We asked the Sports Illustrated writers who covered the Turin Olympics to leave us with their indelible memory of the Games.
Dismal crowds, sour Americans, gray skies down in the city: These Olympics were not easy to love. You could make a film about the Turin Winter Games and call it Crash; from Apolo Ohno to Lindsey Kildow to Lindsey Jacobellis to Sasha Cohen to the couples therapy known as ice dancing (that killing glare sent by the dropped Italian woman, Barbara Fusar Poli, toward her quailing partner will live on as the scary-comic face of Turin, not to mention male-female relations, for years), too many names and too many events landed with a thud. The 2006 Games lacked the charm of Lillehamer, the quirky buzz of Salt Lake City. "Passion Lives Here" insisted the banners tacked up everywhere, but you kept waiting for it to surface. You kept thinking it might never.
Then, last Wednesday, I took a cab over to the Torino Esposizioni and happened upon one of the greatest hockey games ever. By this I don't mean high quality, or drama, or importance, though the Olympic quarterfinal between Canada and Russia had all of that. What I mean is that at any other time and place, what happened there wouldn't have been possible. Canada against Russia in men's hockey is one of the world's great rivalries, a conflict spiced by millionaire superstars and the revered heritage of two massive nations, a game suitable for an arena of 40,000. The Esposizioni? For names like Martin Brodeur, Alexei Kovalev, Joe Sakic and Ilya Kovalchuk, for the agony of Wayne Gretzky, for the redemption of Red pride, the Italians offered up an overturned cat-food can with a capacity of 7,130, a low ceiling, no luxury boxes and benches for seats. The best players in the world, the sexiest showdown of these Olympics -- in a barn you might find on the Saskatchewan plains. Or the steppes of Odessa.
I walked in. The game had already begun. Coming upon it full force was like opening the door of a blast furnace, but this time the heat was the noise, hitting your face with a rush. Everywhere, the red maple leaf of Canada, the red-white-and-royal-blue flags of Russia, waved in the stands, mixing together seamlessly. I happened upon SI's venerable Olympics expert, Brian Cazeneuve, and tapped him on the shoulder. He turned to look up at me, face alight with joy, and saw my mouth hanging open. He had been waiting, too. "Passion lives here!" he shouted. I stood but six inches away. I could barely hear him.
For the first time, then, the Italian Olympics felt like an Italian soccer game. "Canada is back to collect gold" read one fan's sign. Another in Cyrillic flashed one recognizable word: Mockba. It didn't matter. There's something liberating in watching a great game in which you have no rooting interest, no emotional stake. The score stood at 0-0 after the first period, and I sat sipping a cup of hot chocolate, thick as soup, and munching on a box of something called "100% Cipster, Grandiose da Croccare (Extraordinary to Crunch!). With the tension in the place, the noise level, ratcheting higher with each minute, I considered the bad karma attending Canada's team -- Gretzky and the odd gambling probe, ToddBertuzzi's assault conviction, that wrenching car-crash tale of Dany Heatley -- and weighed it against Russia's joy. In Turin, they seemed to be the one delegation intent on having a blast.
I decided to focus on the Bear's budding star, Alexander Ovechkin, savior for my home team in Washington. Canada struggled, flailed; the Russian fans overtook the Canadians. All you could hear, over and over: Rus-SIA! Rus-SIA! The second period ended, scoreless too. Crunch, crunch.
The last Olympics, the last few years, had been Canada's time. Not anymore. Ovechkin, so fast and showing that unteachable sense, that innate knowledge of timing and movement, kept worming his way into position. A Canadian writer next to me gasped, "He just has this way of always finding space." Ninety seconds into the third period, Ovechkin popped the puck past the impeccable Brodeur. Ovechkin is 20, a good age to become huge. He lifted his stick, highstepped along the boards, almost bowled over a ref. The clamour, the shouting, the chants ricocheted off the walls, the ceiling, pride enveloping the tiny place. Rus-SIA!
It wasn't over then, but it was. Russia scored again near the end, Ovechkin in the penalty box now, and he turned to the Canadians behind him and waved with his gloves bye-bye. He turned back to the action, began hopping up and down behind the plexiglass like a kid at a toy-store window, desperate to get his hands on what's inside. The horn sounded. Canada was done, Russia was back, the Russian fans chanted and roared. I hurried down to see former high-jumper Sergei Bubka, who had made his name with the Soviet Union but is now the head of Ukraine's Olympic committee. But this wasn't a night for that kind of distinction. A huge man with glassy eyes embraced Bubka, then zeroed in on me.
"He is not Ukrainian," he said of Bubka. "He is Russian!"
There were no fights between rival fans, no hostility. The crowd moved into the street. I met up with Cazeneuve, and we walked down the damp sidewalk until we came upon a group posing for a picture. A Canadian man held the camera. Four or five fans crushed in around Vlatislav Tretiak, the greatest Soviet goalie, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, the man who helped make the legendary Summit Series of 1972 a touchstone for every Canada-Russia game since. Tretiak grinned, the camera flashed. "Thanks, Mr. Tretiak," said the Canadian man, and he meant it.
I know how he felt. I kept on walking, and for the rest of the night I wanted to thank everyone, too.