valuing its "core" principles over other, more bourgeois concerns—like winning, for instance (see: Jacobellis, Lindsey)—tight pants turned heads.
Meanwhile at the curling venue, the scandalously strident argyle trousers of the Norwegian men's team (above) served as a symbol of the change overtaking this sleepy, etiquette-bound sport. Where curlers had been accustomed to sliding their stones in near silence, the crowds filling the Olympic Centre mortified purists by breaking into spontaneous song, clanging cowbells and doing "the wave." They were almost as loud as Norway's preposterous pantaloons — a look that worked for the Norwegians, who rocked those party pants all the way to the gold medal game against highly favored Canada.
REASON TO BELIEVE
The question has nagged at me through seven Olympics: What in the end are the Games for? The answer came from a woman hiding in plain sight, carrying the flag of the host country into the opening ceremonies, and she confided it to me two days later, after skating her first event of the Games, the 3,000 meters. The roar of the crowd in the Richmond Oval, Clara Hughes said, "made me want to dance on my blades."
So then: The point of the Games rests in how it connects people to people. The way fellow Canadians provided Hughes—who finished fifth—with that sonic fuel was but one example. As a teenager she had lurked in parking-garage stairwells in Winnipeg, getting wasted with friends, until in 1988 she watched Canada's Gaétan Boucher, an Olympic speedskater who seemed to be calling to her. Hughes learned to skate, then bike, eventually becoming the only Olympian to win multiple medals at both Winter and Summer Games. Realizing that others might follow her lead, she donated thousands of dollars to Right to Play, which uses sport to empower the poor.
Last week Hughes (below) checked out a few of the Canadians she had led into these Games, and took away something from each: from skeleton rider Jon Montgomery, his sheer love for the sport; from ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the ability to tap deep to find one's best; from figure skater Joannie Rochette, competing right after her mother's death, the realization, Hughes said, that "if she could do that, with all that pain and sorrow," surely Clara herself could deliver in her final event after two decades of competition, the 5,000 meters.
But contentment came not from the bronze medal she won in her finale. It came instead, at 37, from the seven minutes on the ice during which, she said, "I brought my very best." As if to rebuke the medal-grubbing premise of Canada's Own the Podium program, she pronounced it impossible to quantify "all those young people out there, learning and being inspired." That would be Hughes, even as she left, tracing one last interlocking circle.
WHITE ON WHITE
Snow was relatively sparse in Vancouver during the Olympics, but the city and its environs were covered in a blanket of white nonetheless. The Winter Games are overwhelmingly populated by Caucasians, which made an African-American like me feel not so much like a minority, but a rarity.
That feeling was fed by the way a few spectators, though unfailingly friendly, regarded me as another sight to see on their Olympic tour. Sometimes they were disappointed that I wasn't as exotic a find as they had expected. In Starbucks one morning a woman in a red Canada sweatshirt asked me hopefully if I was the Jamaican skier she had heard about. Her face fell when she discovered I was just another guy from the States. A couple from Great Britain didn't care that I wasn't the genuine article—they asked me to pose for a picture in front of Jamaican House, a restaurant in Whistler, anyway.
A FULL KRAMER
Dutch speedskater Sven Kramer was leading the 25-lap 10,000 meters (a race he had not lost in four years) when his coach, Gerard Kemkers, mistakenly shouted for him to switch from the outer lane to the inner one. Kramer complied, and after finishing four seconds ahead of his closest competitor, he raised his arms in triumph. But when he next passed Kemkers on his cool-down lap, his coach told him he'd been disqualified for a lane violation. In his reflexive anger, Kramer, who had won the 5,000 a week earlier, flung his goggles then said he couldn't "do anything else" but blame Kemkers. The disaster sprawled across headlines in the skating-mad Netherlands, knocking the resignation of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende off the front page. One Dutch journalist said that a pure blunder would from here forth be known as "a Kramer or a Kremkers."
In the calm of passing hours, Kramer chilled out and decided he would keep skating with his coach. "I don't want to blame anyone," he said. "These things can happen to the best."
A FAIR TRADE
For my 13th birthday, I was promised a trip to the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics. This was like the childhood pony: a swell thing to say but something that never was even remotely possible. Divorce. Changed circumstances. I listened to Bob Schul win the 5,000 meters on the radio.
For my daughter's 21st birthday, I promised her a trip to the Olympics. And for three days in the first week of the Games, she had her childhood pony. She made the trek up to Cypress Mountain to see snowboard cross, but I suspect she did that to propitiate the gods of winter; she was much happier indoors, watching the men in Hockey Place. She is a Russophile. She never bothered trying to get tickets for Canada or Team USA, her two countries, but went as hard at Alex Ovechkin as Ovechkin went at Jaromir Jagr in the preliminary-round game against the Czechs. Of her four games, Russia played two.
Maybe she will come to understand the birthday gift was meant as much for me as for her. Rather than a rheumy view shaped by what are now 16 Olympics, I could refract Vancouver 2010 through the prism of my road buddy. She stepped off the plane in a long-sleeved T-shirt emblazoned with the rings. She traded for an Albanian Olympic pin, which couldn't have been more precious to her if it had been encrusted with rubies. She chanted with Slovak fans. She told me how to say "Sit down" in Russian to a flag-waving family that was obscuring the view from the press seats. For her, the five rings composed a whirling merry-go-round and not the world's most successful commercial symbol. She sprinkled pixie dust on Vancouver. I'm guessing hers was closer to Pierre de Coubertin's original vision of the Olympics than any NBC soft-focus profile.
The hockey tournament, of course, was spectacular. But that gold-medal match was no match for three Olympic days when my grown-up girl helped keep a promise made to a boy a long time ago.