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No excuses were needed.
Athletes from virtually every corner claimed gold for the Americans, from a quartet of speedskaters to Hughes, Jill Bakken in bobsled, and two couples who swept their events — Jim Shea and Tristan Gale in skeleton and Kelly Clark and Ross Powers in snowboarding’s halfpipe.
Who were the stars of 2002?
They eclipsed even the most optimistic medal predictions, an astonishing accomplishment considering the U.S. had won just 13 medals at the 1998 Nagano Games four years earlier.
"I have seen a significant change over the four Olympics that I’ve been to," Nordic combined skier Bill Demong said after the Vancouver Games. In Nagano, "we felt like we were a small country at the Olympic Games. As a whole team, we felt like one of the outsiders at the Winter Olympics. Now, we’re here to win."
Show them the money
Having decided it needed to shine on home soil, the U.S. Olympic Committee spent $40 million on its Podium 2002 project for the Salt Lake Games, nearly double what it spent to prepare for Nagano. It funneled cash to athletes for living and training expenses, boosted the bonuses for winning medals and dedicated more resources to research and technology — creating along the way a template that organizers have followed ever since.
The Canadians dedicated $110 million to their Own the Podium project, for example, which resulted in 14 gold medals at the Vancouver Games — most ever by a single nation — and a national-record 26 medals overall. And now, the Russians are dedicating a staggering $3 billion to develop sports in their country, in advance of the 2014 Sochi Games.
"In Sochi, we need to win," prime minister Vladimir Putin told athletes at a recent announcement of the plan.
In Salt Lake City, that’s what the Americans did, better than almost anybody else.
Though Norway won the most gold medals (13) and Germany won the most medals overall (36), the United States was close on both counts and enjoyed the prestige of hosting what many viewed as the perfect Olympics — scarred though it was by all those scandals.
A feel-good finish
Not only did local organizers endure the blowback from the bid scandal, but the International Olympic Committee eventually had to award duplicate gold medals to Canada’s Jamie Salé and David Pelletier after it was revealed that a French judge — Marie-Reine Le Gougne — was pressured into voting against them in the pairs figure-skating competition.
And just as the Games were ending after an epic gold-medal men’s hockey game in which the Canadians joyously snapped a 50-year championship drought, the IOC expelled three cross-country skiers, Larisa Lazutina and Olga Danilova of Russia and Johann Muehlegg of Spain, for doping.
Ultimately, the skiers were stripped of all their medals — five gold and three silver among them.
But all of that hardly dampened the memories or enthusiasm of most of the fans, athletes and volunteers who made the Olympics special. For many of them, it was a perfect time in a perfect place, a spellbinding combination of wondrous weather, friendly fans and a sense of global community that won’t soon be forgotten.
"It’s still, to me, definitely my favorite Olympic experience," said short-track speedskater Apolo Ohno, the soul-patched hero whose gold and silver medals at the Salt Lake Olympics turned him into a celebrity. "It was my first one, and it was a time at which our country needed to come together.
"It was post-9/11 and our country’s morale needed something to cheer for, needed something to collectively come together around," he added. "I think the Olympic Games uniquely has the ability to do that for people, and the city of Salt Lake and the people of Utah really came together and — in my opinion — really pulled off a big win."
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