So they say the Winter Olympics are coming back to Utah, where it was proved so long ago, after a bit of early rough sledding — and skating and skiing and ski jumping and snowboarding and skeletoning and secret bribing — that they belong here. They’re a natural here. They’re comfortable here. They work here. They’re done right here. They don’t have to be lured here in 10 clandestine monthly payments of bagged unmarked Benjamins to return. They are us, we are them, blue-bloods, haute mondes, traffic jams and all.
The International Olympic Committee confirmed last week that Salt Lake City is the preferred site for the Winter Games in 2034, 32 years after their original trip.
And what a trip the original was. If the encore is anywhere within a shout of the first go-round, it’ll be something to eagerly anticipate and celebrate.
These are some of the things that, upon review, stood and still stand out to me and maybe to you, if you happened to be alive and around in 2002:
The opening and closing ceremonies were cool and cold and glorious, although at times a bit artistically weird. The field at Rice-Eccles Stadium, a building that had been renovated, in part, in preparation for the Games, was transformed into the world’s largest skating rink for the opener, with what seemed like a hundred-thousand people skating and standing around, dancing and firing off pyrotechnics, dressed out in everything from evil icicle garb to tribal gear. Rock bands powered up their guitars and banged their drums, choirs sang, aristocrats walked around looking aristocratic, President Bush hung out in the stands with Team USA, the gold-medal-winning 1980 “Miracle On Ice” U.S. Olympic hockey team lit the torch.
The fire was lit within and it was a good thing because everyone on hand was freezing without.
Berets. Berets were everywhere, on every other head because for some reason that became the fashion statement of the 2002 Games. Folks who normally drove F-150 pickups walked around looking like they were bohemian artists or in the French Foreign Legion. Although they had a certain je ne sais quoi quality to them, after February ended, berets were never worn again by anyone, except for maybe on Halloween. Perhaps if we’re all still here in 11 years, we can dust and bust them out again.
After 9/11, with security on everyone’s mind and weaponry in every uniformed holster, the entrances to venues, like at the Utah Olympic Park, took on the appearance of prison fortifications, with security personnel checking bags, pockets, hats, shoes, sleeves, teeth, body orifices, in order to make safe every setting. The scene made airport security look like an open freeway entrance. The whole thing was inconvenient and somewhat war-zone-like, but also reassuring.
Athletes were all around, eating in restaurants, hanging out, greeting fans, getting ready for their competitions, having ... um, spontaneous relations with other athletes. But volunteers were the real heroes of those Games, the people of Utah donating their time, made not only an impact on the events, made them possible, they made visitors feel more than welcome.
One night in the parking lot near the Delta Center that had been transformed into the medals venue, after all the golds, silvers and bronzes were doled out, the anthems played, the tears shed, Creed, the top-selling band that time-stamped that very brief era, filled the air with sounds of “My Sacrifice” and “With Arms Wide Open.”
A favorite few moments of mine were those at the back end of the luge competition in Park City. After the top competitors had taken their turns, the rest of the field crashed and bashed as they slid down the course, looking as though they had taken up luging … oh, about five minutes before the competition began. One “athlete,” a 270-pounder whose stomach spread across his sled like icing on a cake donut, bonked on the fourth turn and bit it hard. The famous saying came to mind from old Lord What’s-His-Name, who said something about it being better to have competed and gotten your body parts smashed in than to never have competed at all.
The judging scandal at the ice rink captured headlines when a French judge — Marie Reine Le Gougne — made like a character in a David Baldacci thriller, getting in cohorts with a Russian judge, enabling pairs skaters Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze to receive a gold medal at the expense of Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, who later were awarded golds, too.
The 2002 Olympics were the only time in memory when for two weeks straight the streets of downtown Salt Lake were buzzing with people, people from all over the world — at least places where people care about games played on snow and ice — at 1 in the morning. The place was popping at all hours.
Curling was a thing. Most Utahns were familiar with skiing and skating and sledding, but this ancient endeavor straight out of the North seemed more like a mix of chucking rocks and sweeping out the garage than it did a bonafide Olympic sport. It was fascinating to see in person. Everyone on hand learned terms like, “skip” and “hog line” and “end” and “house” and “biter” and “stones” and “pebble.” It was part mesmerizing, part somniferous.
There were stories, some of them amazing, some heartwarming, stories like American speedskater Chris Witty not only winning gold in the 1,000 meters, but setting a world record, after being diagnosed with mononucleosis just three weeks before the Games. Part of her prep was sleeping 12 hours a day. There was American snowboarder Chris Klug, who was the recipient of a transplanted liver two years before, winning a bronze medal in parallel giant slalom on Feb. 15, which was National Organ Donor Awareness Day. There was Jim Shea winning a gold medal in skeleton, tucking inside his helmet a picture of his grandfather, Jack, who had won a gold in speedskating years before. Jack died a few weeks earlier in an auto accident. Jim said afterward: “I felt him here today. He had some unfinished business before he went to heaven. Now I think he can go.” There was Sarah Hughes, laying on a cement floor deep in the bowels of the Delta Center, jumping up as she was informed that she had won the gold in women’s figure skating.
The Wasatch Range was another star of those Games, the mountains glistening every day and night as crowds gathered for events and NBC’s cameras beamed the scenery into TV dens around the country.
Utah, over that span, felt like the center of the universe. It wasn’t, but so it seemed, a winter wonderland, the mother of a vast snow-capped competition, an international party where every peace-loving human on the planet was welcome, where much more than gold medals were won. Even Creed sounded good at the 2002 Games.
Let’s see 2034 top that.