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Joy Ride
Steve Rushin
March 02, 1998
The Winter Olympics were a daily celebration of the crazy, exhilarating spirit of men and women determined to fly—and often succeeding
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March 02, 1998

Joy Ride

The Winter Olympics were a daily celebration of the crazy, exhilarating spirit of men and women determined to fly—and often succeeding

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The Winter Olympics, which began with choirs on five continents singing Ode to Joy and peaked with the Czech hockey team joyously linked by the arms like a chain of paper dolls, were so infused with human life in between that one ski jumper was moved to describe his tumultuous day, appropriately, as "life itself." C'est la vie, said a favored figure skater who failed to win the gold medal: That's life. And that was life. The whole of human history unfolded in 16 days in Nagano—filled, as they were, with man's better nature, and with Beethoven, and with earthbound creatures trying to fly.

In Nagano, man, like God, was in the details. When Hong Guo, the goalkeeper on the Chinese women's hockey team, expressed her humble desire to meet Wayne Gretzky in the Olympic Village, the Great One didn't merely introduce himself to the Great Wall of China, he made certain she knew that the honor was his, bowing deeply from the waist.

Here was a millionaire hockey player—happily housed in a college dormitory in which he was allotted 10 clothes hangers—so humble that he refused to take a team captaincy or a microphone at a team press conference, even when so many journalists rushed to him on stage that officials feared the platform would collapse. The point seemed to be that Gretzky was no better or worse than his fellow man, a fact driven home, on this occasion at least, by the Czechs, who beat the short pants off the Canadian Dream Team in a semifinal for the ages. The victors threw their sticks into the air at the end, so that two seconds later the roof appeared literally to be falling down around them.

Then again, something similar happened nearly every night of the Olympics. In the women's figure skating final last Friday, Surya Bonaly of France brought down the house during her program by abruptly back-flipping onto one skate, a life-affirming feat that puckered the judges' mouths, which now matched their rear ends. Backflips are illegal, and Bonaly compounded the felony with her spectacular land-on-one-skate maneuver. "I wanted to please the crowd, not the judges," she said afterward, and good for her. Even the head of the International Skating Union said he disapproved of her derring-do as the ISU president, but approved "as a human"—suggesting, against all odds, that those two roles are not incompatible after all.

There was so much to approve of as a human in Nagano. Take the champion Canadian women curlers who looked like women in curlers, like a suburban bridge club, weeping throughout the most moving medal ceremony of the Games: Five women, four of whom had given birth in the last 20 months, were astonished to be given the same flag-raising, anthem-playing pomp that Carl Lewis gets. Talk about Ode to Joy.

And what of Alberto Tomba, who is better described by another musical composition, a pop song, The Last of the Famous International Playboys. Last Saturday the 31-year-old Italian slalom legend passed his torch—and very possibly his little black book and Hai Karate cologne collection—to a new, pink-haired, 22-year-old slalom champion. Hans-Petter Buraas of Norway was once asked to write down which person, living or dead, he would most like to have dinner with. "Lolo Ferrari [Miss Airbag] or Pamela Anderson," Buraas replied. The King is dead, long live the King.

If you'd never seen a cross-country race but were a paid-up member of the human race, you appreciated the men's 4x10-kilometer relay last week, in which Team Norway, after covering a distance very nearly equal to that of the Boston Marathon, defeated Italy by .2 of a second, or the length of one ski tip. This was exactly the opposite of the result in Lillehammer, when Italy beat Norway by a ski tip. Eight men—including Bjørn Dæhlie, whose three gold medals brought his career total to eight, the most by a Winter Olympian—trained for four years to redress this difference, and 11 people saw it. But then even the Dream Team hockey games were played out in a tiny venue. Nagano was Sinatra playing a small room for tips.

Speaking of tips, nobody in Japan accepts them, as opposed to most other countries, where you have to shoot off a confetti cannon full of small bills every time you walk through a hotel lobby or restaurant. The Nagano Games were not about taking or selling, but about giving, about people looking to help. Which made the behavior of a few village idiots on the U.S. hockey team all the more disgraceful. A bar called Police 90 became an athletes' watering hole during the Games, and a running joke in Nagano went, Police 90, USA 0.

What a shame, when you consider the hospitality of the host city, which is ordinarily home to only 100 or so Westerners. At the White Ring figure skating rink, a citizen picked up a piece of litter, folded it into an origami swallow and placed it atop a pay phone, which itself featured an electronic image of a woman bowing whenever you hung up the handset. Restaurant patrons pulled up chairs to practice their English on foreigners, and you always knew exactly what they were saying, even when you had no idea whatsoever. A handwritten sign in a Nagano flower shop window simultaneously made no sense and provided a pithy summation of these Olympics. It read, WELCOME NAGANO THANK YOU IMPRESSIVE.

It was not merely in winter sports that the Olympics displayed the best that humankind has to offer. The Games were full of art and technology and heart-stopping marriages of the two. Cell phones played Beethoven's Für Elise when they rang, so that instead of glaring at the call's recipient, you hoped he'd quickly get called back, that you might hear the end of the composition. A brass band played a Christmas song, Gloria in Excelsis Deo, after Marianne Timmer's victory lap in the women's 1,000-meter speed skating race last Friday, for no other reason than that it sounded appropriately soaring.

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