The Olympics are a search for spirit. It was this way in the beginning and remains that way through everything that the Games have become, for better and for worse. Through soaring television rights and corporatization run wild. Through bid bribery and steroid scandal. Through Tonya-Nancy and corrupt skating judges. Through Munich and Atlanta. Sometimes that search is as simple as seeing joy in young faces on a hockey rink in Lake Placid and sometimes it is much harder to find meaning beneath the medals. But always the search must be undertaken or the Olympics become just another game, and we have plenty of those already.
The 21st Winter Olympics opened last Friday in Vancouver, and the search began anew. Wayne Gretzky rode in the bed of a truck through city streets—where were the bright orange vest and the deer rifle?—to light the outdoor flame. Canada won a gold medal on Day 3, its first in three Games on native soil. A familiar energy built across the host city, the first impassioned strides in a two-week sprint that will leave the natives exhausted.
But these Olympics had not made themselves easy to fully embrace, especially in the mountains 75 miles north of Vancouver, where the ski town of Whistler will host more than half the 15 sports. Leading up to the Games steady rains fell on warm hillsides, making prophets of those who warned of fickle conditions. ("Is anybody talking about the weather?" asked former U.S. Olympian Jonna Mendes, ominously, in December, when few were.) The schedule was reconfigured and volunteers were deployed to repair the scarred slopes.
The presumptive star of the Games, Lindsey Vonn, disclosed a serious shin injury two days before they began, leaving her participation at the whim of therapy and weather delays (both of which were ultimately delivered).
Finally, and so much worse, when it seemed the Olympics had been simply inconvenienced, they were shocked. Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, 21, was killed in a training crash hours before the opening ceremonies. "Last night," said Latvian luger Martins Rubenis on the day after his friend's death, "I had pretty much an empty space in my heart." The spirit was lost, the Games were on their knees.
Yet here is where the Olympics find their way. They go on, the athletes honoring the fallen by competing. The sun appeared on Sunday afternoon, not long before the final two runs of the four-run men's singles luge were contested. Kumaritashvili's memory was in the air, yet his peers raced with passion and joy.
On Monday morning it was the gifted and enigmatic Bode Miller who embraced the restorative powers of the Games by taking the bronze in the men's downhill, becoming the first U.S. ski racer to win three Olympic medals. (He won two silvers in 2002.) And a few hours later, Miller's countryman Seth Wescott defended his snowboardcross title in dramatic fashion.
Four years ago Miller left the Turin Games in a storm of criticism. He had not only failed to medal in five events as the defending World Cup overall champion but also had brazenly partied long and hard as if the Olympics were of no special significance. Then he was bitter and resentful of scrutiny and hype. Now he seems to have rediscovered the joy of competition that made him great in the first place. "You could feel the nervous energy—it was clear that this was not a World Cup [race]," Miller said after winning his bronze. "It was cool for me. That was the feeling I was searching for."
On the night before the downhill, which had twice been delayed by bad weather, Miller went to dinner with a group of friends at a sushi restaurant in Whistler Village. Normally placid even on the nights before big races, Miller was a bundle of energy. "He kept saying, 'I have to win this, I have to win this,'" said Curtis Graham, a Nike executive and close friend of Miller's. "He was going crazy trying to decide which skis to run. He was totally different than I've ever seen him before."
Miller drew bib number 8, meaning that he would start eighth in the field of 64, which was perceived to be an advantage because the fragile course would probably deteriorate quickly. But the skies were overcast, balancing out any edge provided by the hard snow. "Dark and bumpy" was the message conveyed to the start house by U.S. racer Andrew Weibrecht, who went down four places in front of Miller.
Miller skied the top of the mountain spectacularly but slowed near the bottom. "He was a little less aerodynamic at the end," said U.S. racer Scott Macartney, in Whistler as a spectator. Miller's lead held for seven racers, until Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway, the 2009 World Cup overall winner, beat him by .02 of a second. Two skiers later Didier Defago of Switzerland bested Svindal by .07. Svindal and Defago benefited from the sunlight that broke through and illuminated the lower course.
But Miller still made history. Before the Games he had been tied with seven other U.S. ski racers who had won two Olympic medals. Now he stands alone, with four more chances in Whistler to add to that total. "This is only the beginning," shouted Miller's agent, Lowell Taub, long after the race was finished. And, indeed, it might have been.
Under leaden skies at Cypress Mountain later that afternoon, Wescott, 33, set off pandemonium at The Rack, the bar he co-owns in his hometown of Carrabassett Valley, Maine, with his performance in the snowboardcross. The scintillating final was a gift for star-crossed Cypress Mountain, a venue so troubled that the Vancouver Organizing Committee referred to it as the "special child" of these Games. Three quarters of the way down the course in the final, Wescott was 20 yards behind Canada's Mike Robertson, who seemed assured of winning Canada's second gold medal, so long as he stayed on his board—not a sure thing on a distressed, serpentine course variously described by riders as "rutted," "soupy," "chewed-up," "chunky" and "tricky."
Just as the home crowd had allowed itself to believe the race was over, Wescott started closing. If his cool and panache made it seem as if he'd been there before, that was because he had: Wescott came from behind to win this event four years ago, in Turin. Now, rocketing out of the sixth turn, he halved Robertson's lead soaring over a pair of jumps. With the Canadian taking a safer line through the final turn, Wescott cut inside and took the lead, then made himself as aerodynamic as possible off the final jump and hung on for the win. After sharing an embrace with teammate Nate Holland, he was leveled by another, Graham Watanabe, whose joy was no doubt duplicated in that moment, in a tavern 2,000 miles away. "Given the circumstances," said a smiling Wescott, "apr√®s ski is probably going off at The Rack right now."
As treacherous as the conditions were at Cypress Mountain, they were worse in Whistler. Located at a perilously low altitude for reliable snow conditions, Whistler Blackcomb resort has a base elevation of just over 2,000 feet, and while its peak is at more than 7,000, the top of the Olympic men's downhill run is just 5,453 feet—2,421 feet lower than the course at the 2006 Games in Turin. In 1998, according to the Vancouver Sun, when the World Cup ski circuit's races at Whistler were canceled for the third consecutive year, international ski federation chief Guenther Hujara said, "We're never coming back here." They didn't, but five years later the Olympic Games were awarded to Vancouver, with ski events designated for Whistler.
The men's downhill had originally been scheduled for last Saturday before being postponed, and the women's combined was pushed back from Sunday to Thursday. Among those on the front lines of this battle with weather was women's race chief Bruce Holliday, an electrician who has spent much of the last 25 years volunteering as a race official. On Saturday night, as he pondered the monumental course preparation issues he was facing, Holliday rubbed his thin beard and said, "I'm not surprised. I know this hill."
Nearly every night heavy snow fell on the upper part of the men's and women's downhill courses (which are separate). But at the bottom, the ice was deteriorating in warm temperatures and heavy rains. "It's broken through in a lot of places, and instead of having a hard underlayer, it's almost like hollow underneath," said U.S. racer Ted Ligety. "For us it's almost like you would expect to get at U.S. Nationals [which traditionally take place in late March] or a spring series race."
Holliday and FIS technical delegate Greg Johnson of Colorado assigned more than 300 on-course volunteers to clear snow from the top and slowly slip down to the bottom on skis. "To compress the liquid," said Holliday. They did not bombard the surface with chemicals, which might have given a quick freeze but endangered the surface for later races.
While the technical team cursed the weather, Lindsey Vonn loved it. The disclosure of her Feb. 2 shin injury, while training in Austria, was sensational news. Vonn had been ordained the face of the Games long before they began (common practice, on the Michael Phelps model), as the two-time defending overall World Cup champion and winner of 31 World Cup races and a pair of 2009 world championships. She came to Whistler the prohibitive favorite in the long, speed events of downhill and Super G, a solid medal contender in combined and a threat in slalom.
Her injury was serious—she called it "excruciatingly painful" just to put on a ski boot. As it rained, she took to the task of getting better. Oliver Saringer, Vonn's team Red Bull physiotherapist (and close friend) turned the home theater in the four-bedroom condo where Vonn is living during the Games into a makeshift training room and treated the injury for several hours a day. "Without Oliver, I wouldn't have a chance to ski in the Olympics," said Vonn on Sunday. "And not just the Olympics. I've had a lot of injuries over the last few years, and he's kept me running."
Every time Vonn put her sore leg into a boot, the results were increasingly better. She free-skied with her husband and coach, 2002 U.S. Olympian Thomas Vonn, last Thursday, the day before the opening ceremonies. On Sunday, Valentine's Day, with women's downhill training canceled, Vonn skied four hard training runs of slalom. "It definitely went completely better than I anticipated," she said after the runs. "It felt good. It was still painful, but I was able to grit my teeth through it." And on Monday, Vonn skied a solid downhill training run. Though she said the course was "jarring" to her shin, it was still clear that she would ski the Olympic events and ski them at something approaching her best.
Long after the men's downhill was completed, the three medalists stood together on a podium in the snow, which was already melting in the afternoon sun. They were each given a bouquet of flowers, standing in for the medals that would be draped from their necks at a ceremony later in the day. Cowbells clanged and gloved hands smacked together in a celebration of the work and all that made it possible.
Bode Miller was among the three, a transcendent athlete seemingly changed by the interlocking rings on his racing bib. "It's the Olympics," he had explained a short time earlier. "You can feel it." And here then is where we found the spirit, tardy but stout, ready for more in the days to follow.
Go to SI.com for up-to-the-minute coverage of the Winter Olympics, including a daily briefing from Richard Deitsch; Luke Winn's Olympic blog; reports on skiing by Tim Layden, hockey by Michael Farber and Sarah Kwak, speedskating by Alexander Wolff and figure skating by E.M. Swift; plus new videos and photo galleries every day
"It was still painful," Vonn said of her shin, "but I was able to GRIT MY TEETH AND GET THROUGH IT."
Photograph by Carl Yarbrough
THIRD PARTY Miller, the first U.S. ski racer to win three medals, showed his old form on Monday and happily accepted the bronze, missing gold by only .09 of a second.
CLIVE ROSE/GETTY IMAGES (WORKERS)
SNOW JOB An army of 300 volunteers was charged with repairing a course softened by warm air and rain.
OVER THE HILL Wescott (right) erased a 20-yard deficit and sailed past Robertson to defend his gold and stun the home crowd.
GREG M. COOPER/US PRESSWIRE
BOUNCING BACK Vonn reaffirmed her status as a favorite, turning in a solid practice run on the bumpy downhill course.