Winter Games

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Hermann Maier crash

The Olympics are more than just a spectacle of thrill, challenge, and fine-tuned risk.

You turn off the highway into Park City and there it is, hanging like a curled toenail from the shaggy edge of the Wasatch Range: the Olympic ski jump. It has been there for a few years now, a call to earthbound fantasy Olympians and the world's greatest gravity defiers. You see the jump -- in any season -- and you realize in a flash what these Winter Games are all about. You realize why, despite terrorism, conflict, and economic slumps, people gather every four years in a snowfilled village to challenge the laws of nature, and themselves. In mid February, a handful of people from around the globe will lift off from the end of that daunting 120-meter hill and take to the sky. And for the few seconds that these jumpers are aloft, soaring nearly 600 feet into the valley, much of the world will put aside its troubles and simply point, slack jawed: Dude, look at that guy.

So at last we have the 2002 Winter Olympics -- a big gamble, perhaps, but the kind of bet that an optimist has to make. Of course, it's been a rough road. Scandal. Financial troubles. Security jitters. In a more innocent time, the biggest concern of some was where a fan could get a drink in Utah after a day on the slopes. Then came the September attacks on America, and questions arose about whether the Games should be canceled, something that was done during both World Wars of the last century. People wondered if they would be safe. They wondered if it was even right to compete in a time of world tension. But global spirit prevailed, and an additional $40 million in federal money was added to an already hefty security budget. As Salt Lake organizing president Mitt Romney said, in defiance of the naysayers, "The Games are a symbol of the continuity of humanity and the affirmation of civilization."

People don't stop trying to be champions, Romney said, or cancel the rituals by which the world marks the passage of athletic excellence, because of fear. These Olympics, then, will be like the sports themselves: a blend of chance and thrill, a showcase of fine-tuned risk. Fingers will be crossed for all the usual reasons, and then some. But it's worth remembering that these Olympics, the first to take place in the Rocky Mountain heart of the American West, and the first Winter Games to take place on U.S. soil since 1980 in Lake Placid, will unfold in the "geography of hope," as the writer Wallace Stegner called the land on the sunset side of the 100th meridian.

When the torch is lit, the Games will again be turned over to sport, and the language of fractions from a racer's clock will predominate. More than 1.3 million tickets have been sold. Upwards of 70 nations will participate. There will be much to laugh at, mined from a tradition that gave us that flying Brit, Eddie the Eagle, and the Jamaican Bobsled Team. There will be heartbreak, when a hundredth of a second separates a lifelong dream hatched in the Dolomites from a lifelong dream born in upstate New York. Mostly, there will be moments -- something wondrous in early 2002 -- that will outlive the chill of September 2001.

On either side of the Wasatch Range, from the hockey games and figure skating in Salt Lake, to the downhill and super G runs at Snowbasin, to the snowboarding and slalom competitions at Park City, frozen venues will be at their liveliest while much of the world is still in a state of winter hibernation. The Games will rouse us, in the way that only outdoor sport can during the dark months.

Consider the Olympic downhill. I did. One week last winter, some friends and I put together a Walter Mitty Olympics. The downhill calls us, like the jump. It says, Take a chance. Let it go. We rode to the top of John Paul Peak at Snowbasin, and after an obligatory lecture by the ski patrol on the risk of falling too quickly into gravity's groove, we edged up to the starting gate, readyy for a drop of nearly 3,000 vertical feet on a course less than 10,000 feet long. Pushing off was like falling over a cliff. I took the run cautiously, turning sharply to slow my speed, and near the end, in a mid flight instant of lost concentration, came splat down on my face.

The run brought home just how difficult it is to shape a human body into a bullet, to anticipate turns before they happen, to control forces not meant to be controlled by mere bipeds. But again, that is the thrill of the Olympics.

Take the Herminator, Austrian Hermann Maier, the dominant skier of his age, and the recent chapter of his storied life. He was looking to Utah to add to past Olympic gold glory, perhaps as his crowning moment. But in August, he had a devastating motorcycle accident. He suffered serious fractures in his right leg, and at one point the doctors thought he might lose it to amputation. Whether he will ski at the elite level in the near future seems unlikely. But then again, who can forget Maier's gritty performance at Nagano in 1998, when he overshot the downhill course and went into a spectacular flight, somersault, and crash? He rose and came back to get gold in the super G and giant slalom. Not for nothing is his new nickname the Determinator.

Other athletes have taken similar routes, from despair to triumph. Last year, one of America's top snowboarders, Chris Klug, needed a liver transplant to save his life. He lives with the same degenerative disease that killed Walter Payton. With the new organ, Klug was back racing just three months after surgery. He won World Cup medals and became the U.S. champion in parallel giant slalom. Klug has the intensity and focus of Barry Bonds facing a fastball. In the Nagano Games, where snowboarding finally got enough respect to make an Olympic debut, Klug was tied for second after the first round. On his second run, he snagged his arm in a gate for a millisecond, enough to take him out of medal competition. This year, perhaps, his bad luck has run its course.

Klug's story, the Herminator's comeback in Nagano, and thousands of smaller narratives are why these Games endure. Every day somebody straps on a pair of boards after blowing an ACL and spending a year in agonizing recovery, and thinks anew about doing something remarkable.

No matter who takes home what medals, the old mining town of Park City will be jumping in February. Every January, the Sundance Film Festival rolls into town, filling the streets and late-night bistros with celebrities, movie lovers, and even a few decent skiers. The Olympics will make the film fest look like a block party. People will compete in the day, toast and dance at night. Deer Valley, with its shrines to resident Olympic legend Stein Eriksen, will host the slalom, mogul competition, and aerials. And just outside of town is Olympic Park, where the jump, bobsled, and luge will take place. It will be like an All-Star game that goes on for 17 days.

And as the fastest skiers on the planet shoot down the back side of the Wasatch or speed beyond the 80-mile-an-hour mark at Snowbasin or glide through the dry air of Park City, a certain order will have returned to the world. Racing is an ancient pursuit, through good times and bad. The technology has changed, sure, but the Winter Olympics are always about elemental challenge, about reflexes and speed and heart. We need these Games in the same sense that a person needs to listen to music, or stare at the tallest mountain and wonder, Why not? I know I will watch in awe, realizing full well that life, like sports, is full of random events. It is what happens in between that matters.

Timothy Egan is the Northwest correspondent for The New York Times.