Friday, March 1, 2002
Cross-country skiing at the Salt Lake City Olympics 2002
It was all you have heard: great good feeling, wonderful support of the athletes from the US and every other country, high security, well administered details like traffic and food, and full of scandal and souvenir hunting. (I did not come home with a Roots beret!)
We were in Salt Lake City for the first week, strictly focused on the cross-country ski events (and plenty of our own play, snowshoeing and backcountry skiing in the magnificent surroundings of the Wasatch Mountains).
The Salt Lake City organizers, from our perspective, met the incredible logistical challenge of mounting and securing the events, and moving people around. Our group of eight would rise early and catch the 6 a.m. bus (for $5 round trip) from Salt Lake to the cross-country venue at Soldiers Hollow. The bus even showed videos of the high points of the prior day's events. We would get off in the huge parking and security area for Soldiers Hollow just as dawn was coloring the peaks around us. There, all attendees of cross-country events, whether they drove and parked or rode the big buses, went through security.
The security check
All security officials many, many of them wore yellow Olympic parkas, and there was no telling who was a volunteer or an FBI agent. All were courteous, friendly, and helpful, even at 7 a.m. We had to remove all metal objects (even eyeglasses and foil-wrapped food bars) and unzip all jackets to keep the sensitive metal detectors quiet. Cameras and cell phones were turned on, backpacks and bags of food and warm gear were thoroughly hand checked. Then we would ride a different shuttle bus, which had been secured by a complete check each morning, to the actual stadium and race courses. We heard many comments that there were armed agents in the hills around us, and we did see helicopters overhead.
The Soldiers Hollow venue was wonderful, allowing spectators views of probably 80 percent of the cross-country race courses from the stadium and many other points on the course. As is normal in cross-country ski races, spectators gathered along the hills on the course where you could see the racers up close, and cheer on your favorites. The multinational crowd cheered for all racers, especially the first and last, and individuals cheered extra loud (and rang cowbells and waved flags and banners) for their favorites. The men's relay drew a sellout crowd of 20,000, the most people who have ever watched a cross-country ski race in the US. We tried both the trailsides and the stadium, where seated spectators were right over the start/finish/relay tag area, and could see a large video display of exciting action on the course. We found we preferred the trailside, where with binoculars we too could identify the skiers in the start area or elsewhere on the trail, and even without aid could see all the passing and strategy play out.
Level of performance, a revelation
As longtime cross-country skiers, coaches, and racers ourselves, watching the level of performance in the Olympic races was a revelation. The level of the top skiers was surprisingly far above the NCAA competitions we have watched. The power, technique, skill, and tempo of the racers were far beyond what we have seen. We had had no idea of how strategic top-level racing is, with all kinds of cat and mouse (after you, Alphonse) games going on among the top skiers. The waxing conditions were challenging, and the Norwegians always got it right; others had occasional moments of slipping on the uphills or being overtaken on the downs because their wax was not as good.
The US skiers we came to watch (a couple of Dartmouth '92 friends of our daughters and a couple of local New England racers) did not come near the medal stands. However, the US men had the best finish in the relay that they have ever had (5th) and a couple of strong individual finishes. Our friend Nina Kemppel finally had her best result over four Olympics (and of any American woman ever) as she finished 15th in the 30-kilometer classical race on the last day of the Olympics. We also had the thrill of watching Canadian Beckie Scott take a bronze, the first individual medal any North American woman has won, and the first North American medal of any kind since Bill Koch in 1976.
These excellent results for Americans in international racing were eclipsed in the press by the news of the skiers disqualified and medals withdrawn because of blood tests showing blood doping. For high-level endurance sports like cross-country skiing and cycling, it has been an open secret for years that various teams try all kinds of methods to raise the number of red blood cells of their athletes. This permits them to transport more oxygen, a critical factor in challenging endurance events, especially at altitude. Our friends on the US team tell us that they and the Canadians do not blood dope, and that is a factor in their not being at the top in international competition. At the 2002 Olympics, Russian and Spanish cross-country skiers were found to be using a new medication just developed in the fall for treatment of anemia. In accordance with the International Olympic Union's new hard stance against drug use, they were disqualified and their gold medals withdrawn. The Russians may complain about politics in judging, but the failure of blood tests leading to disqualification is not based on politics, but on science.
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito