To the thunderous explosion of a massive fireworks display that dappled the colors of the rainbow on the snow-capped mountains of the Wasatch Range, the XIXth Olympic Winter Games drew to a close Sunday night, an Olympics notable for judging controversies and doping cases as much as a can-do American spirit.
Controversy, in fact, dogged the Games right up until the end. The International Olympic Committee stripped cross-country skiers Larissa Lazutina of Russia and Johann Muehlegg of Spain of their most recent gold medals after they tested positive for a performance-enhancing substance so new it's not yet on the banned list. A third cross-country skier, Olga Danilova of Russia, also tested positive for the substance, called darbepoetin. All three were tossed out of the Games, sparking protests from the Spanish and Russian delegations.
But it all faded into the background Sunday night as a crowd of about 45,000—including 2,500 athletes from 78 countries—enjoyed a raucous closing ceremony that combined levity and plain fun, figure skating and a celebration of American music, from jazz to rock 'n' roll to rhythm and blues. The ceremony also managed to meld Donny and Marie Osmond—unmasked as the voices of the huge dinosaurs hovering over Rice-Eccles Stadium—and skaters Kristi Yamaguchi and Katarina Witt, gold medalists from prior Games, who twirled as the rock band Kiss wailed.
"You have reassured us that people from all countries can live peacefully together," International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge told those assembled, representing the first large-scale gathering of nations since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
These Games—hailed by many as the best Winter Olympics ever—were noteworthy for the smooth way they were run. Technology worked. Traffic jams were few. Volunteers were extraordinarily friendly. Athletes from around the world praised U.S. hospitality.
The Games were a hit elsewhere, too: NBC saw its ratings jump 15% over the 1998 Nagano Games on CBS.
"This exceeded my expectations by a pretty wide margin," said Mitt Romney, president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee.
Also memorable was the performance of the U.S. team. The silver medal won Sunday by the men's hockey team—Canada won the gold, defeating the Americans, 5-2—gave the U.S. team a record 34 medals. It far eclipsed the previous American best, 13 apiece at the 1998 Nagano Games and the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics. Only Germany, with 35, won more medals in Salt Lake than the United States.
"A great foundation and platform for us to take the Olympic movement forward," U.S. Olympic Committee Chief Executive Lloyd Ward said, exulting, "How do you feel about 34 medals!"
The Games, though, also will be remembered for the protests, as well as allegations of a pro-North American bias by judges and referees.
It started three days into the Games, when Canadian pairs figure skaters performed what many believed was a flawless program but only won silver, while a Russian pair skated a flawed routine and earned the gold. Within hours, the incident had turned into a full-fledged international scandal when a French judge was accused of bowing to pressure to favor the Russians.
The revelation sparked protests by the Canadians, leading the IOC to ratify a decision by skating officials awarding the Canadians duplicate gold medals.
But in doing so, the IOC also granted momentum to other athletes and nations who believed they had been wronged.
Since then, the Russians, South Koreans, Lithuanians and Spanish all filed protests that were denied.
Despite the rancor over the judging and the doping, Russian athletes appeared in Sunday night's ceremony, defusing—at least for the moment—an international spat that over the last few days featured Cold War-style rhetoric and threats to boycott the closing ceremonies. Russian political and sports leaders blamed judges, officials, the U.S. and Canadian media, National Hockey League officials—everyone, critics said, but themselves—for their team's sub-par performance, only 16 medals.
Security Measures Pass a Huge Test
Barring an incident today as thousands of Olympic visitors depart Utah, a new era will have dawned in American security—a successful test of the nation's ability to protect itself, as well as thousands of guests from around the world, after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Authorities did report that early Sunday morning police fired foam-tipped bullets to break up an unruly crowd outside a downtown beer garden a few blocks away from the Olympic Medals Plaza. More than 30 people were arrested, police said. No injuries were reported.
Meanwhile, the close of the Salt Lake City Games means the end of another era, one in which the Olympic Games have been staged with regularity in U.S. cities.
Four U.S. cities are already in the running for the 2012 Summer Games, which the International Olympic Committee will award in 2005: New York, San Francisco, Washington and Houston. The next Summer Olympics will take place in Athens in 2004. The next Winter Olympics will be held in Torino, Italy, in 2006.
"What will be in 2012? It's a crystal ball. I don't know. But the [U.S.] chances are there," Rogge said. "The last—let's be very fair—the last [U.S.] Games, in Atlanta, were not good Games. Bad organization. This has been corrected here."
Rogge has more immediate concerns. The IOC must now turn its attention to the next Olympics, the Summer Games in Athens. Preparations for those Games have been plagued by chronic delay.
The emergence of darbepoetin, meantime, underscores the nature of the cat-and-mouse game that athletes play with testers, and the difficulties confronting the IOC and the recently formed World Anti-Doping Agency—a joint effort of Olympic and government officials—in the fight against athletes' use of drugs.
Darbepoetin is used to treat anemia by boosting the production of red blood cells. The more red blood cells, the more oxygen can be carried to muscles. The more oxygen, the longer and harder an athlete can train. Darbepoetin works like EPO, or erythropoetin, another synthetic hormone that for the last couple years has been the cheater's drug of choice. EPO is on the IOC's banned list of substances.
Darbepoetin, on the market for only months, is so new that the IOC hasn't had time to consider whether it should be banned. Nonetheless, Dick Pound, a Canadian IOC member, and the World Anti-Doping Agency's chairman, said: "The message is, 'Listen, you can run but you can't hide anymore. We can find this stuff. We can embarrass your national federations and you. You are not going to spoil the competition for those who don't cheat.' "
2 Cross-Country Skiers Stripped of Gold Medals
Lazutina, one of Russia's greatest Olympic champions, had tied a record Sunday with what would have been her 10th medal, her sixth gold, by winning the women's 30-kilometer classical race. She was ordered to forfeit that victory. She was allowed to keep two medals won earlier at these Games.
Muehlegg had won three golds here. He was told to give back the one he won Saturday in the 50-kilometer classical race. He gets to keep the golds he won in the 30-kilometer freestyle and 10-kilometer pursuit events. Danilova was disqualified from the 30-kilometer classical race. She had finished eighth.
It was all set aside Sunday as athletes from around the world celebrated.
"It's been a great time; now it's time to let loose and celebrate," said Cammi Granato, captain of the U.S. women's hockey team. "It was so special," said bronze-winning speed skater Jennifer Rodriguez.
There was also a moment of melancholy. Late in the show, after Willie Nelson sang "Bridge over Troubled Water" as many in the audience waved flashlights, the Olympic flag was lowered, the flame extinguished.
The audience joined in and sang the words of that classic cowboy song, "Happy trails to you, 'till we meet again."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times