The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, March 12, 2010


Carlisle resident covers the Vancouver Olympic Games








Ed Swift with golden girl Lindsey Vonn. (Courtesy photo)

The Vancouver Winter Olympics were the 15th Olympic Games I’ve covered for Sports Illustrated – nine winter and six summer – stretching back to 1980, when the Games were held in Lake Placid. I am sometimes asked to rank them, best to worst – a difficult task, because all were memorable for different reasons. At Lake Placid, for example, I covered the Miracle on Ice, the single biggest story of my career, a hockey game that united the nation. But the Games themselves were an organizational nightmare: the bus drivers went on strike, the local restaurants price-gouged and Lake Placid in the evening was strangely dead, a ghost town hosting an Olympics. Professionally, I loved Lake Placid. But personally I thought it was a disaster.

Vancouver? A different story. Here’s my final report card on the 2010 Winter Games, after which I’ll rank my favorites, best to worst place above “the competition.”

The competition: A+

I can’t remember an Olympics when I wouldn’t have awarded the competition at least an A. But Vancouver was unparalleled. No positive drug tests – at least none so far. The stars – from Lindsey Vonn to Shawn White to Bode Miller to Yuna Kim to Apolo Ohno to Sidney Crosby – performed like stars. That’s a good thing. Upsets are fine in football, but in the Olympics, where for four years most of these athletes toil in relative obscurity, we need the Lindsey Vonns of the world to perform up to the hype. Or it’s just hype. They did that in Vancouver.

And an exclamation point was put on the entire Olympics when, on the final Sunday, Canada won the men’s hockey gold medal on an overtime goal by Sid the Kid in one of the most-watched and thrilling hockey games ever played.

I was in the crowd, covering that game for our website, (The figure skating competition, which had kept me busy until then, had ended.) Certainly I would rank the U.S. Olympic victory over the Soviet Union in 1980 ahead of this one for drama and emotional impact. But for sustained crowd noise (Canada, after all, led almost the entire game), for its upbeat tempo, for its brilliant goaltending, and for the quality of play, the 2010 Canada-U.S. final comes close. (Interestingly, it was the first time since 1980 that the home team won the hockey gold medal.) When the U.S., with the goalie pulled, tied the game with 24 seconds left, the building went from a full-throttle deafening roar to pin-drop quiet in a heartbeat. As an American hockey fan, I found that beautiful. That it was Crosby, the youthful face of Canada’s game, who scored the gold medal-winning goal put a stamp of destiny on the event. Even for the silver medal-winning Americans, the surprise team of the tournament, it was satisfying. Great theater, and great for the sport.

Other highlights? The figure skating was exceptional. Leaving the ice dancing competition, an event I seldom write about, Paul Wylie, the 1992 men’s silver medalist who was commentating on radio, said to me: “That’s the best ice dancing I’ve seen since 1984.” He was harkening back to the incomparable Torville and Dean. Certainly it was the best ice dancing I’d ever seen. The gold medal-winning Canadians, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, were breathtaking. But so were the American silver medalists, Meryl Davis and Charlie White.

In the men’s competition Evan Lysacek became the first U.S. man to win gold since Brian Boitano in 1988. He was flawless in both his short and free-skating programs, though he won without attempting the most athletic jump in the sport, the quad.

The highlight in figure skating, though, was the ladies, who served up two unforgettable nights of beauty, athleticism and emotional weight. Korean gold medalist Yuna Kim was perfect despite all the pressure she was under to succeed – the sign of a true champion. Kim is the best women skater I’ve ever seen, and I believe she’ll go down as one of the all-time greats. Mao Asada of Japan, who finished second, landed three clean triple axels, a first for a woman in the Olympics. And Canadian bronze medalist Joannie Rochette, whose mother had died suddenly in Vancouver two days earlier, brought tears to everyone’s eyes as she skated with such poise through her sadness.

For pure guts, these Games also gave us cross-country skier Petra Majdic of Slovenia, who broke four ribs and suffered a collapsed lung after falling into a rock-filled gully during a training run. Two days later, despite those injuries, Majdic won the bronze medal in the individual classic sprint. She was in such pain she had to be helped onto the podium during the medal ceremony, unable to climb up the step without assistance.

The weather: D+

The first five days I was in Vancouver, which is where the figure skating and hockey games were held, it drizzled. Then the weather cleared for the next four or five days and temperatures hit the ‘50s. Flowering trees began to blossom. Daffodils bloomed. That was followed by another week of overcast and rain. So it didn’t feel like a Winter Games. It felt like April in New England.

Snow had to be trucked in to hold the snowboarding competitions at nearby Cypress Mountain. Up at Whistler, where the alpine events were held, the weather was even more problematical. Snow, driving rain, fog – skiers had them all to contend with. And it wasn’t just an aesthetic problem. The weather severely affected the slalom and the ski cross events, which were held the last few days, when there wasn’t time to wait for the skies to clear. The pea-soup fog caused about half the slalom racers to ski off the course or fall. The driving rain all but blinded the ski cross competitors. Four years of training, and then you compete in slop. It was a shame.

VANOC, The organizing committee: B

It’s a huge undertaking hosting an Olympics, and things are going to go wrong. The first week in Vancouver, they did. First, and worst, was when a Georgian luger died during a training run, crashing into an unpadded steel post after flying off the track. Even before the accident, competitors had complained the course was dangerously fast and the walls weren’t high enough on several turns. Canadian authorities had also severely restricted access to the new track before the Games in order to give the Canadian sliders a “home track” advantage. It was part of their “own the podium” strategy, and decidedly not in the Olympic spirit. The accident got the Games off to a bad start.

Other problems included local anti-Olympic protests that snarled traffic the opening weekend. At the Opening Ceremonies, one of the huge torches beneath the floor of the stadium failed to rise on cue, leaving one of the torch lighters with nothing to do. Then there was the brouhaha over a tall cyclone fence that surrounded the Olympic Flame downtown, making the torch look as if it were burning in a prison camp. At the speedskating oval, both ice resurfacing machines broke down, delaying the competition and requiring replacement Zambonis to be delivered from Calgary. And a dozen or so spectators at an outdoor rock concert were hospitalized when a barrier in front of the stage collapsed.

All in all, the list of glitches was a little longer and more serious than is usual at an Olympics. But a funny thing happened the last ten days. VANOC got its act together and made what one of my colleagues, S.L. Price, called “one of the great comebacks of all time.” Those things that could be fixed, were fixed, and new problems didn’t arise. The cyclone fence surrounding the torch downtown was replaced by Plexiglas, a more visually appealing barrier. There were no lapses in security. Buses ran on time. Police controlled the immense crowds without dampening enthusiasm. (One of the ways they did that was to close liquor stores four hours earlier than usual.) Vancouver was a fun, safe place to be.

Atmosphere: A

The crowds downtown were unreal. All day, and deep into the night, sidewalks were teeming, streets were abuzz, bars were full, and song filled the air. These Olympics gave birth to an outpouring of Canadian pride, which had always been there, pulsing beneath the surface like a heartbeat, but which spilled out overtly during the 17 days of the Vancouver Games. People just kept showing up from outlying towns, wearing their Team Canada jerseys, or jackets emblazoned with “Canada,” or wearing funny hats, or red-painted faces. They would spontaneously, raucously burst into ear-splitting renditions of Oh Canada!, their hoarse voices drunk with cheer. And when the taverns were too crowded to let them inside, they would gather in bands outside the windows to watch the hockey games while standing in the drizzle on the street. It was all about being there, sharing the experience. They didn’t need tickets to the events to feel part of these Olympics. (Though the events were all sold out.) But they needed to be part of the scene. It was a festive, carnival-like atmosphere. And while there was some public drunkenness and some arrests, it was a generally safe, festive mood that prevailed, men, women, children, all waving flags, wearing maple leaves and adorned in red. (Mind you, if the U.S. had scored the game-winning goal in overtime in hockey, things might have turned from festive to ugly fairly quickly.)

It was an entirely different mood from the one four years ago in Torino, where it was as if the local populace was intent on showing itself too cool to embrace a sporting event like the Olympics. Or even two years ago in Beijing, where huge crowds choked the sidewalks, but did so without smiles. Spontaneity is not a big part of modern China. Vancouver was all about spontaneity, about celebration, about the joy of winter sport.

American Evan Lysacek (center), Men’s Figureskating gold-medal winner. On the left Evgeni Plushenko and right Daisuke Takahashi. (Photo by Ed Swift)

My favorite Winter Olympic Games:

1) Sarajevo, 1984 - Heavy snow. Heavy smoke in loud, hot bars filled with burly locals who tried to make you understand their native tongue. A population which had been isolated behind the Iron Curtain, so appreciative to be hosting the outside world, you had the feeling they’d have done anything for you. They cheered every medal-winning performance as if it were their own.

2) Lillehammer, 1994 - Cold, clear air. Fresh white powder. Grandmothers grocery-shopping via sleds on snow-covered roads. The Northern Lights. Small. Old fashioned. The only taint on these fairy-tale Games? Tonya Harding.

3) Vancouver, 2010

4) Albertville, 1992 - A wonderful Opening Ceremonies, very French. The Alps. Wonderful food, of course. Ski villages and chalets. Kristi Yamaguchi winning gold and Paul Wylie winning silver, both great stories to tell, especially Wylie’s, a Boston boy at Harvard who was 27.

5) Calgary 1988 - What I remember best is the figure skating. I had covered hockey at the two previous Winter Games, and suddenly I was following some of the greatest skating stars in the history of the sport: Brian Boitano, Brian Orser, Katarina Witt, and Ekaterina and Sergei Grinkov. I wrote about them all, and I was hooked. Snow blanketed the city early, then a Chinook blew in and the weather was sunny and warm. Canadian friendly

6) Salt Lake City, 2002 - After a rough start (the scandal involving the bribery of IOC officials in order to land the Games in the first place) the locals did a great job hosting the world. Salt Lake City, with its modern airport, its proximity to the mountains, and its sports facilities make it an ideal site for an Olympics. The only problem is, well, it’s Salt Lake City.

7) Torino, 2006 - Another site where the city and the mountains were inconveniently distant, a couple of hours by bus. Like Vancouver, it rained in the city and snowed in the mountains. The food, of course, was fantastic. But the Italians didn’t embrace the Games as Vancouverites did.

8) Nagano, 1998 - This is a personal thing. The Japanese did a great job with these Games, and the people could not have been more hospitable. But there was no place I found to gather with my colleagues at night, the figure skating wasn’t memorable, and my hotel room was small and the bed hard. The hotel elevator gave me a chuckle, though. Its brass plate was inscribed with the following floor buttons: 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Robby. I kid you not.

9) Lake Placid, 1980 - I covered all six of America’s gold medals. Speedskater Eric Heiden won five, and the U.S. hockey team won the sixth. So from a sportswriting point of view, I was in heaven. It was a lousy site for an Olympics, though. Way too small; no public transportation; few restaurants; no night spots to hang out in. The Olympic Village was later converted to a prison. How dead was the town? The night the U.S. Olympic hockey team beat the Russians, the game was shown on ABC via tape delay. Where did the team watch it? The lounge of the Holiday Inn. I sat at a table with Dave Silk, and Silky’s sister. Kind of fun, actually. Small town. It helped give me my love of the Olympic Games, which has yet to diminish.∆

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