Sunday, February 24, 2002
Winter Games close with quite a show
SALT LAKE CITY -- With a big sigh of relief and a star-studded celebration, Utah and America bid farewell to the Olympics on Sunday during a rollicking night of song and dance, a celebration of past athletic glory, and a quick glimpse into the future.
The closing ceremony was a wild ride -- eclectic fun with a strong dose of Vegas schmaltz.
Rock band KISS, in full face paint and body armor, shared the stage with skaters Katarina Witt and Kristi Yamaguichi. Harry Connick Jr. sang while Dorothy Hamill skated. Later, in a more serious moment, the Olympic flame that burned brightly for 17 days went dark.
Most of the 2,500 athletes at the games paraded into Rice-Eccles Olympic Stadium and watched from the stands. Bobsledding bronze medalist Brian Shimer, a five-time Olympian, carried the American flag.
At the end, the athletes came down to the ice sheet on the stadium floor to mingle in the final gathering of 77 nations that came to Salt Lake City -- not all of whom got along so well.
The Russians and South Koreans showed up despite threats they might boycott the ceremony to protest what they believed was unfair judging.
The mass of skiers, skaters, snowboarders and sledders watched a ceremonial rite of passage -- the passing of the Olympic flag between the mayors of Salt Lake City and Turin, the Italian city that plays host to the 2006 games.
Earth, Wind and Fire sang. So did Gloria Estefan. Tap dancers danced. Fireworks exploded. The lights went out and a passel of fluorescent "stick men" skittered across the ice, then skaters scattered ultraviolet paint that glowed through the darkness.
Narrating the whole thing were a pair of huge skeletal dinosaur heads that hovered over the corner of the stadium, chiming in with the occasional wisecrack. Their voices were provided by Utah's favorites, Donny and Marie Osmond.
The Child of Light, urging everyone to "Light the Fire Within" throughout these games, made his final appearance. He skated with Scott Hamilton, and later led the audience in a singalong of "Happy Trails."
A crowd of 55,000 in the stadium and millions more TV viewers around the world watched this festival of Americana unfold -- kitschy, sparkling and funky.
They also saw a six-minute "introduction" to Turin, in which images of Ferraris, the Sistine Chapel and the Mona Lisa were flashed onto the ice while Italian pop star Irene Grandi sang "Volare."
Salt Lake City organizers and the International Olympic Committee were happy and relieved. The games weren't tainted by violence. Traffic problems many people predicted never materialized.
IOC president Jacques Rogge watched much of the ceremony with Vice President Dick Cheney and Salt Lake Organizing Committee president Mitt Romney.
Rogge kept true to the promise that he would not call any Olympics "the best games ever," as his predecessor, Juan Antonio Samaranch often did.
In his closing remarks, Rogge thanked the city and country "for offering us these two unforgettable weeks" and applauded the athletes for "great performances."
"We were thrilled by your spirit of fair play and brotherhood," he said. "Keep this flame alight. Promote the Olympic dream in your countries. You are the true ambassadors of the Olympic values."
Rogge also thanked the security forces that kept the games safe.
"People of America, Utah and Salt Lake City, you have given the world superb games," he added. "You have reassured us that people from all countries can live peacefully together. Thank you. Thank you."
When the speeches ended, Willie Nelson sang "Bridge Over Troubled Water," a touching counterbalance to the glitz of the rest of the show.
Salt Lake City put on a good show despite the various scandals, roadblocks and distractions that buffeted these games from their origin to the very end.
Now that the Olympics are leaving the nation for at least 10 years -- Athens, Turin and Beijing are the next three hosts -- the United States and IOC will take an unflinching look at what went wrong and how to prevent future problems.
"I can only assure I'll do my best to see that everything goes in the right direction," Rogge said.
The tumult began in 1998, when members of the Salt Lake City Olympic bid committee were accused of bribing IOC officials to bring the games to Utah.
During the games, a judging controversy in figure skating overshadowed almost everything else over the first 10 days. At the end, Russians claimed there had been a North American judging bias and threatened to walk out.
Long before that, the games were thrown into jeopardy because of the Sept. 11 attacks. A $310 million security effort turned this city, home of the Mormon church, into an armed fortress.
Even at the closing ceremony, those cuddly Olympic mascots, Copper, Coal and Powder, weren't nearly as visible as the unofficial symbols of these games -- police officers and metal detectors.
Was it worth the trouble?
It's hard to say `No' considering all the exciting achievements.
Chris Klug. Sarah Hughes. Jim Shea. Ole Einar Bjoerndalen. Vonetta Flowers. All of them made history in their own way, and reminded the world of what the Olympics are really about -- sports.
The Americans won 34 medals at these games, shattering their old record of 13. It still wasn't enough to put them ahead of Germany (35) in the total medal count.
Still, these were America's games.
At the opening ceremony, U.S. athletes carried the tattered flag from the World Trade Center into the stadium. Later, the American "Miracle on Ice" hockey team lighted the Olympic torch.
While the opening truly did feel like a ceremony, the closing was a party -- irreverent, wild, rocking.
As the athletes left their seats and danced on the color-splashed stage, huge beach balls came down from the stands. The whole thing resembled a nightclub rave.
While the Olympians boogied, Jon Bon Jovi draped himself in an American flag and sang "It's My Life."
For the grand finale, a 4½ minute fireworks display lighted up the Wasatch Mountain Range -- a grand spectacle to cap a massive Olympic endeavor that was memorable for many reasons, as many good as bad.