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The Great One stood in the bed of a pickup, holding up the Olympic flame against the rain. They drove him away from an opening ceremony defined by a torch malfunction, toward an outdoor cauldron that would spark controversy for being fenced off from the public. And critics would later complain that this mode of transportation was beneath Wayne Gretzky (below), Canada's most famous sportsman. But were they in the streets of downtown Vancouver to see the effect the Gretzkymobile had on the people? When they saw Wayne, their instant reaction was to run to him—and I ran with them, having stumbled upon the white Chevy Tahoe after emerging from a back door of BC Place. People hopped off sidewalks and sprinted in the road; they poured out of bars to join the pursuit; they yelled, "Get Gretzky!" and took blurry images of him with their cellphones. A full-on mob trailed the truck and its police escorts by the time the torch approached Coal Harbor, where Wayne would light the cauldron. The revelers stayed for a fireworks display, and buoyed by national pride (and alcohol), they broke into impromptu renditions of O Canada. They were drenched, and I was drenched, but no one seemed to care. So much money and time and effort had gone into the spectacle of the opening ceremonies, but this, for me, is when the Games truly began.
Bode Miller takes great joy in zigging and zagging his way through ski-race analysis. It's not about victory; it's about performance. It's not about results; it's about innovation. It's not about history; it's about right now. I despise the Olympics; I'm inspired by the Olympics. The extent to which he truly believes all this is anybody's guess, and after a while—say, a decade, which is about how long I've been writing about him—it's pointless to try to figure it out. As soon as you think you understand, Miller is going to tell you that you have it all wrong.
But the Olympic Games are not a debate. Score is kept, and medals are awarded. On Feb. 21, Miller was in seventh place after the downhill portion of the super combined event. He needed a perfect slalom run to win the race, and he hadn't skied a perfect slalom run in more than five years. He went full gas, as they say in ski racing, assaulting every gate from the straightest possible line. With every turn, you expected him to blow out in a yard-sale crash, wet snow flying. But Miller didn't blow out. He killed it. He went into first place, and nobody could beat him, so he won the first Olympic gold medal of his career. I get what he means when he says medals don't always fully represent performance. The previous night I had held Lindsey Vonn's downhill gold medal in my right hand. It was heavy, but still, I suggested to Thomas Vonn, Lindsey's husband, it doesn't accurately reflect everything that went into winning it. "It doesn't," he said. True to form, Miller would explain afterward that his slalom run was awesome because of the great skiing. It wasn't awesome because he won a gold medal.
O.K., but it was for me.
THROUGH THE PAIN
You just received your Olympic medal. Go on, smile. Give a beauty queen wave. Slovene cross-country skier Petra Majdic could hardly do either. She simply left the podium—in a wheelchair. To win her bronze in the women's 1.4-km classic sprint, Majdic had to fight through more than just four grueling races on Feb. 17. During warmups 20 minutes before her first race, she slid off a curve and fell 10 feet into a craggy creek bed. After Olympic volunteers came to the aid of Majdic, who was shrieking in pain, a doctor briefly examined her and told her that no bones were broken. That was good enough for Majdic, though not accurate. When she was finally thoroughly examined, doctors found five broken ribs and a collapsed lung.
Majdic, a gold medal favorite before the accident, placed only 19th in the first round, but she gained strength with every race—even as she lay in the snow screaming in agony at the conclusion of each one. "I kept telling her, 'It's just pain, you've worked 22 years for this,'" Matej Tušak, Majdic's sports psychologist, told me several days later. Furiously double-poling in the final, Majdic, who was named Slovenia's most popular citizen—not athlete—of 2009, broke away from Sweden's Anna Olsson on the last straight to earn the bronze, which, given what she had been through, she likened to "gold with diamonds in it." The power of the Olympic stage to inspire athletes to the unimaginable was never more obvious than when a limp Majdic was carried by medics from the Whistler Olympic Park course after the final. "The desire was simply that strong," she said.