Three writers reflect on Olympic opportunity, unexpected glory and the spirit of Salt Lake
Once in a Lifetime
One chance, every four years. That's the thought I haven't been able to shake for two weeks now. It is a central element of sports that the ratio of preparation to performance will always be enormous. Thousands of jump shots taken each day. Hundreds of miles run in the mountains. For a few games or a few races. But the Olympics are uniquely cruel.
Five weeks ago I sat with U.S. skier Kristina Koznick in the bar of a modest hotel in a tiny village high in the Austrian Alps. She is a delightful person: smart, dedicated and tough enough to leave the U.S. ski team to train on her own for the past two seasons, at a cost of more than $250,000 a year. She is also one of the best slalom skiers in the world, yet without an Olympic medal she is largely anonymous in her own country and destined to struggle financially.
With this knowledge tucked away in her mind, she skied the Olympic slalom Wednesday, slashing down the face of a Deer Valley run called Know You Don't through wet, blinding snow. Koz -- that's what everybody calls her -- skied terrifically well until losing both edges and crashing four gates from the bottom. Four gates, maybe 50 yards.
She lay on her side for a moment, her helmet stuffed into the soft snow. Had she rolled a quarter-turn, she could have spread her arms and legs and made a beautiful snow angel. Instead, she was struck by a terrible reality: "I don't want to wait for Torino." Imagine, she is lying in the snow, a four-year dream killed in an instant, and already she is dreading the next four-year wait.
She has not been alone among U.S. skiers in need of buzz. Sarah Schleper skied out of a binding minutes after Koznick's crash in the slalom. Daron Rahlves, who won a spectacularly improbable world title in Super G last year in Austria, was never a threat in the downhill or Super G. Erik Schlopy rescued himself from the obscurity of the pro ski tour, finished third in the World Cup giant slalom standings last season and then crashed in the Olympic GS.
For all of them the Games were the biggest stage of their lives. And all of them leave Salt Lake City with little more than memories and a blue beret.
Yet, there are others who inhale the pressure and grow stronger. Janica Kostelic of Croatia hadn't won a World Cup race this season when she arrived in Salt Lake City. She won three golds and a silver. Each time an opponent was asked the secret to Kostelic's success, she would point to her head.
Bode Miller came here as the Great American Hope, assessed the pressure, then took a nap. Silver in the combined. Silver in giant slalom. Yesterday he crashed in the second slalom run because he refused to ski slowly and settle for another silver. Between runs of the slalom fans clamored for his autograph. Bode threw a smile and said, "After the second run, dude." He comes away as famous as Koznick is forgotten.
I don't know what makes one athlete rise and another fall when a life-altering moment is at hand. I only know this: The window of Olympic opportunity is open only briefly and then slams shut. There is no sadder sound at the Games.
There is no such thing as destiny in these Games, else Michelle Kwan would have won gold. She was deserving in her own way, and it would have been a fitting and popular reward for unusual perseverance. But as even her biggest fans would have to agree, there is that element of surprise, and its value can hardly be discounted in Olympic times. Actually, surprise is sort of the whole point, isn't it?
Still sport likes a good story and, often enough, events seem biased toward drama. Take Jim Shea Jr., only third at the U.S. skeleton trials, who screamed down the ice this past week to take the gold medal. Shea had been one of those Olympic characters whose appeal was expected to last right up to his performance but not beyond. Like the Jamaican bobsled team, for example. You did your Jim Shea Jr. story -- third-generation Olympian -- well in advance of disappointment.
And it was a good story. Grandfather Jack Shea won two gold medals as a speed skater in the 1932 Olympics. Father Jim competed in the 1964 Nordic combined and cross-country. Now Jim Jr. was entered in the skeleton, that headfirst sled race that had been absent the Games since 1948.
It was good enough to become an ad campaign, even, which was astonishing when you think about it. Neither Shea nor skeleton had enjoyed any profile until his family tree was discovered. But there you have the power of novelty.
The story became even more compelling when Jack Shea died last month in a car accident. He was 91 but healthy enough to star in that phone commercial and to have planned another Olympic visit -- family reunion. So Jim Jr.'s little run down the mountain, which would take less than a minute, was now invested with the TV-ready twin pillars of melodrama -- novelty and tragedy.
All he had to do to complete the story was compete. He had already honored his lineage by appearing at the opening ceremonies, reciting the athlete's oath, just as his grandfather had 70 years before. There was, really, nothing more to do to satisfy our interest.
Well, he could surprise us. In our preoccupation with his gene pool, we overlooked the drive that got him here. It turns out that Jim Shea had not been funded with anything more than DNA in his Olympic quest and that all the exposure had come far too late to do him any good, assuming he wanted a medal more than a 30-second spot.
Before he was even that famous he had toured Europe on his own, just trying to get better. When the U.S. team went home after three races in 1997 he stayed for two more months, sleeping in bobsleds and barns, doing track maintenance to afford extra runs, just surviving, getting better.
Still, coming into the Games, he was overshadowed even by teammates Chris Soule and Lincoln DeWitt and was not expected to be a factor in an event dominated by Swiss and Austrians. But this was the one-day story, and surprise cooperated, with Shea magically making up time at the end to win by all of five-hundredths of a second.
When Shea finally gathered himself at the end, and with his father weeping nearby, he pulled a picture of his grandfather from inside his helmet and waved it in the softly falling snow. It was not destiny, of course, because who can believe in that. It was much better.
This Was the Place
For me, the best moment of the 2002 Winter Games came every evening about midnight and continued until sleep fell. The streets of Salt Lake would grow quiet -- cars gone, incessant Olympic greeting from Alex Trebek switched off -- and then the sound would rise in the air and carry throughout the city. Rails rumbling. Train whistles wailing. The sound of the West blowing across the valley, washing the Games clean.
Remember: Atlanta was an abomination. The last time the U.S. hosted an Olympics, in 1996, what had been a celebration of charm in Barcelona in 1992 and Lillehammer in 1994 devolved into a disorganized mess best remembered for a bomb left in a backpack. Few came away from the Atlanta Games feeling anything but vaguely abused, and it was valid to wonder if the U.S. could ever again host a Games that didn't smell like a sales convention.
Salt Lake City, God bless her, couldn't pull that off in a thousand tries. It puts on none of the cosmopolitan airs of its more celebrated Western rivals, but then, Dallas and Denver try so damned hard to be big time that you almost forget you've left the East Coast behind. Salt Lake reminds you of nowhere else. The hair is blond, the grin wide, but look close and you'll see grit in those teeth; downtown had been buffed and polished for the Olympics, but its essential roughness remained. A report released last June and brought to light during the past fortnight revealed that Utah ranks first in the U.S. in per capita use of Prozac. Walk down the street, and you'll see an occasional flash of Gary Gilmore right there beside Donny Osmond, a hint that all is not well.
Alexei Volin, a Russian cabinet spokesman, said on Friday, "What we are witnessing in Salt Lake City can be described as wild Olympics in the Wild West," and he was more right than he knew. Beneath Salt Lake's overarching blandness, there's a subculture bristling with energy. Music, gay clubs, nightlife: You're apt at any moment to bump into a suspiciously hyper pack of paragliders or a woman handing out cards for her escort service or a laser-eyed zealot intent on saving your soul -- all of them overjoyed to talk to someone from out of town. When Robert Earl Keen, who sings of the West better than anyone else alive, came to Salt Lake's Zephyr Club last week, he sang about the wild wind, and a packed room swayed, old and young drinking and dancing without a bit of hostility in the air. A pair of American lugers, Chris Thorpe and Clay Ives, reached up to place their bronze medals around his neck, and Keen leaned down and grinned: The modern cowboy had earned himself an Olympic prize.
"This is the place," Brigham Young said, and he was right then and now. America needed a nice Olympics, but not a saccharine one. It got an Olympics that was clean and polite but with a mystery at its core; it got an Olympics that rolled up the streets at night and then filled those streets with the loneliest sound made by man. Here I come, the whistle cried through the night. Goodbye.