Finding the heart of the Winter Olympics
February 18, 2002
SALT LAKE CITY – The Olympic experience hit home for me Friday night at the Olympic Medals Plaza.
Seeing a hometown hero on the podium with a medal around his neck, pumping a bouquet of flowers above his head as thousands applaud his accomplishment, both on snow and off, can have that effect.
Earlier in the week, Aspen Times photographer Jacob Ware and I arrived in Salt Lake with a sketchy plan to cover the local athletes at the games: ski racers Casey Puckett and Katie Monahan and snowboarder Chris Klug.
But without media credentials or a hotel and on a limited budget, we weren’t sure how we’d manage to pull it off. But by Friday evening, after spending all day at Park City Mountain Resort watching Klug’s bronze medal effort in the snowboarding parallel giant slalom, there were no more doubts. We had our story.
I arrived at the Olympic Medals Plaza in the downtown Salt Lake City Olympic Park already exhausted from the day’s events, complete with a hoarse voice, sunburn and five hours sleep. (Despite what tickets or schedules say, going to an Olympic race is an all-day affair when you factor in travel, security delays and the requisite 5:30 a.m. wakeup call.) And truth be told, I wasn’t too jazzed to go to the medals ceremony anyway. I’d seen the ceremonies dozens of times on TV, and when compared to the thrilling action we’d witnessed earlier in the day, I didn’t understand the appeal. I was expecting a real yawner.
My attitude abruptly changed when I set foot in the Olympic Park, covering several downtown blocks around the Delta Center. Because we’d been busy attending events up in the mountains each day, and then scrambling to transmit stories and photos back to Aspen afterward, we hadn’t had any free time to explore the bustling city. Seeing it firsthand was overwhelming in terms of sheer magnitude and numbers, and the contagious enthusiasm of the pin-swapping masses and the “nice offensive” (read: Olympic volunteers). I’ve never been to a bigger, grander event. It just felt like the Olympics.
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That vast notion of greatness was lost at mountain venues like Park City and Snowbasin, tiny in comparison to the downtown Olympic headquarters. A big ski race, sure, but not necessarily “the Olympics” with all its prestige and tradition.
And then seeing Klug up on that podium with the piece of bronze hardware around his neck made it intensely personal, too. With someone like Klug, so charming and thoughtful he makes moms proud everywhere, you can’t help but be impressed with his story. Not that he’ll bore you with it – he’s more comfortable with the focus elsewhere. But if you ask him, he’ll tell you about it.
For Klug, the Olympic buzzword is mission accomplished. And for Jacob and I, that’s why we made the trip in the first place.