SALT LAKE CITY
With the 2002 Winter Olympics due to end Sunday, Salt Lake City is looking forward to awarding itself a gold medal for performance. The most dire predictions of the doomsayers so far have been unfulfilled.
The dreaded winter climate inversion that sometimes cloaks the valley in which the Olympic venues are situated has been absent. The sky has been blue, the sun has shone, and skiers and other athletes have marveled at the magnificent mountain scenery and crisp, clean air.
While organizers once feared a shortfall of snow that might necessitate artificial snowmaking, the slopes are covered with that pristine white powder unique to the West that causes skiers reared on more icy terrain in the East to whoop with joy.
Despite foreboding about monumental traffic jams, clogged arteries, and overcrowded parking lots, tens of thousands of spectators have arrived comfortably and in good time at the indoor skating arenas and the outdoor skiing venues. Staggered business hours for commercial companies and a major diversion of commuters to mass transit have helped. When one bunch of visitors missed a connection to a distant venue 20 miles away, the local transit authority rounded up an idle bus and radio-dispatched it to them to take care of their problem. Arriving at their destination, the bus driver said they'd never make it if he dropped them in a shuttle staging area and instead drove his big bus to the very door of the arena.
All this prompted a bemused reporter from - guess where, The New York Times - to comment on the "bafflement" of outsiders at the "friendliness of the residents, especially the gamut of volunteers who say 'good morning' or 'good night' at the entrance to every event or stadium."
Meanwhile, with more troops on hand than the United States has sent to Afghanistan, the security of athletes and spectators has been assured and no Osama bin Laden look-alikes have roused the suspicions of some 15,000 additional law-enforcement officers, many of them in plain clothes, mingling with the crowds.
There was some uninformed advance reporting by some of the world's less-substantive newspapers about a liquor drought and the stolid night life of Mormon-dominated Utah. But every reporter who wanted a drink, got a drink. As for night life, huge crowds thronged the streets downtown, enjoying everything from rock concerts by bands with names incomprehensible to anybody over 30, to spectacular fireworks displays, to symphony orchestras and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir belting out the "Battle Hymn of the Republic."
A couple of the most dyspeptic critics refused to give up. In an error-laden column, a Denver Post columnist managed to insult almost every known group in Utah, but had to write a groveling apology after his newspaper disassociated itself from him and pulled the column from its Web page. (Utahns, rallied by a couple of local radio talk-show hosts, got their own back by shipping the Denver columnist 10,000 boxes of lime jello, of which Utahns are an enthusiastic consumer.) And Salt Lake City's liberal mayor Rocky Anderson, whom The New York Times called the "self-styled patron saint of sin," said there are a lot of people who don't have any fun in life and "they should stay home. Why don't these people move to an Amish village? A lot of people think this IS an Amish village."
But without any major glitches, the focus shifted to what the Games are all about, namely the skill and deportment of the athletes. Modern-day journalism adores conflict and it found it on the skating rink when the judges first awarded a gold medal to a Russian couple, Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, while many enraged experts thought it should have gone to Canadians Jamie Salé and David Pelletier. But the French judge who did the Canadians in was canned for misconduct, the Canadians were awarded a gold medal, too, and justice was done. The athletes, both Russian and Canadian, acted with class, and the much-maligned International Olympic Committee, under its new president, Jacques Rogge, moved with dispatch amid hopes that long-whispered shenanigans in figure-skating judging might be cleaned up.
In other events, there was nobility and heroism that expressed the Olympic spirit well.
Small wonder that Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, Salt Lake City Mayor Anderson, and a majority of Utahns polled all say they would be ready to host the Winter Olympics again (as did Lake Placid) even though that probably won't be for years - perhaps decades.
John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Desert News.