Olympics close on high note

SALT LAKE CITY–To the thunderous explosion of a massive fireworks display that dappled the colors of the rainbow on the snow-capped mountains of the Wasatch Range, the XIX Olympic Winter Games drew to a close Sunday night, an Olympics notable for judging controversies and doping cases as much as a can-do American spirit.

Controversy, in fact, dogged the Games right up until the end. The International Olympic Committee stripped two cross-country skiers, one Russian and one Spaniard, of their most recent gold medals after they tested positive for darbepoetin, a performance-enhancing substance so new it’s not yet on the banned list. A third Russian cross-country skier also tested positive, and all three were tossed out of the Games, sparking protests from the Spanish and Russian delegations.

But it all faded into the background Sunday night as a crowd of about 45,000–including 2,500 athletes from 78 countries–enjoyed a raucous closing ceremony that combined levity and fun, figure skating and a celebration of American music.

"You have reassured us that people from all countries can live peacefully together," International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge told those assembled at the closing ceremonies, the first large-scale gathering of nations since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

These Games–hailed by many as the best Winter Olympics ever–were noteworthy for the smooth way they were run. Technology worked. Traffic jams were few. Athletes from around the world praised U.S. hospitality.

The Games were a hit elsewhere, too: NBC saw its ratings jump 15 percent over the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan.

Also memorable was the performance of the U.S. team. The silver medal won Sunday by the men’s hockey team gave the U.S. team a record 34 medals. It far eclipsed the previous American best of 13 apiece. Only Germany, with 35, won more medals than the United States.

The Games, though, also will be remembered for the protests, as well as allegations of a pro-North American bias by judges and referees.

It started three days into the Games, when Canadian pairs figure skaters performed what many believed was a flawless program but only won silver, while a Russian pair skated a flawed routine and earned the gold.

The event sparked protests by the Canadians, leading the IOC to ratify a decision by skating officials awarding the Canadians duplicate gold medals.

In doing so, the IOC also granted momentum to other athletes and nations who believed they had been wronged.

Since then, the Russians, South Koreans, Lithuanians and Spanish all filed protests that were denied. Despite the rancor over the judging and the doping, Russian athletes appeared in Sunday night’s ceremony, defusing an international spat.

The Games the IOC must now turn its attention to the next Olympics, the 2004 Summer Games in Athens.

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Title: Olympics close on high note | Author: Alan Abrahamson | Section: Sports | Published Date: 2002-02-27 | Internal ID: 2527