Olympics: Golden ... and not so golden

One reporter's impressions of Vancouver's athletes, organization

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The XXI Winter Olympics are over, available for participants and the public to cherish or dismiss as they wish and, for me, to go back home for a few days.

Some impressions I expect to carry well after clearing customs this morning ...

I did not know Sidney Crosby at all before these Games, having covered the Pirates all through his Pittsburgh career. But I feel like I had a chance to experience the very best of him, on and off the ice, even in this short span.

For all the media crush here, he handled all questions -- big and small, pointed and stupid -- with a tireless professionalism. When asked why he smiled so rarely early in the Olympics, he laughed and responded with candor about his frustrations. When drowning amid a sea of cameras and microphones Sunday, after scoring the ultimate goal in the ultimate game, he was no different.

An amazing athlete and individual.

He always found an extra few seconds for the guy from Pittsburgh, too, which should tell you something about his wanting to stay connected to the Penguins' fans.

Even if he thought none of you were pulling for him.

Never does one feel more like a Pittsburgher than when away from home. And never does one feel more American than when abroad.

I knew Herb Brooks from his time with the Penguins, and I learned firsthand of his love for hockey in the United States. I can confess to you that, partly because of Brooks, partly because of simple patriotism, I enjoyed no moment in these Olympics more than the Americans' preliminary-round victory against Canada.

At least not until Zach Parise's fabulous tying strike Sunday.

Upper St. Clair's Ryan Malone, the Penguins' Brooks Orpik and all of the U.S. roster did a lot of Americans proud. And I'm not too proud to admit to you I was one of those.

Best sporting event I've covered in 20 years at the Post-Gazette.

Maybe the best hockey game ever played, considering the rosters, the stakes and the drama.

Even with that loss, this was the most successful Winter Olympics for the United States, with 37 medals, including nine golds.

And yet, no matter how much one would prod a U.S. Olympic Committee official for a quote boasting about this, none came. Even after that remarkable Wednesday when Lindsey Vonn, Shani Davis and Shaun White took gold, the USOC issued a bland three-sentence congratulatory statement.

As Chuck Noll once admonished one of his Steelers for celebrating a touchdown: Act like you've been there before.

Vancouver organizers should have known it would be a difficult Games when that mechanical cauldron failed to rise during the opening ceremonies, but they probably never expected the cauldron would continue to be issue No. 1 with many.

When they placed it in an already dense part of downtown -- behind the broadcasting center, for TV impact -- that created a crush of people coming to see it day and night. Worse by far, organizers ringed the cauldron, a global symbol of peace and freedom, with a barbed-wire fence.

A public outcry ensued about the latter, and it took four days of deliberation to decide ... to replace the fence with a plexiglass wall with holes for cameras.

I covered only one other Games, those the finely tuned machine in Athens, Greece, six years ago. The difference in the level of organization was about as great as the geographic distance.

And the media here was, at times, vicious.

The Russian newspaper Pravda wrote: "Maybe it is this which makes the Canadians so retentive, or cowardly. ... Vancouver is mutton dressed as lamb. Take off the outer veneer, and the stench is horrific."

Filip Bondy of the Daily News in New York one day wrote that he liked the view of the harbor, as well as the pen that came with the hotel room: "And there you have it. I just wrote two nice things about these Olympics. Don't get used to it."

Those were over-the-top, obviously, but, when the tight-budgeted organizers elected not to build dedicated housing other than the athletes' Olympic Village, did not assign dedicated transportation, and did not even paint dedicated bus lines onto downtown streets, the result was a massive, endless mess. And yes, much of that inconvenienced the people paid to describe the Games to the rest of the world.

What did the organizers think would happen in creating about 10,000 angry reporters?

All of my criticism, of course, had nothing to do with any of the above. I was delighted to spend half my days on trains and buses, and remained a consummate professional throughout.

For every booze-breathed college kid who poured beer at the feet of a couple wearing USA jackets, there was someone like the young volunteer who walked five blocks out of her way to guide me to a train station. Or the guy at Starbucks who, upon spotting the word "Pittsburgh" on my Olympic credential, thanked me for "sending Crosby here" and gave me a pin.


The Canadians, to their credit, owned up to these failures. National criticism was thick and vocal, as was the embarrassment of the low medal count through the middle of last week. But the athletes, if not the organizers, bounced back by winning 14 golds, more than any country in Olympic history.

The hosts' total medal haul was 26, below expectations and hardly a match for the $117 million investment that was double that of the United States. But I will guess that what happened Sunday makes up for a lot.

Another confession: It was fun covering any championships or even just highly competitive, intense, meaningful events.

My final few years of covering the Penguins, they were the NHL's worst. And you probably know how the Pirates have done.

A reporter never should allow the subject matter to dictate the diligence of the coverage, but there were juices flowing on the night Davis got his 1,000-meter speed skating gold that I was not sure still existed. My media seat at the spectacular Richmond Oval was no more than 20 feet from the finish line, and my fingers trembled as he made the final turn.

It was a little cold in there, too.

The worst seat I had was the chairlift ride in Whistler, back down from the Alpine skiing venue. A shuttle bus took me up the hill, but none was available to go back down, so it was two minutes of sheer terror.

Sounds like no big deal?

OK, you try it with two fists filled with reporters' equipment that, if you lose, you're through.

Favorite interaction with an athlete came when I asked Apolo Anton Ohno after a bumpy finish to the 1,500-meter short-track race what he saw coming down the stretch.

"This is what I saw: I saw a Korean hand on my leg with a lap-and-a-half to go, and I lost a ton of speed," he said. "It was a very, very aggressive race, right from the beginning. I have no regrets. I gave my all, and I was rewarded with the silver medal."

He spoke the word "Korean" the way you say "Ravens."

Ohno's medal that night was his sixth, tying Bonnie Blair for the most in U.S. winter history, and he wound up with eight.

These were hyped by some as the "Vonn-couver" Games, but that hardly played out: Vonn won gold in her first -- and best -- event, the downhill, and bronze in the super-G. But she crashed in the other three disciplines.

Excuses were made, from her shin to her pinky to accusations that an Austrian course designer had "Vonn-proofed" the course in the super-G that I covered. But three crashes in five races is not the stuff of Wheaties boxes.

In contrast, no individual U.S. athlete overachieved more than figure skater Evan Lysacek, whose outside-linebacker stature, bold tone and I'll-do-it-my-way program gave Americans rare, recent cause to take pride in the sport.

Equally impressive was how Lysacek handled post-skate criticism -- including from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin -- for failing to match Evgeni Plushenko's quad jump. Plushenko was vocal, too.

"Evgeni gave me a firm handshake right after the event," Lysacek said. "He didn't say anything to me then."

Also very American: Say it to my face, dude.

Let the news conference of the U.S. snowboarders -- one in which I laughed nearly the entire hour -- as well as White's riveting conclusion to the halfpipe, serve as proof that sports can be fun.

Hannah Teter, a halfpipe ace and recent Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, told the reporters: "I'm donating all of my contest money this season to Haiti relief. ... So, um, yeah, there's that."

After the room burst into laughter, she continued.

"And I do sell maple syrup. I have underwear coming out for charity. Get some 'Sweet cheeks' underwear at sweetcheekspanties.com."

That is for Doctors without Borders.

Perhaps someone can relay that fun concept to the Canadians, who used the word "pressure" in nearly every sentence related to these Olympics. It's just a bunch of games.

I am no fan of judged sports, which made it all the more special -- scintillating, actually -- when Korea's "Queen" Yu-Na Kim turned in the greatest women's figure skating score in history Thursday night: No judges were needed.

There is something special about transcendent athletes, and this one is 19 years old with two or more Olympics still to come.

One word seldom spoken here: Doping. And not once associated with the Americans.

Security was another bright spot. Police presence was visible without being overbearing, and the only area where it was lacking -- containing rowdy youngsters in the early stages -- gradually was addressed by an alcohol cutoff.

The brief riot Feb. 13 that vandalized a department store was the only incident, and that is to the Canadians' credit.

The brightest spot was the Canadians' palpable passion for these Games: They were everywhere, all in red, all cheering or chanting or texting their friends about everything from hockey to curling to biathlon. They filled the venues -- all of them, it seemed -- and filled street corners in front of large-screen televisions, from downtown Vancouver to the old-style Whistler Village.

"I have never seen a city embrace a Games like Vancouver," IOC president Jacques Rogge said.

No one could dispute it.

Emotional as Rogge was at the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, the fact that it took him two weeks to acknowledge any level of responsibility for the IOC -- "moral responsibility," he called it Wednesday -- was one of the Games' great gaffes.

The buck has to stop somewhere, and the IOC has -- and had -- the authority to tell the International Luge Federation that speeding up the track by 6-8 mph was dangerous.

But the athletes need to speak up, too. The lugers I interviewed in Whistler two days after the tragedy mostly were happy to have sledded off the lower ramps at lower speeds. As Slovakia's Domen Pociecha told me, "Safety comes first."

For all the gold won here, there is something uniquely Olympian about the passion that goes into the bronze.

The Finnish women's hockey team came here with bronze in mind, actually, as they and the rest of the world remain a galaxy below Canada and the United States in their sport. And so it was that when Karoliina Rantamaki scored one of the prettiest goals of those Olympics, male or female, to sink rival Sweden in overtime, the Finns followed up with a celebration for the ages: Leaping, crying, hugging and, later with the medal ceremony, thrusting their chins higher than anyone.

Best bronze went to Canadian skater Joannie Rochette, whose mother died on the eve of competition. She would have been embraced by people here even if all she did was skate. That she won bronze with a seamless skate has made her, already, a national treasure.

If the Russians organize the 2014 Sochi Olympics as well as they organized their hockey team, then they will make everyone forget Vancouver's ineptitude.

Nine players of 23 were culled from Russia's Kontinental Hockey League, as was mind-bending coach Slava Bykov, and their discord -- on and off the ice -- made for a spectacle far more worthy of Pravda's wrath than anything the Canadians did.

Watching the U.S. women cry after their hockey loss to Canada was one thing. Seeing Pavol Demitra of the Slovak men's team -- and the Vancouver Canucks -- cry after the bronze loss to Finland, that was something else entirely.

Say what you will about the NHL's participation in these Olympics, but show me another set of North American professional athletes that would bleed like this for their countries.

Anyone know how many days until pitchers and catchers report?

Dejan Kovacevic: dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . Find more at our Kovacevic at the Olympics blog. First Published March 1, 2010 5:00 AM


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