Showtime In Salt Lake

Amid Tight Security, Heartfelt Patriotism And A Record Television Audience, The Curtain Rises On The 19Th Winter Games

Never before has the host of a Winter Olympics simultaneously sent its sons and daughters to the games of war and the war of games. America, of course, is living through just that poignant juxtaposition. As the tattered American flag that was flying over the World Trade Center on September 11 was carried into Friday's opening ceremonies, only the whomp-whomp of hovering security helicopters broke the silence. But as the fresh-faced American team brought up the rear of the parade of 77 nations, scattered fans in the stands and, simultaneously, American soldiers in Kandahar erupted in the rhythmic chants of "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!"

If the patriotism at the opening ceremonies was sharper than at other Games, if the tears at the appearance of the American flag flowed more freely and if the tension between celebrating the internationalism of the Olympics and holding a Patriot Games was unusually great--well, these are unusual times. Nowhere was that clearer than as the opening ceremonies drew to a fireworks-filled close. To light the Olympic torch, the host country always chooses one of its own cherished Olympians from Games past. The Americans chose their "Miracle on Ice" 1980 hockey team, which beat the Russians at Lake Placid, N.Y., when the Russian Army was occupying Afghanistan. It may have seemed, to some around the world, like an in-your-face America-first gesture at a time when international cooperation seems more crucial than ever. But to the home crowd, it resonated: that fabled hockey win was the first time fans chanted "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" and many in the crowd picked it up as soon as Mike Eruzione, captain of the 1980 team, took the torch at Rice-Eccles Olympic Stadium.

With its "child of light" pageantry, stellar entertainers (Sting, Yo-Yo Ma, Dixie Chicks and LeAnn Rimes) and sky-lighting pyrotechnics, the opening ceremonies launched the Olympics gloriously. Organizers had feared that supercold temperatures and high winds might scuttle some performances. But the night was reasonably mild, with only light snow flurries. The cheesy mock trains re-enacting the 1869 meeting of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific, and the covered-wagon Western pioneers, were among the few unfortunate moments that seemed better suited to the Ice Capades than the Olympics. President George W. Bush declared the Games officially open and then joined the American team in the stands, at which point figure skater Sasha Cohen, seated next to him, seized her chance to call home on her cell and ask the leader of the free world to say hi to Mom. (He did.)

The road to Salt Lake City has been as jagged as the Wasatch peaks. In 1998 the bribery scandal broke: city officials trying to win over the International Olympic Committee had plied the site-selection committee with more than $1 million in cash, college tuition for their kids and other goodies. Things haven't gotten much easier. The father of bobsledder Jean Racine was recently charged with two counts of child sexual abuse, and Racine herself scuffed up her good-kid image when she abruptly dumped her longtime brakeman and best friend, Jen Davidson, from the team. During the competition for the U.S. short-track team, Apolo Ohno and Rusty Smith (both already on the team) allegedly threw the 1,000-meter race to their friend Shani Davis so he could qualify for Salt Lake; an arbitrator cleared them. And even before the first medal event, the Games had its first doping scandal: Russian skier Natalia Baranova-Masolkina tested positive for EPO (a red-blood-cell-enhancing compound) and was sent packing.

Although Salt Lake City has tried mightily to shake the perception that it was holding the "Mormon Games," appearances die hard. Just days before the athletes started arriving in their barbed-wire-ringed village, locals were up in arms over the Olympic Committee's decision to continue its recent practice of making condoms available to the competitors. The fabled friendliness of the natives was also tarnished when the usual $2.50 beers started going for six bucks. Local indie rockers like Alchemy were incensed at being shut out of the clubs where they ordinarily play, being told they didn't play "dancy" enough. But as far as economic hits went, locals in the aerial business took the biggest. Hang gliding and paragliding schools like the Cloud 9 Soaring Center south of Salt Lake City were grounded for the duration of the Games, for fear of a terrorist bringing in explosives by glider. "We have 11 employees," says Cloud 9 owner Steve Mayer, "but because of this I've had to lay everybody off for the month." Mayer estimates that he'll lose upwards of $50,000, even though his location is nowhere near any Olympic venues and even though the lack of thermals in wintertime means a glider couldn't stray even if he wanted to.

Although the security forces eliminated the threat from terrorist paragliders, there was at least one possible breach. A rifle found abandoned in a glade near Soldier Hollow, site of cross-country and biathlon, was initially described as a rusty old hunting gun. But according to two officials and a security communique, NEWSWEEK has learned, it was a .50-caliber sniper rifle lethal from one mile.

Yet all the negatives--security concerns, jingoism, unsportsmanlike conduct--seemed to melt away on the luminous morning that the Games got underway. Italy's Stefania Belmondo took the first gold medal, in the women's 15km cross-country, despite dropping a pole. Shannon Bahrke won the first American medal, nabbing a silver in the women's moguls. "Now that I have the first medal," said Bahrke, who wore red, white and blue eye makeup and nail polish during the run, "I hope that makes America proud." Ultimately, the American team hopes to win a national best of 20 gold medals. If they're right, "U.S.A! U.S.A!" will continue to ring out from the snows of Utah to the badlands of Afghanistan, cheering for America's sons and daughters.