Fear and Loathing at the Olympics

A final look at 14 days in Salt Lake.

TO MOST OF the world, Utah is just another foreign country. You cross the sea for another wintry Olympiad, and you expect an exotic culture, strange rituals, quaint customs. For the American mainstream media, however, Utah may as well be another planet.

Throughout the 2002 Games, it never feels like the world meeting the United States on its soil as much as it feels like the rest of the United States encountering the strange, foreign culture of Mormon Utah, of working cowboys and Native Americans, of the Mountain West and the Great Basin Desert. It might just as well be the Amish Olympics. Or the Martian Games. Welcome to Planet Utah.

The Olympics have accomplished what progressive Utahns have spent generations failing at—opening up the bars, putting a lid on Mormon proselytizing, and even distributing condoms in the midst of an intricately choreographed stare down between the city and its visitors. The locals are nearly as worried about what the world will think of them as they are concerned about the swarm of immorality descending like a plague on these quiet folk. In a state accustomed to self-determining authority, citizens are holding their breath as the capitol city is leased out for this decadent corporate frat party.

THE OLYMPIC MOVEMENT

The Olympics and Salt Lake City are a perfect fit for each other, compatriots in striving for Osmond-esque wholesomeness and a clean-cut image, but not without an "oh my heck!" lurking beneath the surface, held back by tongues too-long bitten in suppression. The Olympic Movement is a philosophy of "peace through sport," but the actual Olympics are a private club for elite athletes, for wealthy patrons and corporations, and, much to the chagrin of the charter members, for the creme of the crop of schemers, scammers, and scalpers.

I come down into Utah from the high plains of Wyoming, descending through the cold and wind into the outskirts of a town called Morgan where my '76 Saab blows up 20 miles from destination Ogden. "This is the place," I tell myself, and then make a quick call to AAA to get myself the hell out of there.

Whatever this Olympic Movement is really about, I want to see it for myself. I don't trust the middlemen. There's more media than ever at these Olympics, in part due to the home court advantage for the American press, but also because of the promise of headline-grabbing security issues compelling outlets to send another representative or two to Utah, just in case the world ends. They're here to be on the scene when a terrorist act adds unexpected fireworks to the opening ceremony, when a crop duster hits the Olympic Village with anthrax, or when the snowboarding contingent is taken hostage by those same terrorists who finance their regime by selling nickel bags of pot on the streets of Seattle.

Given the overwhelming onslaught of microphone-toting inquiring reporters, I'm not sure I want to be associated with the media. The Salt Lake Olympic Committee feels the same way about me, and I settle into a nice compromise in the second-string media contingency, with no event credentials but with access to bathrooms without lines and lazy-boy recliners around a big-screen TV.

The crowds themselves are respectful, if foreign to the early-to-bed ways of Salt Lake City. There are revelers tripping past the Temple until well after midnight in a city notorious for having lights out at 7 pm. The media, however, have been astonishingly short-sighted, intrusive, and rude. You really have to wonder what reporters are thinking as they interrupt a Navajo flute player in the middle of a performance, walking on to his stage and talking to him for over 5 minutes before letting him get back to the crowd he was performing for. While any of us might have been happy to yell out "down in front" at lesser offenses, none of us could overcome stupification enough to say, "hello, there's a concert going on!"

With the media outnumbering athletes two-to-one, and with Salt Lake City desperate to show a better face then its nation knew it had, the media have been unnecessarily elevated to untouchable status. In a city walking on needles and pins, the press is full of its own hot air, floating above the fray and letting neither security, decency, respect nor decorum stand in the path of the story its pursuing.

THE OLYMPICS ON $10 A DAY

The skyrocketing price tag on tickets, hotel rooms, and rental cars ensures that the rest of us will keep our distance, settling for peddler to the proletariat Bob Costas and his NBC-sanctioned opiate for the masses.

For the athletes, there is still purity at the core of the Games, but the rest of us need to tear through layers of corporate filtering before we can get at the unadulterated experience. Despite all attempts at using astronomical pricing to create a self-selecting elite population at Club Olympic, there is no shortage of obscure-sport enthusiasts willing to dip into the nest egg to crack open a once-in-a-lifetime vacation. But there are those who will go even farther, curl-heads and shred-heads, speed freaks and the teddy-bear faithful of the figure skating world coming to Salt Lake for a budget Olympics, going underground to steal a deal, and even finding ways to skirt the $300 million security system. For those with what Waddie Mitchell, cowboy-poet-laureate of the Salt Lake Olympics, calls "that no-quit attitude," there is a way to see a dream fulfilled.

There are honest-to-God free events throughout the city, and given the amount of time you need to spend in line, it's easy to fill a day without spending more than a pocketful of change, if you've got patience and restraint. From the educational and cultural tents where you can watch blacksmiths and mountain men, glass blowers and mascots practicing their craft, to the corporate-sponsored playgrounds like Bud World and Coke World, where diehards stand in line for a chance to ride the luge, push a bob sled, or take a slap shot, you get what you pay for and then some. I ride the luge, getting my eight seconds of glory on behalf of Team Iceland while an all-American snot-nosed kid takes home a plastic gold medal for having a half second less glory then me. My run is clearly superior on an artistic level, but if I'd made the necessary run to the ATM machine in order to buy an official or two, I would have lost my place in the hour-long line.

A typical $10 day starts with a morning supply of Captain Crunch in the car out at the scenic view area west of town, or a bowl of hot ramen in a tent on National Forest land outside of Park City. The chance to get away from the host city, or the satellite venue towns scattered to the north, east, and south, is well worth it. Taking the hotel elevator down a dozen floors and then walking through the urban canyons on your way to a magnometer line to enter a free park can't compare with starting the day standing on the side of a quiet highway in the middle of nowhere, the Wahsatch mountains, crisp and clear in front of you, beaming as you take in the natural setting before entering the Olympic microcosm.

For the simplicity-inclined, the inter-venue shuttles can cost $20, but parking is easier than you'd expect downtown, and the city buses run 35 miles for a dollar and a quarter. For the ultimate free ride, no parking, no bus, no gas, I use my 400 miles of AAA towing as a free shuttle to the venues. Free, yes. But alas, AAA hardly counts as a corporate free benefit.

Downtown Salt Lake is like a supermarket gearing up for Superbowl Sunday, with dozens of eating establishments vying for attention and offering one or two free samples per block, from cinnamon pretzels and peanut brittle to hot chocolate at the wilderness storefront. The best bet for beer drinking is to bring your own, but since that's not entirely legal, the "membership" in the private drinking establishments is relaxed, and you can find plenty of 3.2 brew for $6 a mug.

My first beer comes courtesy of a bicycle thief I catch on film, hacksawing through a bike lock with a big grin on his face for my camera. He assures me he's stealing it for a friend, his buddy who'd been arrested the night before, and to avoid being convicted of a crime, he treats the witnesses to 32-ounce drafts at the X-Bar down the street.

It's impossible to avoid the police and military presence, and there are rarely fewer than 15 armed officers in sight. They see you when you're sleeping; they know when you're awake. Big Brother's eyes are everywhere, so be careful where you scratch, for goodness sake. With 15,000 security forces in town, there is little of any kind of trouble until the Games' final night, when an overflow crowd of drunken revelers from Bud World spills into the streets and starts acting like the Jazz have just won the NBA Championship. It's a riot twice removed, with drunken wannabes pretending to be the faux mob that uses sports championships as an excuse to pretend to riot. The police fire about 40 foam tipped, "pretend" bullets at the crowd and arrest 20 of the more boisterous on public intoxication charges.

The athletes keep to their drug-free oath until a flurry of positive tests in the last few days stirs a little controversy and taints the results of four races. Cross-country skiers Larissa Lazutina and Olga Danilova of Russia and Johann Muehlegg of Spain all test positive for darbepoetin, a new drug designed to boost red blood cell production to help kidney patients avoid anemia. Lazutina and Muelegg each forfeit their most recent gold medals, but a loophole in the rules allows Lazutina to keep two silvers and Muelegg to keep two golds from earlier in the Games. Poor Danilova goes home empty handed, however. All those extra red blood cells, and nothing to show for it.

Security checks are inconsistent for the common folk, and recreational drugs and pocket knives are routinely carried into events. Every now and then a swarm of police officers in their yellow Olympic ski parkas hop out of a car and move towards me, making me wonder what crime has slipped my mind. They slip right past me, however, converging on a one-legged homeless man, his hat on the sidewalk beside his wheelchair collecting coins from the passers by. For $300 million, we can at least be kept safe from having to meet eyes with a homeless man. At the men's figure skating finals, the security swarm come for a stereotypically rude French couple loudly conversing ("oui, oui, ze skatere est magnifique!) and blocking the view in the disabled seating area where a kindly usher allows me to "upgrade" my nose-bleed seat to move into the $475 section. After a 15-minute standoff complete with French invectives ("non, non, we ahr ze French!) and inhospitable gestures, the couple is removed and the air becomes tolerable again.

Before the unwritten drama of the games themselves begins to reveal itself, reporters trip over themselves to meet a Mormon, interview a mascot, or to let fly the patriotic pontification while cutting from a wavering image of the torn flag recovered from Ground Zero to the camera's steely-eyed glances at the military images, the Black Hawk helicopters patrolling the skies of Salt Lake City, the camouflage uniforms of the soldiers failing to disappear into the desert city foliage, a big brotherly presence so ubiquitous that they quickly became the white noise of the cityscape, constantly humming but quickly slipping into the corner of the mind.

CORPORATE COVER-UP

Every image of these Salt Lake City Games has been months, if not years, in the presentation. After a few days in town, however, you start to notice what you're not seeing. The city's skyscrapers are decked out in building-sized banners of skaters, skiers, shredders, and curlers, making for inspiring views from the ground and air, from near and far. What we don't see is names and logos and the top of the buildings, covered for the Games with building-colored drapes to ensure that Key Bank doesn't get undo association with the Olympic image when it is not the bank shelling out the green. Tourist maps distributed by the city are forced to replace the names of businesses with generic symbols for food and drink so that nobody is tempted to go to a local Japanese grill or a home-grown chop house when there's a McChain around the corner that sells the official food of the Olympics.

The first time we hear about the official beer of the Olympics, the official candy bar, the official fast food, we hear the irony ringing through, but after a while the corporate tattoos on every photo-opportunity backdrop settles into our subconscious, subtly assuring us we are indeed having an Olympic moment by virtue of the five interlocking rings on our cheeseburger wrapper.

The athletes are not blind to the hypocrisy of the sponsorship, but they generally keep from looking at the mouths of their gift horses. Kaliya Young, a former Olympian on the Canadian National Water Polo team, shows up at the Winter Games to emphasize the glaring oxymoronity of having the world's top athletes linked to unhealthy lifestyle sponsors. "McDonalds and Coca-Cola are not healthy foods," Young tells a press gathering. "Elite athletes are in incredible physical condition, and they did not get there by eating junk food like that. The sponsorship for any kind of event should correspond with the values that event purportedly espouses." I guess she's just another conspiracy nut. If McDonald's isn't healthy, how could they serve it at the Olympic Training Center? Or didn't Miss Smarty Pants think of that?

The city is full of shuttle buses, and even though traffic is great, there's some kind of logic break down in the fact that I'm usually the only passenger on whatever bus I get on. Miguel, a bus driver from Mexico City, conspires with me of a way to get more people in his bus. I suggest turning it into a beer shuttle, making the happy hour circuit in the hard-to-find full-strength beer halls, and he laughs at the promise of making the evening news: Reporter Hold Bus Driver Hostage, Demands Real Beer. "After the fifth beer, it's easy," he says, making a left-hand turn into downtown Salt Lake.

RISE UP SINGING

Nothing brings out the Olympic mission of peace more than a performance by Pete Seeger, the legendary folk singer who has been singing for peace, civil rights, and the environment for most of his 82 years. The Cultural Olympiad prove a welcome respite from the ubiquitous corporate branding of the city, and one of the first performances of the Olympic Arts Festival is Seeger, accompanied by a band featuring his grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger. The musicians share the stage with the Children's Dance Theatre, local students who interpret songs like "Turn, Turn, Turn," "Wimoweh," and "If I Had a Hammer" with modern dance moves and dazzling costumes.

It's hard to watch the dancers when Seeger is there on stage, wearing a pink-checked shirt, blue jeans with a red bandanna sticking out of the back pocket, a five-string banjo slung over his shoulder. The dancers are like a thought in the corner of your mind, just catching your eye. At times the irony is inescapable as a stage full of blond-haired prairie girls engage in Spanish dancing to "De Colores," the traditional Mexican hymn that Cesar Chavez made into the theme song of the United Farm Workers. They give new meaning to the idea of "square dancing," and despite efforts to keep the two or three kids of color up front, the number makes for an interesting cross-cultural juxtaposition, emphasizing the gathering of folk that Seeger's music has always striven for.

In a number reflecting the flag-waving enthusiasm of the games, the musicians sing a Puerto Rican number called "Que Bonita Bandera," or "What a Beautiful Flag." Seeger's grandson admonishes the crowd that it is "okay to love our symbols, as long as we don't take them too seriously." Jose Marti's "Guantanamera" is an uplifting number, and the beautiful choreography in dove white on "Turn, Turn, Turn" emphasizes the positive message of a song still insisting that it's not too late for peace.

Speaking to Seattle Weekly later in the week about his active involvement in human rights campaigns and environmental movements, Seeger emphasizes the strength of grass roots movements as the best tool in affecting change.

"I'm enthusiastic about sports," Seeger says. "I'm enthusiastic about the Olympics, but mainly because they inspire people to get into many different kinds of sports, whereas the money is all in baseball and basketball and football." He tells me he grew up making 32-mile day hikes as a kid, and he describes his homemade skating rink he ices down in his backyard to teach his grandkids how to skate.

Though Seeger is singing less as his voice is finally beginning to tire, he still goes out about once a week, near his home on the Hudson River or into New York City to lend his voice to one effort or another. He's working on a new song inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr., and describes himself as a fervent follower of Dr. King. He sings me a couple lines from the new song he'd tried out on students at Salt Lake City's Lincoln School earlier in the week, earnestly singing out the syncopated chorus:

Don't think it can't be done.

The battle's just begun.

Take it from Dr. King

You too can learn to sing,

So drop the gun!

"The only hope for the world is to reach out to people who think they are deadly enemies, the way King did," Seeger stresses. "If it could be done with a murderous white supremacist, it can be done with a murderous fundamentalist, whether they're a Muslim fundamentalist or a Christian fundamentalist or any kind of fundamentalist." And while many pacifists have felt compelled to put their non-violent ideals on hold in the wake of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Seeger is emphatic in declaring "That's precisely why King is so important now. Because it took all his skill to keep various of his followers and people who worked with him from getting so angry. King's extraordinary bravery—he received dozens of death threats every day of his life and some of them nearly succeeded. He knew sooner or later they'd get him. Matter of fact, when a guy jumped on the stage with a knife and was grabbed by King's bodyguards, the first words out of King's mouth was 'Don't hurt him. Don't hurt him.'"

After talking about everything from his involvement with the Communist Party and his work with Woody Guthrie to the inspiration of Granny D, who walked across the country to promote campaign finance reform two years ago, Seeger reiterates his belief in the power of grass roots organizing. "If there's a world here in a 150 years it's going to be saved not by politicians, nor even academics or theorists or scientists, but by literally millions upon millions of small organizations," Seeger declares. "I really mean tens of millions. Not hundreds of thousands. And they'll be cultural organizations, they'll be scientific organizations, academic organizations, political organizations, religious organizations, sports organizations, all kinds. They'll do a limited local job, but you add it all together and it will be the only thing which I think will save us from the big organizations which tend to get involved in power and glory and money."

STAND BY YOUR LAND

One of those small organizations is the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a hard-core network of dedicated environmentalists living in the west and knowing Utah on completely different terms than Salt Lake City demands, or Park City, Ogden, or Provo. The canyons of southern Utah have attracted generations of westerners who find their athletic instincts satisfied in the outdoors, on trails and rivers, rapids and rock faces. The canyons have also attracted generations of mystics, from the visionary John Wesley Powell to the revolutionary Ed Abbey.

SUWA set up a temporary storefront in the heart of downtown Salt Lake for the duration of the Games, luring people in with free hot chocolate and opening their eyes up to the dangers facing southern Utah's canyon country at the hands of politicians desperate to open up the land for oil and gas extraction.

"Is there a problem or something?" asks one outdoor enthusiast, drawn into the room by the colorful pictures depicting the canyons he's hiked through. It's hard to believe there are problems in the natural world so beautifully showcased in all this Olympic footage. The Winter Games have never looked better, with plenty of great snow, beautiful bumps, a falling flake photo opportunity every few days, and that brilliant Rocky Mountain sunshine that makes it worth the 4 am wake-up calls to get up the mountain for a warm day at the races.

As the days roll by, however, the inversion factor at the foot of the mountains hastens a daily accumulation of thicker and thicker smog, settling at the base of the range until another storm comes through to blow it out. Locals feign bewilderment at what they call "fog," blaming the lake, perhaps, dancing around the pollution problem as if you'd just opened the debate between one-at-a-time polygamists and the all-your-wives-in-one-bed strain.

Salt Lake's smog is just the foggy tip of the iceberg, however. The Enron-sponsored national energy policy is setting southern Utah's public lands in its sights, gearing up for seismic exploration and development and setting out to rewrite the rule books on resource protection in wilderness areas, parks and monuments.

There's a new Civil War being fought in the American West. According to author and naturalist Terry Tempest Williams, "It is a battle over public and private uses of land, what will be developed and what will remain sovereign." In her new book of essays Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, she writes that "Guns are replaced by metaphorical monkey wrenches and shovels."

One of the early skirmishes comes on the very day that the Olympic torch makes a scenic stop at Arches National Monument on its way to open the Winter Games in Salt Lake City. The Department of the Interior approves oil exploration leases that day, setting into motion a fleet of 52,000 pound "vibroseis" trucks, also known as "thumper trucks," plowing their way through proposed wilderness areas, damaging vegetation and destroying the sensitive soil that takes up to 300 years to replenish itself.

These permits are being issued "like greased lightening" according to Heidi McIntosh, Conservation Director for the SUWA. While the Bush energy plan is poised for heated debate in Congress, Democrats are set to offer their own plan, focusing on alternative and renewable energy sources rather than drilling on public lands. But Bush has called for doubling the amount of wells drilled over the next 20 years, including the controversial opening up of the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge. What's worse, the administration already has its foot in a backdoor implementation of its energy plan, bypassing Congress and focusing on public lands in Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico. Unlike ANWR, the administration does not need Congressional approval to begin seismic activity on these lands.

The most aggressive act to date is the administration's fast-tracking of oil leases throughout southern Utah, notably in areas currently under Congressional consideration for wilderness designation through America's Redrock Wilderness Act. A January 4 memo from Bureau of Land Management supervisors to field officers expresses concern that oil permits are taking too long to issue and emphasizes that "when an oil and gas lease parcel or when [a drilling permit request] comes in the door...this work is [the BLM's] No. 1 priority."

SUWA invites me on a six-seater Cessna 210 single-prop plan ride over the land in question, joining USA Today and the New York Times for a chance to see the mesas and canyons, the oil rigs and the landscape scarred by escalating ATV use. From the air, you can see where there's already a tight web of roads dividing the country rig by rig. If oil companies can get their footprint on the vulnerable soil, they've got a claim to maintain seismic rights and head off a wilderness freeze.

We fly over the San Rafael Swell and down to the Dome Plateau, beside Arches National Park, where the thumper trucks have already started their devastating movement through the wild, untouched country. The thumpers move in straight lines, disregarding existing roads as they blaze their own trails through the brush, stopping every so often to pound a gigantic foot against the desert soil, causing an earth-quake sized ripple and monitoring the earth's tremors in response, listening for indications of oil down below.

The day we fly over the damaging seismic thumping sites, SUWA and other environmental groups file for an emergency stay with the Interior Board of Land Appeals. A week and a half later, the BLA grants the stay, noting that the BLM blatantly ignored their responsibility to consult the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the U.S. Geological Survey before issuing ground work permits.

Along with the federal government's push to create an oil presence on the public lands, Utah Governor Mike Leavitt is pushing to establish road claims based on Congressional statute RS2477, an 1866 homesteading proclamation that "The right of way for the construction of highways across public lands not reserved for public uses is hereby granted." Since wilderness areas must meet a roadless criteria, RS2477 claims present wilderness opponents with what McIntosh calls a "get out of jail free card" as a way of blocking wilderness designations.

Leavitt and rural counties in Utah currently claim 10,000 roads under the provision, though many of these "roads" are in fact ATV trails, thumper truck trails, dry washes, and canyon bottoms. The quandary comes full circle when the roads are used to stay wilderness designation at the same time as oil leases are released, setting a double precedent of oil and roads claims and tainting the wilderness quality of areas currently before Congress.

The heavy artillery of the Clinton environmental agenda turned out to be the Antiquities Act and the right of the president to heed advice of conservationists by declaring national monuments in threatened areas. Utah Republicans vehemently opposed Clinton's use of the Antiquities Act to preserve land by executive proclamation, with Sen. Orrin Hatch calling the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument "the mother of all land grabs" and Leavitt calling it "one of the greatest abuses of executive power in (U.S.) history."

On his last day in office, former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt made a prediction regarding the legacy of national monuments. "Mark my words, the people who are out there opposing these monuments, 10 years from now will be saying that it was their idea," Babbitt assured. "They'll be claiming credit for it."

He was only off by nine years. One year into the Bush administration, none other than Governor Leavitt has offered his own proposal for a national monument in southern Utah, targeting the San Rafael Swell for a unique brand of protection. Leavittt announced national monument proposal during his State of the State address a month ago. Ironically, while Clinton's Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument was seen as a way of heading off a bad, backward anti-wilderness bill from the Utah delegation, Leavitt's monument may have the same effect in heading off the longstanding battle for America's Redrock Wilderness Act, a 9.1 million acre proposal currently before Congress, downgrading the proposed wilderness areas to a national monument, using the tool the Clinton administration wielded so expertly to strike a blow for rural counties bent on maximizing their tourist potential.

The San Rafael Swell is at the center of the RS2477 roads debate, and speculation is that Leavitt's monument proposal is a preemptive strike on behalf of ATV riders and tourist interests who want to ensure that their playgrounds aren't lost to wilderness, enhancing tourism in an otherwise coal-based economy while avoiding wilderness designation through the Red Rock Wilderness proposal. The plan originates from the Emory County Commissioners, a strange reversal of precedent in terms of public lands movements. McIntosh doesn't see Emory County as environmentally progressive in offering up this monument, but acknowledges the shrewd move in avoiding wilderness designation, noting that "they're smart enough that they see the writing on the wall."

Leavitt indicates he will leave the critical decision on off-road vehicle usage to BLM planners, and environmentalist worry that he is leaving the fox in charge of the hen house. "It would be a real dilution of the Antiquities Act to create a monument to off-road vehicles," McIntosh says. "It's going to be a litmus test for President Bush."

"If you create a National Monument and you've got 10,000 road claims in Utah, you're undermining the preservation of these areas," McIntosh reiterates. "When we see these spider webs of scarred land left by ATV tracks, it's like vandalism for the sake of recreation."

HOW SWEEP IT IS

Speaking of recreation, back in the city, the Games play on.

After bluffing my way onto a bus or two, riding out to the venues until I was stymied in the parking lots, I finally gave in to scalping central, the maddening street corner scene where the West's best hustlers go toe-to-toe with the first-class ringers in from England to peddle Medals Ceremony tickets (free two weeks ago, but selling for anywhere from $20 to $150 a pair on the streets of Salt Lake).

The scalpers come at the crowds being herded across the crosswalks, calling out to them in a cacophony of offers to buy and sell. It's a bizarre sound, taking on the character of an other worldly market where you just know you're going to get swindled in one shell game or another. I engage in Archie Bunker arithmetic with the scalpers, who try to convince me I'm losing money by not paying two or three times the face value of $45-$475 a ticket. If you've got time, patience, and a warm hat, you can wait out your price. Every "reasonably priced" offer I make draws the scalpers' scorn and saves me another $20, but ultimately $10 curling tickets, $10 hockey tickets, and $50 figure skating finals tickets—a combined value of $360—fall into availability as a given event begins and the market changes shape.

The Games get a big bump when the first U.S. medal is a silver for bumps skier Shannon Bahrke, and when the U.S. men's team sweep the snowboarding field the next day, boarder rats start showing up all over town, rightfully sensing that they can finally, if temporarily, claim the city as their own. Trust funders and shred heads start feeling a sense of ownership of the Games. What's more American than a snowboarding sweep?

The skiers and boarders plunging down mountains with the instinctive sense to make sport of a total immersion in landscape, enlisting pitch and gravity as allies in a fearless pursuit of the perfect line, have long been the coolest of the competitors, the rebellious daredevil renegades. At the other end of the spectrum are the inherently square competitors of curling. It's a scientific sport with geometric trajectories and friction control at its core, and the American team looks about as athletic as a rec bowling league. They could pass for junior high school P.E. teachers, the kind of men who are not easily motivated to think a surface needs sweeping unless there's a 12-year-old around to work the broom.

In a winter sports world where speed and power are paramount, curling is uncharacteristically slow, though insiders will tout its deliberate pace as "smooth." There are about 900 people here in the 1500-seat hall for the four qualifying matches set up on parallel ice sheets. There are a handful of experts, slipping into the front rows (left empty by the no-show corporate ticket-holders) and clicking their stopwatches as they gauge the "stone time" of the Norwegian shooters. The rest of the fans are mostly first-timers, willingly giving themselves over to the fascination of a new sport, the only ticket they can score in these high-priced games.

The stone itself is not thrown, not tossed, not even bowled down the lane toward its circular target. It's gently released as the shooter slides along behind it on a long and graceful follow-through, drifting along behind the released stone as if stopping himself or standing up might jinx the path he's charted for his stone. It's the sweeping that's furious, while teammates at both ends of the ice scream commands, serving as the eyes of their sweepers who can barely look in front of their path as they focus so closely on hard sweeping, scrubbing the dimples out of the ice and straightening the stone's path, eliminating friction to speed up or lengthen the shot as it heads toward the bull's-eye on the ice, jostling for position and bumping the opposition out of its path.

The United States looks competitive against Norway, trading leads but entering the last of 10 frames with a one point lead. In the 10th, however, Norway surprises the Americans with a two-point finish, surging past and on to the medal round where they eventually take gold as the fallen Americans are left without even a judge to blame in their narrow defeat.

I KNOW WHY THE COWBOY SINGS

Another day in the Cultural Olympiad brings a star-studded gathering of cowboy singers and poets to the stage of the Capital Theater in downtown Salt Lake City. Utah goes out of its way to celebrate its pioneer heritage and the legacy of the American West at the opening ceremonies. The Olympic Arts Festival go a step further, borrowing the legends from the Elko Cowboy Poetry Gathering next door in Nevada and putting working cowboys on stage to celebrate another uniquely American art form.

Host Waddie Mitchell opens the night's show by riding his horse on stage and reciting the poem he'd been commissioned to write for the Olympic Games, "That No Quit Attitude," an epic in verse that equates the determination of the early settlers and the working cowboys with the spirit of these Olympic athletes:

"And since mankind started walking

It's been swifter, higher, stronger

As if pushed by some deep need

To keep their limits unconfined.

Almost thriving, always striving

For things bigger, better, longer

In some unrelenting pursuit

Of perfection redefined."

The evening features an A list line-up of singers and poets, including a couple of oxymoronic "Indian Cowboys" who bring the Native American perspective into the tradition. Vincent Craig, a Navajo from Arizona, reads a poem for his father, who had been a Code Talker in World War II, and Glen Ohrlin sings cowboy classics like "Old Paint" between helpings of his Ozark wisdom. "I knew a lady up the road here, just drank sour milk so she wouldn't enjoy it too much," he tells the crowd, and you get the feeling there's an athlete or two in Salt Lake practicing the same habit.

After the show, the cowboys head to the bar at the Marriott, bellying up next to the snowboarding crowd and making new friends as they buy rounds of beers while resisting the "plant food" appetizers that are offered them.

Following the cowboy lead, jam sessions spring up in hotels throughout the areas, with the veteran crews of past Olympics partying hardest into the night while a dozen guitars circle up around twin beds for endless renditions of Robert Earl Keen and Stephen Stills songs.

THE ICE STORM

The shuttle bus driver's arms wave and undulate as he talks about the beauty of figure skating. His arm goes into interpretative motions like a post-modern flower child dancing to a hypnotic drum beat. "The flow is amazing," he gasps, surprising me with the soft spot this truck-driving man has for the most artistic of the winter sports. He marvels at the beauty, the defiance of gravity, and the line of a skater's jump. He was a rollerskater in his youth, and he imagines himself completing a salchow as he switches into the passing lane. He calls Todd Eldredge by his first name, loves to see him do his flips, and would probably throw him a teddy bear if he had a day off to get in the arena.

There's a passion about figure skating that affects the average person like no other sport. There's an incredible human element that has something to do with the level of exposure of the rare winter athletes not hidden in helmets and goggles. But it has a lot to do with the judging. The element of human error is never more cleanly highlighted than in figure skating, where the skater's slightest wobbles are reflected by the gross fallibility of the judges. The built in subjectivity of the sport sets it up for constant controversy, and though one federation or another needs to soothe its wounded pride when it takes its turn as the victim of judging bias, it is the added challenge of surpassing corrupt judges to win your gold medal that makes the sport that much more compelling.

The most blatant display of ethics-challenged judging in skating memory comes in the first event, the pairs skating, and with no tales of terrorist acts in the opening ceremonies or anthrax-laced tickets to talk about, the spotlight fixes its glare on the next best thing, an alleged vote swap between the French and Russian judges.

The French judge, Marie Reine Le Gougne, is suspended for her role in conspiring to set up a vote swap, her votes are thrown out, and Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, the Canadian pairs team at the center of the controversy, are awarded an additional gold medal Saturday, sharing the honor with Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, the previously honored Russian team. Le Gougne initially claims she was pressured by the French skating federation to throw her votes toward the Russian, but a week later, with her lawyer present, she says it was the Canadians who were pressuring her, but that she had in fact resisted all pressure and voted with her "heart and soul." Regarding her earlier accusations she says "I was so mixed up in my mind, I had trouble thinking properly."

The athletes will tell you "that's downhill" when Picabo Street leads the pack in the practice round but finishes far from contention in competition. They'll tell you "that's short track" when speed skating favorite Apolo Anton Ohno is tripped in the final yards of his first race and has to settle for silver. And they'll tell you "that's figure skating" when the judges consistently predetermine who is supposed to win. We are used to the whining and griping. What we're not quite accustomed to is the "little league" mentality of the International Olympic Committee, resolving conflict by giving everyone the gold.

The French skating federation has been identified as a target of the ongoing investigation, and proposals for reform in figure skating judging are centering on ways to outsmart the judges, most notably raising the number of judges from nine to 14, then randomly choosing seven of their scores to count. It may well come to pass that the biggest story in Salt Lake, the city that made headlines by following precedent and bribing their way into hosting the Games, is the reformation of figure skating ethics, but elevating the sport from the unseemly sense of back room deals may be about as easy as assuring that the fix is off on skating's only competition in the field of "sports entertainment," the phenomenon of championship wrestling.

That the French and Russian judges were conspiring together would have been seen as progress in the days when figure skating reflected the Cold War and the eastern block was a tangible force laid out on the table that could only be overcome by a bigger allied block. By the time of the skating exhibition given by the medalists the night after the women's finals, the Russian and Canadian pairs gold medalists have worked up a program for all four of them. Russian gold medalist Anton Sikharuldize ends up saying it most honestly on his way home, admitting "There were so many scandals and I think that's great. People kept watching. If everything had gone smoothly, no one would have watched."

The miracle on ice in 2002 is the simple fact that I get into the Ice Center with only $50 to spend on a $210 ticket to the men's skating finals. This is a highly sought after ticket, and the going rate from scalpers is about $100 over face value, but by waiting until the competition is nearly half over, I get a bargain deal and still see twice the number of skaters NBC routinely shows in their coverage, generally limited to Americans and medalists. I watch two skaters from my middle deck seats, then move down to the $475 section to get some good pictures and watch the skating without binoculars.

The men's finals are not quite the marquee event of the Games that the women's finals are, but the Belgian skater does wear a gold bra embroidered on his costume. All weirdness aside, fair play triumphs in the men's finals, although Russian gold medalist Alexei Yagudin should be penalized for miming during his program. It is a tough opening for the North Americans. Even though their short programs have already put them out of contention, the sentimental favorites are Todd Eldredge and Elvis Stojko, the first two skaters in the second half of the four-hour long competition. Eldredge falls on his very first jump, and Stojko looks clumsy and a little scary in a program driven by his Bruce Lee obsession. American Timothy Goebel electrifies the home crowd with his quadruple jumps, winning the bronze and reveling in the moment.

THE MORMON MISSION

Though visitors to Salt Lake are at the mercy of Mormon practices limiting the availability of beer and the sanctioning of plural marriages, in general the Mormons are keeping a low profile. That isn't easy to do in a state with a population estimated at more than 75 percent Mormon, but self-control rules the day among the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. There's a sort of a "don't ask, don't tell" policy in play during the Games, and that suits me fine. At the risk of looking like a terrorist because of my lack of curiosity, I'm habitually reluctant to willingly delve into anyone's religion.

After a week in town, however, the stress on my budget leads me to check out the Mormon Media Center. I've heard from a colleague that I could get another credential there, possibly score tickets to a cultural event or two, and at the very least make use of the complimentary buffet.

It is a harmless enough visit, though bad luck finds me carrying around a pound of fresh ground coffee through all the Mormon security check points I visit throughout the day. Before packing for my trip, a friend had advised me to bring beer and coffee to simplify my trip to Utah, but I'd forgotten to grind the coffee beans. The day I bring my coffee downtown to have it ground at a local coffee shop turns out to be the day I visit all the Mormon sites, prompting ongoing apologies as I subject the volunteers to interacting with my evil grounds. For future reference, they rarely continue the search of my bag after hitting coffee. I could have dynamite beneath the bulging pound bag, and if it means touching the aromatic opiate, they are willing to risk letting me pass through.

They send me to see the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and give me a seat just ten feet from the choir loft. The coffee in my bag fills the balcony with the smell of fresh hazelnut, and I feel like Whoopi Goldberg sitting up there with the sopranos.

While I listen to the choir and guest clarinetist Richard Stolzman, volunteers at the Family History Library are furiously researching my ancestry. At the Mormon Media Center, I'd been challenged to supply the names and birthdates of my grandparents and promised that within an hour they'd find information I never knew about my genealogy. "We're family history Nazis," I was told with a giggle, and although my eyes widened at the provocative statement, it was said with no sense of inappropriateness.

The Tabernacle is an engineering marvel, and the acoustics are so good that we pick up the Brooks and Dunn concert across the street at the Medals Ceremony between movements of Beethoven's 7th Symphony. "They could at least play in the same key," conductor Barlow Bradford tells the crowd, but when the Choir's signature encore of "Battle Hymn of the Republic" is accented by the sound of fireworks across the street, right on cue, Bradford raises his fist triumphantly to the crowd.

The media is holding back from mistreating the Mormons, though a bus driver calls their founders "snake oil salesman" and ridicules the revelations that came in the "Salamander Letters," noting someone was "chewing on a leaf or smoking crack cocaine" when the lizards gave him their message.

After the Choir concert, however, the missionaries at the family history flex their Mormon muscles and do what they do best: they trace my family tree back to the early 1800's. No fewer than four volunteers jump into censuses, birth, death, and marriage records, and trace my family back at least a generation father than we ever knew about. Brigham Young called Utah the Bee Hive State in order to utilize the metaphor of the busy worker bees, and the family history drones live up to their busy-as-bees reputation in tracking down old Hiram Perkins. But this is a sports story.

THE ICE QUEEN COMETH

By the time the women's figure skating hits high gear at the end of the second week, the Russian federation has upped the ante on the controversy. Following the disqualification of a Russian Nordic skier for high red blood cell count, the snub they feel at sharing pairs figure skating gold with the Canadians, and the appearance of bad reffing in a hockey match the Russians ultimately won, the Russians threaten to pull out of the entire Olympics in the face of what they call biased officiating against them. We haven't heard talk about boycotts since the '80 and '84 games in Moscow and L.A., and there are even inflammatory references made about "Cold War" tactics being used against the Russians, but medal contenders like the Russian hockey team and figure skater Irina Slutskaya show no interest in walking away if gold is still within their grasp, despite a unanimous vote by the Russian Parliament recommending they head home.

The unfortunate effect of the Canadians getting gold after the fact is that now every loser with a hint of a gripe thinks they should get gold too. Korea is protesting the disqualification of their short track speed skater that set Apolo Anton Ohno up for gold, and since protesting disqualification isn't allowed in short track, they've gone one step further and consulted a Salt Lake City law firm about suing for the gold.

The women's figure skating finals look disastrous from the start, with one competitor after another falling throughout her program, losing her legs as the clock ticks on and forcing Smiling Scott Hamilton to make excuses about the effect of the altitude on these physically exhausting long programs. But how can you whine about the altitude at the Winter Olympics? Winter sports are altitude sports, and there's no excuse for losing steam in the sport's ultimate showcase. My guess is it has more to do with a Mormon-influenced coffee deficiency in Salt Lake City.

The first good skater of the evening is Sarah Hughes, fourth after the short program and not a serious candidate for gold. The 16-year-old hits every jump, putting together triple combinations in a challenging program and setting the standard of perfection that the three top skaters will have to meet as they follow her. She brings the house down with an astounding program and with the refreshing joy she can't contain from the moment she steps on the ice. She brims with wide-eyed sincerity, claps her hands when she lands her first difficult combination, and thrusts her arm up triumphantly as she finishes a flawless program. It is a moment of triumph, but if you know skating, you know Sarah Hughes is not penciled in as a pre-determined winner. She raises the stakes, demanding perfection from her peers, but there's always a way for the justifying judges to get the results the sport demands.

American Sasha Cohen is tremendous, and her minor fall is such a graceful, tidy, self-contained collapse that she might get away with it. She leaves the ice visibly disappointed however, making little attempt to hide her sour countenance.

And then comes Kwan. Nobody has a gold medal program ready like Michelle Kwan does. She defines due. She has the skating lineage, the hard-luck resume, the adoring fans, and a program choreographed for pure gold. All that remains is the coronation.

After double-footing a landing and slipping out a toe and falling on a jump while her hometown fans gasp and cover their shocked mouths in unison, she needs something more than perfection if she is going to beat Hughes and hold off Slutskaya. Thank god for judges. This is what they are here for. To show us that there is something better than perfect. She skates beautifully, and most important, she's Michelle Kwan. This gold is hers to lose, and she'd really have to sell the loss to get the judges to give up on her.

Slutskaya knows she only needs to skate a clean program to win gold as she takes the ice for the final skate of the competition. If Kwan had been perfect, it would all be over, but with her flawed performance and Hughes' remarkable surprise, the drama is heightened to maximum tension. Slutskaya can't quite force a smile to stick on her face, but she does stick the landing on a good triple lutz to start things off.

All the Russians need is a beautiful skate and then a loss of the gold to fuel the controversy about biased judging. But it isn't fair to call it a bias just because we don't favor androgenous, machine-fed oxen on ice. A rough landing in which she stays on her feet makes it a tough call. A loss of balance gives the judges the window they need to penalize her, but she stays on her feet when Kwan couldn't.

Slutskaya's program is not the least bit artistic, not a gold medal program. Worst of all, she's so mad at herself, barely forcing a smile. If you can't finish your Olympic program happily, enjoying yourself, looking like a winner, then you have no business on the medals podium.

In the surprise story of the Games, Sarah Hughes takes gold, collapsing to her knees in hysterical shock, spilling over with unanticipated joy at a triumph she never conceived of. There is no question that she deserves it, but jaws drop around the arena, from Peggy Fleming to Kristi Yamaguchi, as the unthinkable is set in stone and the judges reward the best skate, throwing away concern for nation and reputation. Michelle will get over it. She is loved enough to endure. She can't really lose. But make way for the new Ice Queen, completely without pretense, not knowing her way to the top of the medals platform until Kwan shows her the way, taking a left turn at the bronze.

It is more fuel for the Russian firestorm, but Slutskaya's program and her skating aren't as good as Hughes' on this night. The Russians are still playing by the old rules, where the pecking order prescribes the results. After the pairs controversy, the judges do what nobody ever dreamed they would, letting raw talent leap three spots ahead of the established sentimental favorites. Sarah Hughes wins her competition with the same superior skating that the Canadian pair had shown. The Canadians didn't have the pecking order points to propel them past the Russians and neither did Hughes, but she had the scrutiny of a world-wide audience for once holding the judges accountable.

In one of the first volleys of media hype, NBC's Pat O'Brien claims that Hughes was not ready to appreciate the moment as a 16-year-old more concerned with pimples, bad jeans, a C in biology, and not getting a date to the junior prom. Shame on him. We were all 16 once, and none of us was so shallow as to deserve that kind of condescension. Sixteen is prime time. A time of dreaming. Of idealism. A time when anything can happen. And for Sarah Hughes, it did. A day later, in the skating exposition of medal winners, Hughes, a Long Island native, shows what concerns her, skating a program for the victims of the terrorist attacks on New York while "You'll Never Walk Alone" fills the Ice Center. It is a moment reminiscent of Katarina Witt's program dedicated to Sarajevo, the war-torn city where she had won a gold medal in an earlier Olympiad. It takes Hughes to remind us that things are supposed to be different after September 11, that we are no longer supposed to be concerned with trivial made-for-t.v. scandals and celebrity mongering. Life's too short to dwell on figure skating controversies.

THE JOURNEY HOME

If "peace through sport" seems like a mere pipe dream, we'd do well to recall Pete Seeger's reminder that sports are "a way for human beings to get together without fighting." The Salt Lake Games strive for over two weeks to leave a legacy where nationalistic whining can be replaced by elevating the appreciation of excellence in motion.

I hit the road before the pageantry comes to a close, trading in the banners and flags for the red, white, and blue of mesa, cloud, and sky. I leave the other worldly atmosphere of the sports festival, dropping down below the snow line at Green River and rolling back onto the country I'd flown over in that little six-seater. Neil Young is singing "Long May You Run" on the stereo, and I've got one more AAA tow in this old Saab before it finds its final resting place in Colorado.

The Olympics are inspiring. Even with their corporate logos and elite price tags. What's most inspiring, perhaps, is the decency of regular people, scoffing at security protocol and lending a hand to a weary traveler, letting common sense take precedent over regulations. And since most of us know defeat far better than victory, we're inspired by the losers, the dedicated perfectionists who spend a lifetime learning the same things we found out about ourselves too long back, that we would leave Salt Lake once more without a medal. When the biggest stories of the Games are controversies separating silver from gold, it is refreshing to find those athletes who can find triumph in the journey completed, know pure joy in a personal best, and find the healing pleasure in the grain of the game.

I have no intention of working on my triple salchow, and I'm not about to pick up skeleton racing. Okay, I've got some new images to fill my mind's eye as I slalom my way down a bump run in the Rockies, and I've picked up a pointer or two for the bar room version of curling I play every blue moon or two. But I've got a backpack full of inspiration from Planet Utah, from the growing family tree I discovered to the reaffirmation of human rights and a commitment to peace, from the discovery of new cultures to the new perspectives on the landscape and heritage of the American West. On the slopes and in the canyons, on the ice and around the song circle, the bug bite of excellence sinks its teeth beneath our flesh.

info@seattleweekly.com

 
comments powered by Disqus