Winter Olympics


 Olympics Front
 Sport by Sport


1,000 Pictures Worth 1 Word: Memorable

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Columnist
Sunday, February 22, 1998; Page D1


NAGANO — An earthquake shook the streets of Nagano and the slopes of Shiga Kogen Saturday morning. On the mountain, Alberto Tomba was preparing to make his last — and, in this case, unsuccessful — slalom run after an incredible Olympic skiing career. In the athletes' village, 15-year-old Tara Lipinski had just awakened from a night spent hugging her gold medal under the sheets.

These 1998 Winter Games will be remembered for weather — too much snow, too little snow, too much rain, too much fog — and for the exquisite politeness of our hosts, even under the most trying of circumstances. They will be remembered, by American television watchers, for how little action they saw and how many events were postponed, or lost in the time difference, or — in the case of the much-hyped and anticipated U.S.-Canada gold medal men's hockey game — for something that never occurred.

After 19 days here, though, I will remember these Games as a series of moments — some grand, some small — and a diverse group of people who seemed to define what were the last Winter Games of the millennium.

I will remember tiny Lipinski leaping from her seat in the kiss-and-cry zone at White Ring and squealing, like any teenager would, when her scores flashed up on the screen and she realized that she had, shockingly, upset gold medal favorite Michelle Kwan in women's figure skating. And I will remember Kwan's face at the post-event news conference, where she looked almost shell-shocked even as she gracefully congratulated Lipinski.

I will remember Hermann Maier — the Herminator — pinwheeling through the air and crashing through two fences before landing on his head in the men's downhill in what will surely be the video clip of these Games. And I will remember him swooping across the finish line of the men's super giant slalom three days later, his arms thrown up in the air as he realized that his time was the best of the day.

I will remember Picabo Street singing the national anthem on the medal stand, her voice loud, and proud, and slightly off-key. I will remember how she gushed amazement at being able to win the gold in the women's Super-G despite major reconstructive knee surgery, and I will remember, too, her talking about how her mother practiced the anthem with her in their living room in Idaho.

Hardest to forget, I think, will be A.J. Mleczko and Cammi Granato and Sarah Tueting and all the women who were told they were tomboys, who were told that hockey was not a girls' sport, and who came here and brought the U.S. a gold medal in an emotional game that ended with Granato draped in the American flag. Lisa Brown-Miller sobbed so hard when the medals were rolled out onto the ice, it will be hard ever to forget.

Hard, too, it will be not to get angry every time I remember a conversation I had on a street corner in downtown Nagano a few evenings ago. I was listening to two American lugers — men who had made all sorts of sacrifices to be here, men who barely make a living at their sport — tell me in upset and disheartened voices why the performance and behavior of some members of the U.S. men's hockey team made them feel as if their whole Olympic experience had been cheapened.

They were not the only ones who felt that way. Maier — fresh off his second gold medal — grabbed a notebook away from an American reporter who was asking about the U.S. hockey team. "U.S. hockey — a joke," Maier wrote, then he autographed the sentiment. It was hard to disagree.

I will try harder, though, to remember the NHL stars who made their countries proud in these Olympics — Dominik Hasek, Jaromir Jagr, Pavel Bure, Teemu Selanne, you all know who you are. I will remember Hasek and Patrick Roy battling it out in a most dramatic penalty shot situation. And I will remember Wayne Gretzky sitting on the Canadian bench afterward, all alone, with tears of disappointment wet on his cheeks.

There were other moments, too, smaller moments that will fade fast for most Olympic watchers but, for me, made these Olympics so much more real. I will remember standing next to the luge track with Gordy Sheer's sister and his girlfriend, while Sheer and his partner, Chris Thorpe, raced their way to a silver medal in doubles luge. I will remember the two women holding hands, their eyes squeezed shut, during the run, and I will remember the disbelief on their faces when they looked up at the video screen and realized what Gordy had done.

I will remember Pasha Grishuk, the Russian ice dancer, seated on the floor of the warmup room before her free dance with partner Evgeny Platov, checking her bottle-blond hair in the mirror again and again and again. I will remember the Norwegian ski trainer who carried me on his back up an icy, treacherous stretch of Mount Higashidate so that I could see Tomba take one of his final runs.

I will remember Yosio Matuzaki, the miracle-working bartender at Police 90, who made the second hand stop on my watch with one touch of his finger, and bent a spoon into a pretzel with only a stare. Don't ask how, because he will never explain.

For better or worse, I will remember a host of pot jokes that came with Ross Rebagliati's positive test for marijuana after he won the gold medal in one ridiculous sport, snowboarding. And I won't remember a thing about another ridiculous Olympic sport — curling — because, thankfully, it was one sport I never attended.

I will remember Japan for bad weather and good manners and great sushi and, more than anything, for the pure joy the Japanese people expressed when their athletes found so much success. Did you see ski jumper Masahiko Harada, who went from being a tragic national figure to this country's greatest Olympic hero with one incredible, almost unmeasurable ski jump? He is, in a runaway, my favorite Olympic hero.

The day that Harada jumped his spectacular 136 meters, I spent part of the afternoon at a local bathhouse, where I sat in the sauna with an elderly Japanese woman. There was a television there, tuned to a local station, and the footage of Harada's jump, of his tears, of his emotional interview — he cried, the TV reporter cried, the anchorman cried, and, finally, even the cameraman let his hands wobble with emotion — played over and over and over again, in a continuous loop. Faint from the heat, overwhelmed with emotion, the woman sat there and watched for more than 30 minutes, tears mixing with the sweat that poured down her cheeks.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

Back to the top

Olympics Front | Sport by Sport | Gallery | History | Nagano | Countries
Yellow Pages