VANCOUVER, B.C. – In the beginning, on the morning of the Opening Ceremony, there was the death of an athlete pursuing his sport, a life snuffed out at 21 in a way so awful it will forever haunt the memory of the 2010 Winter Olympics.
In the end, a few hours before the Olympic flame burning here for 17 days went out Sunday night, there was an athletic moment so brilliant it also will be an everlasting memory of these games.
In between, there were organizational problems that will be forgotten, the same way they disappeared after the first few days, when the sun came out in this glimmering city and sparkled over fresh mountain snow lined against an impossibly blue sky.
Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili will live forever as a symbol of what can go horribly wrong when athletes push the limits under conditions that some say were questionable, from the design of a sliding track officials already knew was both unusually fast and dangerously unforgiving, to the relative inexperience of the athlete in a sport where split-second decisions at 90 mph are required.
Hockey player Sidney Crosby, already an icon in his sport at about the same age as Kumaritashvili, became a Canadian hero for the ages in the split second it took for his 22-year-old hands to release a shot that slid between the legs of U.S. goalie Ryan Miller and gave his team a 3-2 overtime victory.
“Of course, the death will cast a shadow over the Games,” International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said. “That goes without saying, and this is something we are not going to forget.
“At same time, I think we should be very fair for the organizers and the athletes. VANOC (the organizing committee) did a great job. And the athletes had great games.”
The problem is that dichotomy of experience makes it discomfiting to write about the exultation and achievement of the 2,631 athletes who have lived to talk about it.
Yet it would also be wrong not to do it, so one should listen to an athlete who also made history here as the first Nordic combined skier from the United States to win a gold medal.
“The memory I will take from this is that it was a fantastic games in a beautiful setting put on by a really proud city,” Billy Demong said before carrying in the U.S. flag for the Closing Ceremony.
And one cannot overlook the passion and general goodwill of the people who both put on the games and celebrated them until all hours in a city that never before had allowed itself such continuous, unrestrained fun.
“What will stand out is the communion between the citizens and games – the way they participated on the streets, the unique atmosphere we have experienced,” Rogge said.
Also unique: Bode Miller of the United States racing down alpine courses not just like a mad genius but finally as a gold medalist. Kim Yu-na of South Korea skating the way one would in a dream. Cross-country skier Marit Bjoergen of Norway winning five medals, three of them gold. Simon Ammann of Switzerland, Harry Potter all grown up, sweeping the ski jump individual golds at 28 as he had done eight years ago.
And Canada, Oh, Canada, leading the world in gold medals.
And Crosby, the face of hockey in Canada, scoring the goal that won the last gold awarded, the one that meant more to his country than its 13 others. “Pretty fitting that Sid scored it,” said Canadian captain Scott Niedermayer.
Such joy at the finish. Such anguish at the start. Such wondrous athletic feats in the middle.
Such were the 2010 Winter Olympics.