Fear and Loathing at the Olympics

Amidst the Mormons, the snowboarders, and the scandals, what's it really like to be in Salt Lake?

To most of the world, Utah is just another foreign country. When you cross the sea for another wintry Olympiad, you expect an exotic culture, strange rituals, quaint customs. For the American mainstream media, however, Utah may as well be another planet.

The Olympics and Salt Lake City are a perfect fit, compatriots in striving for Osmond-esque wholesomeness and a clean-cut image, but not without an "oh my heck!" lurking beneath the surface, held back by tongues too-long bitten in suppression. The Olympic Movement is a philosophy of "peace through sport," but the actual Olympics are a private club for elite athletes, for wealthy patrons and corporations, and, much to the chagrin of the charter members, for the cr譥 of the crop of schemers, scammers, and scalpers. The skyrocketing price tag on tickets, hotel rooms, and rental cars ensures that the rest of us will keep our distance, settling for peddler to the proletariat Bob Costas and his NBC-sanctioned opiate for the masses.

The Olympics on $10 a Day

The Olympics have accomplished what progressive Utahans have spent generations failing at—opening up the bars, putting a lid on Mormon proselytizing, and even distributing condoms in the midst of an intricately choreographed stare-down between the city and its visitors. The locals are nearly as worried about what the world will think of them as they are concerned about the swarm of immorality descending like a plague on these quiet folk. In a state accustomed to self-determining authority, citizens are holding their breath as the capital city is leased out for this decadent corporate frat party.

For the athletes, there is still purity at the core of the Games, but the rest of us must tear through layers of corporate filtering before we can get at the unadulterated experience. Despite all attempts at using astronomical pricing to create a self-selecting elite population at Club Olympic, there is no shortage of obscure-sport enthusiasts willing to dip into the nest egg to crack open a once-in-a-lifetime vacation. There are those who will go even farther, curlheads and shredheads, speed freaks, and the teddy-bear faithful of the figure skating world coming to Salt Lake for a budget Olympics, going underground to steal a deal and even finding ways to skirt the $300 million security system. For those with what Waddie Mitchell, cowboy-poet-laureate of the Salt Lake Olympics, calls "that no-quit attitude," there is a way to see a dream fulfilled.

There are honest-to-god free events throughout the city, and given the amount of time you need to spend in line, it's easy to fill a day without spending more than a pocketful of change, if you've got patience and restraint. From the educational and cultural tents—where you can watch blacksmiths and mountain men, glass blowers and mascots practicing their craft—to the corporate playgrounds like Bud World and Coke World—where diehards stand in line for a chance to ride the luge, push a bobsled, or take a slap shot—you get what you pay for and then some.

A typical $10 day starts with a morning supply of Cap'n Crunch in the car out at the scenic view area west of town, or a bowl of hot ramen in a tent on National Forest land outside of Park City. The chance to get away from the host city, or the satellite venue towns scattered to the north, east, and south, is well worth it. Taking the hotel elevator down a dozen floors and then walking through the urban canyons on your way to a magnometer line to enter a free park can't compare with starting the day standing on the side of a quiet highway in the middle of nowhere, the Wasatch mountains crisp and clear in front of you, beaming as you take in the natural setting before entering the Olympic microcosm.

For the simplicity-inclined, the intervenue shuttles can cost $20, but parking is easier than you'd expect downtown, and the city buses run 35 miles for $1.25. For the ultimate free ride—no parking, no bus, no gas—I used my 400 miles of AAA towing as a free shuttle to the venues. Free, yes. But alas, AAA hardly counts as a corporate-free benefit.

Downtown Salt Lake is like a supermarket gearing up for Superbowl Sunday, with dozens of eating establishments vying for attention and offering one or two free samples per block, from cinnamon pretzels and peanut brittle to hot chocolate at the wilderness storefront. The best bet for beer drinking is to bring your own, but since that's not entirely legal, the "membership" in the private drinking establishments is relaxed, and you can find plenty of 3.2 brew for $6 a mug.

It's impossible to avoid the police and military presence, and there are rarely fewer than 15 armed officers in sight. They see you when you're sleeping; they know when you're awake. And although the Games are as yet without a serious security incident, security checks have been inconsistent, and recreational drugs and pocket knives are routinely carried into events. A pound of fresh-ground coffee in a backpack has proved effective in keeping Mormon security volunteers at bay. As for the athletes themselves, as of Presidents Day, there have been no positive drug tests, although a Belarus speed skater who has yet to compete did fail a screening test with 300 percent of the allowable limits of steroids in his system. But because his urine sample was compromised by a broken seal in transport, the positive tests were thrown out and the Olympics remain "drug free."

Every now and then a swarm of police officers in their yellow Olympic ski parkas hop out of a car and move toward me, making me wonder what crime has slipped my mind. They slip right past me, however, converging on a one-legged homeless man, his hat on the sidewalk beside his wheelchair collecting coins from the passersby. At the men's figure skating finals, they were coming for a stereotypically rude French couple blocking the views and loudly arguing next to me in my $375-a-seat area. (An usher kindly had allowed me to "upgrade" from my $50 section.) After a 15-minute standoff complete with French invectives and inhospitable gestures, the couple was removed and the air became tolerable again.

How Sweep It Is

The scalpers come at the crowds being herded across the crosswalks, calling out in a cacophony of offers to buy and sell. It's a bizarre sound, taking on the character of an otherworldly market where you just know you're going to get swindled in one shell game or another. But if you've got time, patience, and a warm hat, you can wait out your price. Every "reasonably priced" offer I make draws the scalpers' scorn and saves me another $20, but ultimately $10 curling tickets, $10 hockey tickets, and $50 figure skating finals tickets—a combined value of $360—fall into availability as a given event begins and the market changes shape.

The Games got a big bump when the first U.S. medal was a silver for moguls skier Shannon Bahrke, and when the U.S. men's snowboarding team swept their field the next day, boarder rats started showing up all over town, rightfully sensing that they'd finally, if temporarily, claimed the city. Trust funders and shredheads started feeling a sense of ownership of the Games. What's more American than a snowboarding sweep?

The skiers and boarders plunging down mountains with the instinctive sense to make sport of a total immersion in landscape, enlisting pitch and gravity as allies in a fearless pursuit of the perfect line, have long been the coolest of the competitors, the rebellious daredevil renegades. At the other end of the spectrum are the inherently square competitors of curling. It's a scientific sport with geometric trajectories and friction control at its core, and the American team looks about as athletic as a rec bowling league. They could pass for junior-high-school P.E. teachers, the kind of men who are not easily motivated to think a surface needs sweeping unless there's a 12-year-old around to work the broom.

The stone itself is not thrown, not tossed, not even bowled down the lane toward its circular target. It's gently released as the shooter slides along behind it. It's the sweeping that's furious, while teammates at both ends of the ice scream commands, serving as the eyes of their sweepers who can barely look in front of their path as they focus so closely on hard sweeping, scrubbing the dimples out of the ice and straightening the stone's path, eliminating friction to speed up or lengthen the shot.

The Ice Storm

The shuttle bus driver's arms wave and undulate as he talks about the beauty of figure skating. His arm goes into interpretive motions like a postmodern flower child dancing to a hypnotic drumbeat. "The flow is amazing," he gasps, surprising me with the soft spot this truck- driving man has for the most artistic of the winter sports. He marvels at the beauty, the defiance of gravity, and the line of a skater's jump. He was a roller skater in his youth, and he imagines himself completing a salchow as he switches into the passing lane. He calls Todd Eldredge by his first name, loves to see him do his flips, and would probably throw him a teddy bear if he had a day off to get in the arena.

Leave it to figure skating to trade in this kind of built-in, widespread fascination with the sport for a back-alley way into notoriety in a year mostly devoid of heartbreak stories and shin-busting shenanigans. This year the long-standing problem of collusion among the judges was thrust into the spotlight in the most blatant display of ethics-challenged judging in skating memory. The French judge, Marie Reine Le Gougne, has been suspended for her role in conspiring to set up a vote swap, her votes have been thrown out, and the Canadian pairs team at the center of the controversy was awarded an additional gold medal Saturday, sharing the honor with the Russian team that had originally been declared the gold medalists.

The athletes will tell you "that's downhill" when Picabo Street leads the pack in the practice round but finishes far from contention in competition. They'll tell you "that's short track" when speed skating favorite Apolo Anton Ohno was tripped in the final yards of his first race and had to settle for silver. And they'll tell you "that's figure skating" when the judges consistently predetermine who is supposed to win, but the smiles are as empty as the competition itself.

The French skating federation has been identified as a target of the ongoing investigation, and proposals for reform in figure skating judging are centering on ways to outsmart the judges, most notably by raising the number of judges from nine to 14, then randomly choosing seven of their scores to count. (You know there's a problem with the sport when one of the camera assignments is to film the athletes applying each other's makeup backstage before the event.) It may well come to pass that the biggest story in Salt Lake, the city that made headlines by following precedent and bribing its way into hosting the Games, is the reformation of figure skating ethics, but elevating the sport from the unseemly sense of backroom deals may be about as easy as assuring that the fix is off in skating's only competition in the field of "sports entertainment," the phenomenon of championship wrestling.

The men's finals are not quite the marquee event of the Games that the women's finals will be on Thursday, but the Belgian skater did wear a gold bra embroidered on his costume. All weirdness aside, fair play triumphed in the men's finals, although Russian gold medalist Alexei Yagudin should have been penalized for miming during his program.

If "peace through sport" seems like a mere pipe dream, it has a supporter in none other than Pete Seeger, the legendary folk singer and activist who performed at the Games as part of the Cultural Olympiad. "It's one way for people from all over the world to get together without fighting," Seeger told Seattle Weekly, and in a two-week festival that includes so many individual and otherwise obsolete sports, the Salt Lake Games have managed to transcend nationalism by elevating the appreciation of excellence in motion. It's like another world.


Owen Perkins' work has appeared in the 2000 and 2001 editions of Best American Sports Writing. Updates to this story will appear at www.seattleweekly.com later this week.

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