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A Bungee Jump of Emotion
Steve Rushin
March 04, 2002
Salt Lake's many ups and downs left athletes and fans gasping for breath
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March 04, 2002

A Bungee Jump Of Emotion

Salt Lake's many ups and downs left athletes and fans gasping for breath

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The tunnel that leads to your seat at the Delta Center—there's a reason it's called a vomitorium. When Sarah Hughes finished her free skate last Thursday, those tunnels and seats belched forth a rain of roses, a Biblical plague of plush toys, a Day-Glo green football. A mass suicide of teddy bears leapt majestically from the third deck, the crowd coughing up everything save Stanley Cup octopi. All the while, in every vomitorium, uniformed arena staff stood in silhouette and applauded along with the paying throng. If that applause was, as the clich� goes, the sonic equivalent of a jet engine at takeoff, it was only appropriate. For the arena had felt, before this catharsis, as palpably pressurized as any airplane cabin.

The Olympics have made biennial bulimics of all of us. We binge (on games) and purge (our feelings) and suffer, throughout the 17 days, from emotional exhaustion. Every hour or so in Salt Lake City we witnessed genuine joy, anguish, inspiration and despair—often in a single athlete. After the men's 1,500, Korean short-track skater Kim Dong-Sung went from gilded to jilted. One second he was waving his nation's flag, the next he was using it for an underhanded javelin toss after being disqualified. Of course, there is always a second side of the seesaw, and on this sat Apolo Anton Ohno of the U.S., his mood swinging in inverse relation to Kim's.

More often than not, though, the Games are less a seesaw or roller coaster than a bungee jump. There were no soft undulations to ease the transition from emotional highs to lows and back again. Three hours before Hughes skated so rapturously, Russian Olympic committee president Leonid Tyagachev raged against "asthmatics" and other anti-Russian conspirators. The next day the U.S. beat Russia in a men's hockey semifinal that left spectators and players alike agog with overstimulation. "We've become children," said U.S. forward Doug Weight. "We're giddy."

The photographic negative of giddy had been on view days earlier in the same arena, at the U.S.- Germany hockey quarterfinal. A German journalist seated on press row when the Americans went up 1-0 rose from his seat, raised his hands and—neck veins bulging—flipped double birds at the celebrating Yanks. With each successive U.S. goal in a 5-0 game, the German journo's gestures waned in effusiveness, like some malevolent windup toy losing its energy.

Such devotion to emotion is difficult to sustain. In the same hockey game, when John LeClair had a tooth knocked out by a German high stick, the U.S. forward calmly picked it up off the ice and moved on. All week it went like that—players having their faces pressed against the glass, like specimens on a microscope slide, and the crowd looking on unfazed, as if each flattened face were nothing more sinister than a suction-cup Garfield doll in a car window. We were drained.

Athletes often describe themselves as emotionally drained, and this was almost literally the case countless times at these Olympics, such as when women's bobsled gold medalist Vonetta Flowers or figure skating bronze medalist Michelle Kwan threatened to tap out their tear ducts entirely. You could scarcely attend an event without seeing an athlete whose liver was just implanted, whose boyfriend was recently murdered or who was simply landing a triple-triple in an atmosphere so intensely gag-inducing that Joe Montana or Michael Jordan might well have required the Heimlich.

So it was that—even after the Games had ended—my every nerve ending was still humming, vibrating like a tuning fork. It is the full-body equivalent of a ringing in the ears, the best souvenir of the Salt Lake Olympics.

For the most part Salt Lake City was a wonderful host for the Games, and—in the international spirit of the Olympics—I idly typed that phrase (" Salt Lake City was a wonderful host for the Games") into an Internet translator. I first had the sentence translated from English to German and then back into English: "The city of salt lake was a wonderful landlord for the play." That phrase was then translated into Spanish and back to English: "The lake of the salt was a wonderful skin of the proprietor." That phrase was translated into French and back to English: "The lake of the salt states a marvelous skin." Finally, that phrase was translated into Portuguese and back to English: "The lake of the salt indicates a wonderful skin."

All you had to do was look at your arms—pebbled like a basketball, with goose pimples—to know that it was true. For 17 days the lake of the salt really did do wonders for the skin.