The Olympics are a search for spirit. It was this way in the beginning and remains that way through everything that the Games have become, for better and for worse. Through soaring television rights and corporatization run wild. Through bid bribery and steroid scandal. Through Tonya-Nancy and corrupt skating judges. Through Munich and Atlanta. Sometimes that search is as simple as seeing joy in young faces on a hockey rink in Lake Placid and sometimes it is much harder to find meaning beneath the medals. But always the search must be undertaken or the Olympics become just another game, and we have plenty of those already.
The 21st Winter Olympics opened last Friday in Vancouver, and the search began anew. Wayne Gretzky rode in the bed of a truck through city streets—where were the bright orange vest and the deer rifle?—to light the outdoor flame. Canada won a gold medal on Day 3, its first in three Games on native soil. A familiar energy built across the host city, the first impassioned strides in a two-week sprint that will leave the natives exhausted.
But these Olympics had not made themselves easy to fully embrace, especially in the mountains 75 miles north of Vancouver, where the ski town of Whistler will host more than half the 15 sports. Leading up to the Games steady rains fell on warm hillsides, making prophets of those who warned of fickle conditions. ("Is anybody talking about the weather?" asked former U.S. Olympian Jonna Mendes, ominously, in December, when few were.) The schedule was reconfigured and volunteers were deployed to repair the scarred slopes.
The presumptive star of the Games, Lindsey Vonn, disclosed a serious shin injury two days before they began, leaving her participation at the whim of therapy and weather delays (both of which were ultimately delivered).
Finally, and so much worse, when it seemed the Olympics had been simply inconvenienced, they were shocked. Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, 21, was killed in a training crash hours before the opening ceremonies. "Last night," said Latvian luger Martins Rubenis on the day after his friend's death, "I had pretty much an empty space in my heart." The spirit was lost, the Games were on their knees.
Yet here is where the Olympics find their way. They go on, the athletes honoring the fallen by competing. The sun appeared on Sunday afternoon, not long before the final two runs of the four-run men's singles luge were contested. Kumaritashvili's memory was in the air, yet his peers raced with passion and joy.
On Monday morning it was the gifted and enigmatic Bode Miller who embraced the restorative powers of the Games by taking the bronze in the men's downhill, becoming the first U.S. ski racer to win three Olympic medals. (He won two silvers in 2002.) And a few hours later, Miller's countryman Seth Wescott defended his snowboardcross title in dramatic fashion.
Four years ago Miller left the Turin Games in a storm of criticism. He had not only failed to medal in five events as the defending World Cup overall champion but also had brazenly partied long and hard as if the Olympics were of no special significance. Then he was bitter and resentful of scrutiny and hype. Now he seems to have rediscovered the joy of competition that made him great in the first place. "You could feel the nervous energy—it was clear that this was not a World Cup [race]," Miller said after winning his bronze. "It was cool for me. That was the feeling I was searching for."
On the night before the downhill, which had twice been delayed by bad weather, Miller went to dinner with a group of friends at a sushi restaurant in Whistler Village. Normally placid even on the nights before big races, Miller was a bundle of energy. "He kept saying, 'I have to win this, I have to win this,'" said Curtis Graham, a Nike executive and close friend of Miller's. "He was going crazy trying to decide which skis to run. He was totally different than I've ever seen him before."
Miller drew bib number 8, meaning that he would start eighth in the field of 64, which was perceived to be an advantage because the fragile course would probably deteriorate quickly. But the skies were overcast, balancing out any edge provided by the hard snow. "Dark and bumpy" was the message conveyed to the start house by U.S. racer Andrew Weibrecht, who went down four places in front of Miller.