After the Games, before the Games

The 19th Winter Olympics ended Sunday in Salt Lake City with a rousing finale to match the dignified splendor of the opening ceremonies 17 days before. In between came an avalanche of scintillating sport but also enough controversy to make their organizers and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) undoubtedly happy just to see them off and finally get some well-deserved rest. Maybe it’s a sign of the times that an event marked by dedicated advance planning, strict budgeting, disciplined organization, unsurpassed athleticism, and inspired personal stories could still be overshadowed (at least in the media) by scandals, bad sportsmanship, and accusations of bias, not least from the president of Russia. Much of the bad publicity (including arrests at a rowdy public beer party) came over the final weekend, which didn’t help. It was like guests at an all-night party who manage to keep their smiles intact until the early hours, but not until the break of dawn. It is still early to know how history will judge these Games; and perhaps, if that judgment is both harsh and general, it would even have a touch of divine justice, given that the Salt Lake bid ushered in a bribery scandal that rocked the IOC just a few years ago. Yet it is unfair to say they had it coming, because, by most accounts, the Games went exceptionally well. And the potential lessons for Athens 2004 crop up in some unexpected places. Ups and downs of 2002 The Games had plenty of ups and downs that had nothing to do with the ski-jump events that dominated the first days in the Utah mountains. Most of the controversy stemmed from two sources: nationalism, which was more pronounced than expected, and drugs, which could have been worse than it was. The Russians nearly pulled out of the closing ceremony, and the South Koreans left in a huff after one of their short-track skaters was disqualified. Two gold medalists, cross-country skiers Larisa Lazutina (of Russia) and Johann Muehlegg (of Spain, and before that Germany) were stripped of victory after testing positive for doping; yet they kept their medals, which will remain under a cloud of suspicion. A third skier, Olga Danilova, also tested positive but kept the medal she had won as well. The Russian Federation complained bitterly about the refereeing, especially after they lost a bitter hockey semi-final to the host nation, echoing their famous loss in 1980 to a more ragtag team of genuine American amateurs. The unlikely victory of American figure skater Sarah Hughes over Russia’s favored Irena Slutskaya added fuel to this feud, which some tried to liken to the Cold War years. Even the Americans’ extraordinary success, winning 34 total medals, was thought by some to be tainted by «home officiating.» That is a serious charge that warrants a closer look – though Germany still won the most medals and plucky Norway took more gold than the hosts did. The resentful undertone bore the hallmark of wider events: September 11, the ensuing war in Afghanistan, and perceptions abroad that the Americans’ go-it-alone attitude is uncomfortably triumphalist. Nobody said Olympic sports were gentle recreational pursuits, but the power and structure of sports federations ensures that competition and nationalist pressures extend well beyond the playing field. The biggest story concerned an athlete – alas a former one – now a (suspended) skating judge. France’s Marie-Reine Le Gougne was subject to relentless scrutiny after her controversial vote for the Russian figure-skating pair over the Canadian one; and, within days, the International Skating Union (ISU) granted an unprecedented second gold medal to the aggrieved Canadians. The story was complicated by her varied explanations, first saying the Russians had pressured her and later claiming the Canadians were at fault. Such pressure is common in clubby sports like ice skating. But this time it became very public, and the ISU risked much by changing the original results. Decisions can be reversed at leisure after the fact; but reversed decisions cannot be changed back without those involved losing credibility. Not the best precedent was set, even if it defused a brewing crisis. Good stuff, too For all its unfortunate context, this saga also says much about the newer, somewhat more open climate of the IOC and international sport. Fresh air is generally a good thing, even if (especially if) it exposes more unethical practices. As Arne Ljungquist, an IOC official, insisted in the doping cases: «We are on their heels,» and rather than hopelessly behind the times as frequently thought, the IOC acted swiftly even though the substances were so new they hadn’t even been banned yet. Exposure (within bounds) is particularly important in the tight world of presentation-heavy events, whether ice dancing and pairs in winter or rhythmic gymnastics and the Summer Games’ synchronized swimming. The Games’ dizzying pace hands both a cautionary and a hopeful note to the Athens organizers. The best organization in the world can’t prevent bad-tempered outbursts, drug scandals or other controversies from sullying the Games; but then, the organizers can’t always be blamed when things go wrong, as they will. Putting on a perfect Olympics is a pipedream; reasonable management of difficulties is a more feasible goal. Yet at Salt Lake, the IOC reportedly canceled its daily organizational briefings with five days still to go; something rather hard to envision for Athens in 2004. And maybe, as US Olympic Committee Chairman Sandy Baldwin asserted (with a whiff of irony?), a little controversy keeps the Games interesting. Within bounds, naturally. At any rate, the problems once more demonstrated that the Games are about a lot more than just their organization; they are mainly about the athletes themselves, a point repeatedly driven home by new IOC President Jacques Rogge, who stayed in the Olympic Village in a meaningful gesture toward a new generation, a new attitude and a new activism. And despite the rather sour ending, these Games were a celebration of varied athleticism, from genteel curling to hair-raising skeleton racing, enjoyable to all. A dumbfounded Aussie won his country’s first-ever Winter Games gold medal after those ahead of him all crashed out within sight of the finish line. Even a Brit won a skiing medal. But many favorites came through too. Few could fail to be impressed by Norwegian Ole Einar Bjorndalen’s sweep of four golds in the biathlon, which requires skiing for miles and then standing stock-still to shoot at tiny targets; or of Janica Kostelic’s four skiing medals, three of them gold, the first ever of any metal for small and troubled Croatia; or by the rewriting of the speed-skating record books, led by Germany’s Claudia Pechstein; or seeing 32-year-old Stephan Eberharter, the dominant men’s skier this season, open with a disappointing bronze, then take a silver, and finally win a richly earned gold, his first and probably last, in the men’s giant slalom. Even the ice-pairs controversy involved close scoring between four brilliant skaters; it’s not like anyone got the shaft on ice. The best often do come out on top. In that case, despite all the hand-wringing, all four did. The Salt Lake Games provided yet another Olympic standard against which to measure and be measured, for Turin in 2006 and for Athens 2004. We’re next.

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