Golden opportunities

15 things to watch at the games. opportunities

February 08, 2002|By Candus Thomson and Kevin Van Valkenburg

1. Security. The security plan cost $300 million, so it had better work. Spectators may face a two-hour wait to get through the "mag and bag" metal detector and handbag search areas at all venues. No-fly zones will be in effect over Salt Lake City while President Bush attends the opening ceremony and Vice President Dick Cheney goes to the closing ceremony; other times, the zones will be over each of the 10 venues. The downtown has been fenced in, and 15,000 law-enforcement and military personnel will be on city streets and mountainous back country.

2. The caldron lighter. Only Mitt Romney, president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, knows who will take the torch from the last runner into Rice-Eccles Olympic Stadium and mount the steps to the caldron to light it and start the games tonight. Will it be speed skater Bonnie Blair? Five-time gold medalist Eric Heiden? The "Miracle on Ice" 1980 men's hockey team? Or someone with international appeal, such as Nelson Mandela? One thing is certain, no one can top the emotional moment in Atlanta in 1996, when Muhammad Ali did the honors.

3. The new kids on the block. Each Olympic host is allowed to add sports. Romney went for speed with two sledding sports, skeleton and women's bobsled. Skeleton (above), the headfirst cousin of luge, is making its return to the Olympics for the first time since 1948. Women's bobsled is making headlines with the spat between two of America's top athletes, driver Jean Racine and brakeman / pusher Jen Davidson.

4. The ice. The thin, dry air of Utah means ultra-hard ice and world records, from speed skating to bobsled. The world's fastest luger, American Tony Benshoof, says his 86.6 mph record is "guaranteed" to fall, with the male sliders pushing the limit to the mid-90s at the track in Park City. In team trials and World Cup competition, speed skaters have already set nearly a half-dozen records, and skaters say with Olympic gold dangling in front of their eyes, those records aren't safe.

5. The legend. Can an old, slow guy with guile and guts win four consecutive gold medals in his sport? Germany's luge great, Georg Hackl (left), is attempting to join American discus thrower Al Oerter as the only Olympian to accomplish the feat. Other sliders say Hackl has lost a step on his start, which was never his strong suit to begin with, but his experience always keeps him in the top echelon.

6. Yevgeny doesn't like Alexei. The feeling, apparently, is mutual. "It's a hot, hot rivalry," says figure skating gold medalist and NBC commentator Scott Hamilton. "They've been ducking each other all year." Will Russian figure skaters Yevgeny Plushenko and Alexei Yagudin agree to detente during the games, or will they become the testosterone version of the Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding story, minus the crowbar?

7. The snow warrior. Picabo Street (left) says after two horrific skiing accidents and long, painful rehabilitation, this is her last hurrah. The gold and silver medalist downplays her medal chances in the downhill -- "I just want to cross the finish line" -- but don't underestimate her ability to put it all on the line for a chance at a storybook finish and a billion commercial endorsements.

8. Family ties. Jim Shea Jr. (center), a third-generation Olympian, will compete in the skeleton, following in the footsteps of his father, Jim Shea (right), and his grandfather, Jack (left). Sadly, his grandfather died just two weeks before the games after his vehicle was hit by a suspected drunken driver. Look for his skeleton performance to be dedicated to the patriarch of the Shea family's Olympic dynasty.

9. The U.S. women's hockey juggernaut. The big story won't be if it wins a second consecutive gold medal; it will be if the Americans lose any games. The team spent the year barnstorming the country, playing top international, college and amateur teams and compiling a 31-0 record. It wins with power, airtight defense and stingy goaltending.

10. Now you see them, now you don't. Salt Lake City is known for its winter temperature inversions, where warm upper air holds in air pollution in the valley. The addition of thousands of spectators and vehicles might cause the city to be part of a huge, unhealthy disappearing act. Up in the mountains, snow and fog could postpone skiing competition, as happened during World Cup events last year and during the 1998 games in Nagano.

11. A U.S. men's hockey surprise. Memories of 1980's "Miracle" at Lake Placid will be on everyone's mind once the games start. Will that help or hinder the U.S. hockey team? Will the 300th mention of Mike Eruzione's name send Keith Tkachuk into a blind rage, causing him to smash his Salt Lake City hotel room and a Mormon temple? Or will the creaky knees and back of Brett Hull (above) hoist Old Glory in celebration after yet another miracle?

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