Olympics

SHOWTIME AT LAST

Under tight security, the Salt Lake City Games got underway-and Canada’s Olymians set out after a record medal haul

JAMES DEACON,KEN MACQUEEN February 18 2002
Olympics

SHOWTIME AT LAST

Under tight security, the Salt Lake City Games got underway-and Canada’s Olymians set out after a record medal haul

JAMES DEACON,KEN MACQUEEN February 18 2002

SHOWTIME AT LAST

Olympics

Under tight security, the Salt Lake City Games got underway-and Canada’s Olymians set out after a record medal haul

JAMES DEACON

KEN MACQUEEN

For several unsettling days last week, the 2002 Winter Olympics were lost under a layer of smog, a sun-blotting cloud as grey and murky as the politics of the International Olympic Committee. Now maybe it wasn’t a heavenly portent—in Salt Lake City, religious capital of the Mormon world, you never know— but it heralded stranger things to come.

Technically, this bleak soup was the result of an inversion, a high-pressure system that trapped the Salt Lake Valley under a chill, dank layer of air. Inversion may also explain a role reversal that saw surprisingly tentative American Olympic organizers knocked off their stride in the days before Fridays opening ceremonies, while Canada’s 157 athletes swaggered into Utah predicting a record 20 medals and other great things by the close of festivities on Feb. 24.

Gone was the Canadians’ go-for-thebronze attitude, which dogged their warmweather compatriots as recently as the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney. Setting the tone was speed skater Catriona Le May Doan, a medal favourite and 500-m world record holder. She was entering the opening ceremonies, she said, carrying “the greatest flag in the entire world”—at the head of the strongest Canadian team ever to grace a Winter Games.

The talent-deep American team also strutted its stuff last week, predicting a similar record medal haul. And while the host country expressed an uncharacteristic sensitivity to the need to avoid wrapping the Olympic rings in the Stars and Stripes, don’t count on it: witness the over-the-top jingoism that clouded previous U.S.hosted Olympics in Lake Placid, Los Angeles and Atlanta.

flanging heavy over these Games is the pall of Sept. 11. This is reflected not just

in a heavily armed security force that outnumbers four-to-one the 2,500 athletes here, but in a conflicted attitude. We’ve reached the moment in the wake when it’s time to suspend mourning and hoist a celebratory glass of what passes for the hard stuff here. But how to do so?

A case in point: the flap over including in the opening ceremonies the tattered American flag pulled from the rubble of the World Trade Center. The International Olympic Committee quashed tentative plans for U.S. athletes to carry the flag into Rice-Eccles Stadium, fearing the potent symbolism would eclipse the entrance of the 76 other nations in the opening parade. It took a high-level, late-night confab in the hotel suite of IOC president Jacques Rogge to hammer out a compromise: the honour guard of athletes, firefighters and police officers who carried it into the stadium during the playing of the American national anthem. The poignant power of

Ilympians set out after a record medal haul

that moment, said Rogge, the Belgian surgeon overseeing his first Olympics as IOC president, was a worthy and dignified homage to the victims of the terror attacks. “We are guests,” he noted, “of the United States of America.”

Still, the events of September have sensitized America, maintained Mitt Romney, Salt Lake Organizing Committee president and CEO. “You will find a greater response of appreciation to the people of the world than perhaps ever before in our history,” he promised. Unfettered by such concerns, Canada’s representatives here were happily rooting for their own. Far from shying away from forecasts of record medal totals, they embraced them: Le May Doan stated flat-out that she and her teammates “expect a lot from ourselves.” This from a woman who has compiled her remarkable record over the last eight years despite a tendency to intense pre-race jitters. Asked if there was anything that

might undermine her own quiet confidence, she said, “Me.”

The first week will determine whether the Canadian record of 15 medals, set in 1998, will fall. Figure skating world champions Jamie Salé and David Pelletier have a chance to establish some momentum when they compete in the pairs competition that concludes Feb. 11. That same day, speed skaters Jeremy Wotherspoon and Mike Ireland will race in the final of the men’s 500 m. Ireland was the 2001 world sprint champion; the remarkable Wotherspoon is currently ranked No. 1 in both the 500 m and 1,000 m and, with two victories, could emerge as Canada’s biggest individual star at these Games. The soft-spoken Red Deer, Alta., native deflects such notions. The speed skating contingent has the potential to win medals “across the board,” he said. “We’re here to lay it on the line.” Sentimental favourite Elvis Stojko, competing in his fourth Games, claims these

will be his last. He toughed out an injury in 1998 and still won silver, but he was slowed for three straight years by a succession of more debilitating ailments. Now he’s no longer the forecasters’ pick for gold, yet he’s as fit as he’s ever been, and he’s a serious threat if he lands his dizzying array of axels, salchows and toe loops. Oh, and he swears he’s not hiding an injury as he did four years ago. “Some people see me as a contender, some don’t,” he says. “Doesn’t matter to me. I know how I feel, and I feel good.”

Jean-Luc Brassard, meanwhile, is feeling relieved. The dashing moguls skier, Olympic champion in 1994, made headlines in Nagano when he suggested that being flag-bearer had hurt his preparations and contributed to his disappointing fourth-place finish. His event began the day after opening ceremonies, so all the media duties and carrying the flag distracted him when he should have been training. Brassard took a ridiculous amount of heat for his frankness—he was slagged by columnists and broadcasters who called him a wimp and a whiner and worse. The criticism hurt, so it wasn’t a surprise when Brassard himself made light of it at a team reception last week. Before formally handing the flag over to his successor, Le May Doan, he turned to the audience and said: “I guess you’re kind of thinking, ‘Oh no, not this guy again.’”

Fact is, Brassard was only stating the obvious back in Nagano. And his contention was supported by the Canadian Olympic Association, which has since made it a policy to avoid picking any athlete whose event closely follows the opening. Other countries’ competitors duck the honorary duties, too. At one point last week, the Dutch couldn’t find a single athlete willing to carry their flag. They all begged off because, surprise, it got in the way of their training. That’s too late to be much comfort to Brassard, but he just might have the last laugh. He’s been skiing particularly well of late, and a gold medal would take the sting out of his four-year flogging. Eu]

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