Nagano Bids Olympic Games Farewell
By Ted Anthony
Sunday, February 22, 1998; 11:12 a.m. EST
But lights shone on: the relentless fireworks that illuminated the night sky and the Japanese Alps beyond, the handheld lanterns of 50,000 spectators at the closing ceremony, the flickering stadium video that recounted the most memorable moments of men, women and nations.
For Nagano, the 1998 Winter Olympics ``the best organization in the history of the Olympic Games,'' according to International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch wound up with a pocketful of experiences and an important verdict: Perhaps they weren't the most exciting games ever, but they came out much more than okay.
"I'm so sad to see them end,'' said Tamayo Kimura, an office worker. "The games were a big success, I think.''
Bookending the opening ceremony's sumo-wrestler extravaganza with an intense, dazzling show of light and music, Nagano's Olympic organizers offered up a slickly packaged closing that began with solemnity and tradition but quickly unfolded into a carnival of exuberant goodbyes.
The most visual moment: Thousands of Japanese swaying handheld flashlight-lanterns in the mountain night, showing their affections for their hometown and for traditions they spent more than a millennium perfecting and could finally show a rapt world.
Next up in 2002: Salt Lake City, whose vanguard a stagecoach and horses that circled Minami Nagano Sports Park offered a sneak preview and an invitation.
For the Americans, a slow start melted into a second-consecutive winter's best 13 medals led by U.S. women with eight, six of them golds and some unforgettable triumphs.
The U.S. women's hockey team, in their Olympic debut, took the gold and lent an unparalleled level of respect and name recognition and a David Letterman appearance to Karyn Bye, Cammi Granato and their teammates. Tara Lipinski and Michelle Kwan put on a one-two combo in women's figure skating. And Picabo Street's Super-G gold ensured her crack-skier reputation before she put safety over another medal.
The U.S. men in hockey slouched to a more ignominious end. Denied a shot at a medal by mediocre play and, some said, too many late nights, they finished their tour in Nagano by doing an estimated $3,000 in damage to Olympic Village furniture and property.
Japan found Olympic glory with speedskater Hiroyasu Shimizu, who set an Olympic record by skating 500 meters in 35.76 seconds and bested himself a day later with a 35.59. And Masahiko Harada, coming back from a dismal jump, tied teammate Takanobu Okabe for the longest jump on skis in Olympic history 137 meters.
Bjorn Daehlie, the Norwegian cross-country skiing great, extended his Winter Olympics record by picking up his 12th medal in the last race of Nagano a gold in the 50-kilometer. It was his record eighth gold medal, too.
Austria's Hermann Maier careened through the air and the snow in a spectacular crash, then dragged his bruised body back to win two gold medals. The Czechs, behind goaltender Dominik Hasek, stole Canada's chance for Olympic gold in men's hockey, winning 2-1 in a thrilling post-overtime semifinal shootout. The Czechs won the gold on Sunday, 1-0, over Russia.
And, of course, there was the weather. Sometimes miserable, sometimes picturesque, it added to the burden of schedulers, who had to postpone Alpine events once, even twice before they finally went off. It didn't help that a minor earthquake struck Saturday; by then, it was almost expected.
Through it all, Nagano and its legions of Olympic volunteers in their recyclable jackets performed like troupers. Of that, many agreed:
The "rank-and-file,'' as rank-and-file as Olympians can be, seemed to agree. A survey by the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun said Saturday that 95 percent of the 40 delegations that responded called the Olympics "good'' or "excellent.'' Hospitality was particularly highly rated. A total of 87.5 percent of the respondents gave "excellent'' grades, while the remaining 12.5 percent said hospitality was good.
The people came 1,358,207 of them at competitions and victory ceremonies by Sunday afternoon. Local Olympic organizers expected the total at competitions alone to reach 1.27 million when everything is counted.
In the end, when it came time to say goodbye, Nagano danced.
"Sayonara! Sayonara!'' shouted the exuberant master of ceremonies, comedian Kin'ichi Hagimoto, bedecked in a cartoonish white-and-red top hat.
The American team marched in with equal exuberance, carrying a banner inviting everyone to Salt Lake City, home of the 2002 Winter Olympics. "Thank you, Nagano,'' it said; Bye held up the right corner. Some Americans rode on others' shoulders.
And the Japanese, greeted by a flag-waving, horn-blaring hometown crowd, strode in to an even more special sight: their emperor, Akihito, grinning and clapping his hands over his head as Empress Michiko whispered in his ear.
Finally, all pretense of solemnity ended with eight full minutes of fireworks. The Japanese pop group Agharta performed "Ile Aiye,'' or "Let's Make a Circle and Dance'' the theme song of the Snowlets mascots. The drums played. The lights came on. The Olympics, for Nagano, were over.
But a final thought, courtesy of the U.S. Olympic Committee, whose final daily newsletter included a handful of awards. Its prize for the greatest technological innovation of these Japanese Olympics: Heated toilet seats.
Salt Lake City, take heed.
© Copyright 1998 The Associated Press
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