Chants of a Lifetime

What everyone has been hoping for -- at least when sports are not actually being contested on ice and snow -- is an Olympics about as exciting as happy hour at the Mormon Tabernacle. So far, so goody-goody. Osama bin Laden didn't show up with a bomb in his turban at the opening ceremonies. No more children of assorted site-voters have enrolled on full scholarships at Brigham Young. And if the Polish ski team, say, has been making use of those condoms Olympic authorities provided to the athletes, they've been very quiet about it.

In other words, we've seen lots of dull in Salt Lake City since Friday, as befits a place where radical behavior consists of ordering coffee ice cream instead of vanilla. That doesn't mean the thing hasn't been loud. Even more than most years, screaming nationalism -- especially screaming American nationalism -- has been everywhere in evidence. The tragedies of September 11 have clearly inspired U.S. citizens in attendance to savage even more fiercely than usual the old Olympic ideal of simon-pure, politics-free competition among the youth of the world. The Salt Lake Games have quickly turned into a U.S. pep rally -- and if, even in the privacy of your rumpus room, you aren't shouting like a lunatic for our curling team, John Ashcroft might want to have a word with you.

Looking for some sure things at these Olympics?

One, the Italians won't be going native. Utah boasts the highest per-capita consumption in the nation of Jell-O and ketchup and the lowest intake of alcoholic beverages, and facts like that have prompted teams from many lands to bring along their own comfort food and drink. The Italians' supply of Chianti and Bardolino, for one thing, is sufficient to lubricate any occasion, win or lose, and you can bet there will be more linguine carbonara on the training table than chicken-fried steak. Meanwhile, cafeteria workers in the Olympic Village have a minor problem: Thanks to an ordering error, thirty tractor-trailer loads of tortilla chips showed up instead of half a truckload, which means that Utahans may be chip-dipping their beloved ketchup-flavored Jell-O for years to come.

Two, Tom Welch and Dave Johnson won't be leading any parades down Temple Street. The central figures in the Salt Lake Olympic Committee's bid-fixing scandal may be off the hook for now, because a U.S. District judge threw out all fifteen felony counts against them last month. But the Justice Department has appealed that ruling, and Messrs. Welch and Johnson could yet stand trial on bribery and fraud charges. In any event, Olympic officials' fond hope that the case would no longer be an issue during the Games has been dashed: The scandal and its stubborn legal wrangling are as much on the minds of curious reporters from Paris and Stockholm as the notion that some husbands in Utah still enjoy the company of five or six wives.

Three, troops will keep an sharp eye on the Biathlon. After President George W. Bush rejected the International Olympic Committee's request for a Games-long ceasefire in the war on terrorism -- as suggested by IOC bylaws -- the United States beefed up its spending for Olympic security to a hefty $320 million. In Salt Lake City, now being heralded as "the safest place on earth," more than 11,000 local, state and federal officers are at work, an unprecedented dimension of scrutiny that prompted some global unease -- and a February 4 New Yorker cover depicting a ski jumper in full flight flanked by a pair of soaring, heavily armed National Guardsmen.

So don't try slipping downtown at 2 a.m. for the deviltry of a fudge brownie and a glass of milk. Not only will downtown be closed, it will be transformed into Salt Lakeistan.

As for the world's biathletes, whose sport requires exhausting bouts of cross-country skiing interspersed with rounds of target shooting, you can bet that their .22-caliber rifles will be locked up at night. The disquieting juxtaposition of guns and the Olympics puts many in mind of the 1972 Munich Summer Games, when eight Arab commandos stole into the Olympic Village and set into motion a nightmare that ended in the deaths of eleven Israeli athletes. Remembered somewhat less vividly from '72 is the odd story of gold medalist Li Ho-jun, a North Korean athlete who scored an astonishing 599 of 600 possible points in that year's prone-position small-bore rifle competition. With every shot, Li later revealed, he imagined himself killing one of his nation's enemies.

Four, the U.S. women's hockey team will win a gold medal. As sure things go, this one equals Secretariat in the Belmont Stakes, the Lakers against the Nuggets or George Foreman versus a stack of hamburgers. No Miracle on Ice required. No five-point-nines from the East German judge. No contest.

When women's hockey was introduced at the 1998 Nagano Games, the clear favorites in the tiny six-team field were Canada, the country where the game was invented, and the United States, where it's bought and paid for. Fueled by memories of their humble beginnings, when they supplied their own pads and slept three to a room, the American women prevailed for the Olympic gold while their spoiled and largely uninterested male counterparts from the NHL ranks busied themselves trashing hotel rooms. This time around, the U.S. women are an undeniable powerhouse: fourteen holdovers from Nagano, including leading scorer Cammi Granato (now a geezerette of thirty), and a brilliant posse of teenagers, led by sixteen-year-old defenseman Lyndsay Wall and sharpshooter Krissy Wendell, who graduated from her Minnesota high school in 2000.

"We have all the skills," U.S. coach Ben Smith said two weeks ago, as his team prepared in Denver for a final tuneup against China, "but do we have the intangibles to win the gold again?"

Mere tangibles will likely suffice. The U.S. team started living and training together in September, 2000, and won all 31 exhibition games they played leading to Salt Lake City. In six contests against China, a huge nation with only a few hundred female hockey players, the Americans scored 69 goals while giving up five. The U.S. lost to Canada at last year's World Championships, but Granato and company went eight for eight against their unhappy and outclassed neighbors to the north in this year's exhibitions, outscoring them 31-13. Hockey experts who say win-starved Canada will rise up at the Olympics should probably be driving the Zamboni instead of making predictions.

As for Finland and Russia, the only teams in this year's eight-team field customarily described as "improving" or "pesky," they have the same shot at the gold medal in Salt Lake as an Iraqi Muslim would running for mayor. On Tuesday, the U.S. team won its opener against Germany 10-0 and faces poor China again on Thursday. The Gold Medal Match is scheduled for February 21. Book it: U.S. v. Canada.

Between now and then, the only thing that could stop the U.S. women -- short of a New England Patriots-style upset by the Canadians -- is their own lassitude. "They need to stay focused," coach Smith said in Denver, "and that isn't always easy, given the level of some of the competition." Andrea Kilbourne, a 21-year-old forward from Saranac Lake, New York, was also willing to question motivation, if only for an instant. "Nobody seems to know why we are playing so well," she said, "but we sure need to keep it up and to stay sharp. Certainly, we don't want to do anything to jinx ourselves. But some nights, it was a little hard to concentrate because the games get so out of hand."

A.J. Mleczko, a 26-year-old veteran of the Nagano team and a standout defenseman, remains slightly astonished at the present team's accomplishments. "In the last Olympics, we were pioneers," she said, "and that was a lot of the fun. This team has even better individual talent. What we have to do now is make good on it. I think we can, but we'd better watch out. Nothing comes too easy."

Before the 1998 Olympics, Canada beat the U.S. in seven of thirteen exhibitions but wound up settling for the silver medal in Nagano. The Americans clearly don't want to suffer a similar letdown.

How likely is that? About the same as the National Guard patrolling Park City with water pistols.


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