Winter Olympics: Tragedy, glitches and glory at star-crossed games
Associated Press Writer
VANCOUVER, British Columbia — These Olympics will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.
For every golden moment, there was a glitch. Opening day of an electrifying hockey tournament in Vancouver was also the day 20,000 tickets had to be canceled for Cypress Mountain.
Even the games' emotional high point — a figure-skating bronze for Canada's Joannie Rochette, whose mother had died four days earlier — was tinged with sorrow.
And it all began, of course, with the worst news imaginable.
Son of a Soviet-era slider, pride of a spruce-nestled ski town half a world away, member of an almost laughably small Olympic delegation, Nodar Kumaritashvili shot down the luge track at nearly 90 mph.
Athletes had suggested the course at Whistler was so fast it tempted fate, and Kumaritashvili himself was terrified of it. He raced anyway. "I will either win or die," he told his father.
He lasted 49 seconds before the track claimed his life. The start of a star-crossed Olympics.
The Vancouver Games opened with grief, and they end under a shadow as everlasting as those cast by the hooded assassins of Munich and the midnight thunder of Atlanta.
Kumaritashvili came to rest on a metal walkway that runs along the track, one foot awkwardly propped on the wall of the course. His sled skidded to the finish line. It was a death in the Olympic family.
"May you carry his Olympic dream on your shoulders, and compete with his spirit in your hearts," Vancouver organizing committee chief John Furlong said at the opening ceremony.
It wasn't much later that the games suffered their first glitch — nothing compared with the luge tragedy, but also a lasting symbol of these Olympics. The indoor cauldron at BC Place malfunctioned, spoiling perhaps the most climactic moment of any games.
An outdoor cauldron, meanwhile, was blocked by an unsightly chain-link fence. Complaints that it made for lousy photographs led organizers to open a rooftop viewing plaza and replace part of the fence with clear plastic.
Weather played havoc with the schedule. It was alternately too mild, too wet, too foggy or too snowy, forcing one postponement after another. "Wouldn't mind racing already," tweeted ticked-off American skier Ted Ligety.
Human error marred the games, too. On a single day at the biathlon, a Swedish woman was held up at her start gate for 14 seconds, and two of the men went off too early. Officials later corrected for the errors.
"It is embarrassing," said Norbert Baier, the technical delegate of the International Biathlon Union. "Why do we have this incompetence?"
And in men's speedskating, a gaffe of historic proportion: Sven Kramer of the Netherlands cruised to what would have been easy gold and an Olympic record time in the 10,000 meters — but was disqualifed because his coach sent him into the wrong lane at the end of the back straightaway.
If Kramer needs consolation, all he has to do is look at the gold he won in the 5,000. He managed an Olympic record there, too — one that actually stuck.
Elsewhere, competition provided a welcome distraction.
Lindsey Vonn, she of the most famous shin at the Olympics, skied to gold in her signature event, the downhill, and picked up a bronze in the super-G. She failed to finish three of her five races, but the haul was fine by her.
"I have the gold medal that I came here for, and I couldn't be happier," she said.
At the speedskating oval, Shani Davis and Chad Hedrick shared the podium — Davis with a gold and a silver, Hedrick with a silver and a bronze. This time, unlike in Turin, they actually looked like they could stand each other.
If you wanted drama, you had to look to the figure skating rink. American Evan Lysacek won gold, but without even attempting the celebrated quadruple jump — drawing open contempt from Russia's defending champion Evgeni Plushenko, who took the silver.
In fact, Russia went home without a figure-skating gold of any kind, the first time that's happened since 1960. Russia's overall Olympic performance was so dismal that members of parliament back home were calling for sports officials to resign.
Not exactly a happy family for a nation that hosts the next Winter Games, in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in 2014.
South Korea's Kim Yu-na was no drama. Only Queen. Her breathtaking routine — five minutes of twists and twirls, a routine called one of the greatest of all time — was more than good enough for gold.
U.S. skier Bode Miller, party boy of Turin, finally got his gold medal — and went home with a silver and a bronze, too. In fact, the U.S. — not the usual suspects like Switzerland, Sweden or Germany — dominated the mountain, even taking gold in a Nordic event for the first time.
On the halfpipe, Shaun White already had his gold medal, not to mention celebrity status, in the bank. For an encore, he advanced his sport and unleashed the Double McTwist 1260 — two board-over-head flips inside 3½ twists. What's next, the movies?
"Only action-packed ones," he said. "Slo-mo running. Flying off buildings."
Apolo Anton Ohno became the most decorated American Winter Olympian ever, racking up his eighth lifetime medal — though he went home without a gold in Vancouver.
In all, the United States won 37 medals, a record for the Winter Games, including nine gold. It was the first time the Americans had led the winter medals count since 1932.
As for the host nation, which invested $110 million before these games with the goal of dominating the medals stand? They never did own the podium, but they owned the top step.
And how Canada cheered.
For Alexandre Bilodeau, who bounced down the moguls course to give Canada its first gold in three Olympics on home soil, ending a drought that lasted 34 years and stretched across six provinces, from Montreal to Vancouver.
For the women's hockey team, which tore through the tournament and celebrated with cigars and booze on the ice. They later apologized — and apologizing, one Olympic TV host here said, is almost inherently Canadian.
For the men's curlers at Vancouver Olympic Center, where fans clanged cowbells and burst into song. The same sport gave us the most recognizable athletes of the games — Team Norway, with its garish, diamond-patterned pants, an online hit.
Only in Canada could a sport that literally requires looking at rocks for three hours become a party destination.
The biggest party of all? No doubt about it — Canada Hockey Place, site of an impossibly tense gold-medal hockey game. Sidney Crosby wristed the puck past American goalie Ryan Miller 7:40 into overtime. Canada 3, U.S. 2.
Canadian national honor was served, and it typified the host nation's Olympic comeback. With the Americans playing with an empty net, Canada blew a 2-1 lead with 24.4 seconds remaining in regulation when Zach Parise tied the game.
Crosby's goal completed a gold rush unmatched in Winter Games history. Canada's 14th was the one that mattered most.
Still, some of the loudest cheers were for a bronze — for Rochette, the figure skater whose mother died in Vancouver during the games and who still managed to skate for a medal.
"I just thanked my mother for the strength she could give me," Rochette said. "I don't know if she was there with me, but she definitely raised me up to have strength."
There were two doping violations — hockey players, a Russian woman and a Slovakian man, both for stimulants contained in cold medication, neither deemed worthy of more than a reprimand. That was one more than in Turin.
Organizers praised the people of Vancouver for embracing the games, and suggested the glory of Olympic competition should be considered separately from the tragedy on the games' first day.
But even IOC chief Jacques Rogge conceded the young luger's death would forever be linked to the Vancouver Games — just as the massacre in 1972 was to Munich and the park bombing in 1996 was to Atlanta.
The days that followed were not pretty. The international luge federation blamed Kumaritashvili's tactical handling of the course, not the track itself, for the death. Georgia's president, Mikhail Saakashvili, saw it differently: "No sports mistake," he said, "is supposed to lead to a death."
The luge track was shortened for competition, and the course altered, but officials said the changes were to soothe athletes' emotions, not make them safer. Later in the games, on the same track, overturned bobsleds became a common sight.
And across the world, in the heartbroken Georgian town of Bakuriani, was another mother of another Olympian. Dodo Kumaritashvili joined the lone other luger on the Georgian team as her son's body arrived back home.
She threw herself on the flag-draped casket and cried: "Why have I survived you?"
Olympic officials, their hearts heavy and their Vancouver Games now history, could be forgiven for asking the same. But the memories survive, the haunting and the proud.