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An Intoxicating Cauldron
Steve Rushin
February 18, 2002
Another opening, another great show: Why the Winter Games are sport's headiest brew
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February 18, 2002

An Intoxicating Cauldron

Another opening, another great show: Why the Winter Games are sport's headiest brew

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After the Mormon Tabernacle Choir did the Wave last Friday night, and a Bermudian luger marched into the opening ceremonies in Bermuda shorts and kneesocks, and the French athletes abruptly stopped marching while Georgians and Germans jackknifed behind them—resulting in a grisly three-nation pileup—those crosswalks in Salt Lake City finally began to make sense to me. The walk signals at downtown intersections beep with the sound of an electronic cuckoo clock. Which is perfect because the Winter Games are exactly that: cuck-oo...cuck-oo...cuck-oo.

Cuckoo, isn't it, that a man born in 1906, in a log cabin outside Beaver City, Utah, should—31 years after his death—enable half the earth's citizens to share in the unfolding spectacle in Salt Lake City, only 200 miles to the north? That's what Philo T. Farnsworth did last Friday, when three billion people watched the opening ceremonies on his trifling invention: television. Robbie Robertson, who sang in the ceremony, said, "It felt like holding your arms out to the world." The world, one hopes, felt like hugging back because, cuckoo though they might be, the Winter Olympics are the most satisfying spectacle in sports.

That isn't merely because of the athletes, though February is certainly enlivened by the likes of Isaac Menyoli. His coach is not mouthing clich�s when he calls him "a real visionary, a dreamer," for Menyoli moved to Milwaukee five years ago from Cameroon, where his psychedelic vision—his fever dream—was to become an Olympic cross-country skier. Cuck-oo...cuck-oo...cuck-oo, to be sure. But on Tuesday, he became one.

"Did you ever read about a frog who dreamed of bein' a king/And then became one?/Well except for the names and a few other changes/You talk about me, the story's the same one." The timeless lyrics of Neil Diamond may as well be the mantra of these Games, and last Friday they were piped into a teeming press bus, where Latvian journalists passed the time on Japanese laptops. (And we're not talking about computers.) Such international coexistence is inescapable at the Olympics, and all the more so at the egalitarian Winter Games, where everyone is just another lumpen parka. That guy who led Great Britain into the opening ceremonies? Former 49ers quarterback Steve Young.

Never mind why. The Winter Games are full of similarly odd couplings. Grizzled men with hearts like 60-grit sandpaper will watch with clenched sphincters as some sprite in a sundress tries a triple Axel. If she lands it—or better yet, nails it—those same men will, if you listen closely, exhale heavily with relief.

Authorities say there's a 45-mile no-fly zone around Salt Lake City, but that's nonsense, for men and women are everywhere aloft at the Winter Olympics. I've yet to see a ski jumper take flight—skis pointed out in a V—without being moved, or thinking of Churchill's sign for victory.

Alpine skiers have always been the coolest athletes on earth, Bond extras like Jean-Claude Killy and Franz Klammer, Alberto Tomba and Hermann Maier. One might argue, too, that the most exhilarating athletes of the last century made their mark at the Winter Olympics. So it seemed sad when, with 45 minutes remaining in the opening ceremonies, every person in the three rows in front of mine stood at once to leave, as if all were seized, at the same moment, with an urge to beat the traffic or hit the men's room. For they were (when you looked at them) all men, all dressed in the same hooded white ponchos assigned to every spectator. Their seats were terrible—rows 57 through 59 in a 63-row stadium—but still, what a shame to see them ushered to an elevator before the Olympic cauldron was lit.

Then one dropped his hood, and another, and their faces began to register, like a string of firecrackers popping. Bolting for the exit were Mike Eruzione, captain of the 1980 U.S. hockey team, and his teammates, who authored the Miracle on Ice. They weren't beating the traffic or taking a whiz or anything of the sort.

For within the hour, and around the world, Eruzione's right hand held the Olympic torch—he looked part Statue of Liberty, part Bob's Big Boy—while his teammates Iwo Jima'd in behind him. They could have been any group of lucky fans pulled from the stands, and your heart triple-Axeled as you thought of Lake Placid, and Philo Farnsworth, and where you were at the moment: Atop a football stadium at the University of Utah, home of the Utes—a name that means "high place."

And you thought: Is it ever.