For several days heading into the Olympics, an atmospheric inversion capped Salt Lake City's fumes and dimmed its wonderful vistas. Wasatch Range? Where? The skies were gunmetal gray, and in the gauzy gloom you couldn't see a thing. The funk was strictly meteorological but worrisome all the same. It was a reminder that no matter how exhaustively organized an event might be, something is left to chance. In this case the atmosphere would not yield to crisis management (or, as those formidable-looking trucks at checkpoints are euphemistically lettered, INCIDENT CONTROL).
Then by Sunday, as if by divine proclamation, the inversion layer had vanished and the mountains, now splashed with sunlight, reappeared. Just like that. Then cowbells tinkled in the canyons, and crazy people (who know better than to ever bring this act to the Masters) began their odd warbling as even crazier people carved a snowy crust at 85 mph. The games were on, baby, and—schwoop!—there goes another guy off the ramp in the Nordic combined, skis splayed, sailing through miles of sunshine. Millions of viewers around the world gawked: My God, that looks like fun!
From here on out, it would be snow play. And what a relief it was that finally, geopolitical conflicts would be played out, if only for a few prime-time hours, in an ice rink. Short track—Korea or the U.S.? The Olympics' curative powers have long been overstated, it's true; no peace has ever been forged by pairs figure skaters. Still, the Winter Games have always been more than a World's Fair on ice. Cooperative sport, all these different people on the same slope together, ought to be a calming example for nations that are on edge.
Until that first cowbell sounds, though, the Olympic ideal is suspect. What's more, Salt Lake City, which bought itself a bidding scandal along with these Games, was shrouded in more than smog. For starters, what would the world—or, more interestingly, the rest of America—think about the Mormon culture of its hosts for 17 days? Salt Lake City has always seemed faintly exotic and insulated; witness its annoying liquor laws and history of polygamy and near-total lack of ethnic diversity. The nonagenarian leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may or may not have been reassuring when he told visiting reporters, "We are not weird."
The church, which dominates the city, does not intend to treat the Olympics as a missionary opportunity and is lying surprisingly low. Good behavior and good cheer are presumably influence enough, but what are we to think of those buckets of red pennants at crosswalks, and of pedestrians who obediently hoist the flags to halt traffic and replace them at the opposite curb? Weird.
In a country transformed by recent terrorism, a far bigger concern than local culture was whether any public event could be conducted safely. Even before terrorists knocked down our skyscrapers, there was a history of Olympic tragedy. What could we possibly do?
Apparently we can encircle every venue with chain-link fencing. Salt Lake City and the points of competition beyond it have become a community of compounds, each presumably impenetrable and terribly inconvenient and not a little ugly. As a result of the virtual lockdown, it has become impossible to move around freely or quickly. Volunteers at the gates switch on visitors' cell phones, open eyeglass cases, look under hats—though nobody seems to mind. If it took you 1� hours to get inside Rice-Eccles Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremonies, that was the price you paid for not worrying during the next two hours.
And this is just the part of the $310 million security operation that you can't miss. Men with high-powered rifles who are not part of anyone's biathlon team blend into the snow. They stand on rooftops. They hang overhead in Black Hawk helicopters or motor through the woods on snowmobiles.
Even if these Olympics are safe, they still resonate with memories of 9/11, when our self-assurance was forever skyjacked. That's because these days any U.S. event, particularly a sporting event, becomes a convocation in which we must share our grief. Our self-absorption would ordinarily be annoying to all these visitors from abroad, but this time, in a spirit of good sportsmanship that we must remember later, they seemed more than willing to acknowledge our loss, to lend a shoulder.
When the U.S. contingent asked permission to march in bearing the flag that flew over the World Trade Center, the IOC said no on grounds of jingoism. Lots of countries suffer loss and are not allowed to demonstrate their sorrow on a world stage. Why must the U.S. insist on its agony above everybody else's? Anyway, hadn't that tattered flag already traveled to the World Series and the Super Bowl? Surprisingly, the IOC then compromised and permitted the flag to be displayed briefly during the opening ceremonies, as if to say we could all use a little healing here. It was done early on in the normally festive (if traditionally baffling) proceedings and got the only response that made any sense: a moment of silence.