It was February 1980, the dawn of a new decade, yet the United States was drained of all optimism. The nation was in recession. Fifty-two Americans were held captive in Iran. The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan, and President Carter was vowing to boycott the Moscow Summer Games.p. Then the Winter Olympics arrived in Lake Placid, N.Y., and a reason materialized in a group of college hockey players who defeated the mighty Soviets, won the gold and gave a dispirited country something finally to celebrate.
Twenty-two years later, the country is struggling through a recession. Fighting in Afghanistan dominates the news, this time with U.S. soldiers on the ground. Americans, in a sense, are being held hostage again, this time on their own soilfearful of flying, afraid of anthrax-tainted mail.
The country desperately needs a reason to cheer.
And once again, Americans will have the Olympics.
When the Winter Games open Friday, they will provide more than a chance for Salt Lake City to shine. Barring more violence, they’ll offer a nation shaken by terror a two-week excuse to finally have fun.
“We’ve undergone a period of national mourning, and now our country is more than ready for a national celebration,” said Brenda Light Bredemeier, a sports psychologist and co-rector of the Mendelson Center for Sport, Character,&Culture at the University of Notre Dame.
“The Olympics emphasize the ‘we’-ness of American culture. This is ‘our’ team. These people represent us,” she said. “It allows you this temporary release from typical obligations, from typical responsibilities and from the horror of life.”
The games are the largest international gathering since the Sept. 11 attacks. For Americans, they are a chance to show the world what resilience is all about.
Some people, though, view the games with more dread than enthusiasm. An Associated Press poll last month found that a third of the public believes a terrorist attack is likely, despite heightened security.
“I’m concerned, but so is everyone,” Connie Casias said as she stood in a snowstorm last month watching the Olympic torch pass through Denver.
Despite her anxiety, Casias also sees the games as an opportunity to prove America is healing. “It’s a way to show we’ve bounced back,” she said.
Through war, defections, apartheid, terrorism, the games have gone on.
There was Berlin in 1936, when the games became a vehicle for Nazi propaganda in a prelude to World War II. Melbourne in 1956, when Hungarian athletes defected rather than return to a war-ravaged nation. Munich in 1972, when 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were killed by Palestinians. Atlanta in 1996, when a bomb killed one person and injured more than 100 others.
And now the Salt Lake City Games, just five months after the world’s deadliest single act of terrorism in the very country that is playing host to the Olympics.
“There’s nothing that’s been quite like this,” said Kevin Wamsley, director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies at The University of Western Ontario. “There have been attacks on people before and wars, but in this case, the country hosting the Olympics is the United States.”
That, said Wamsley, makes the 2002 Games different — in look, mood and meaning.
In 1980, when the Winter Games last were held in the United States, the only security checkpoint was outside the athletes’ village in Lake Placid, and “military presence” meant a National Guard unit for treating injuries.
In 2002, troops will monitor metal detectors at event entrances, military aircraft will patrol no-fly zones over venues, hockey spectators will be examined with the facial recognition technology, mail will be screened for bombs and could be sanitized because of possible anthrax contamination.
In 1980, organizers had little sense of the affect the games could have. In 2002, organizers are very aware of it.
“For many Americans, the games will provide a sense of healing and solidarity with a world that has supported us in our time of need,” said Mitt Romney, head of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee. “The games affirm civilization, and affirm humanity.”
International visitors might be more empathetic and supportive of Americans, as long as they don’t take their patriotism too far, Wamsley said.
“If they do well, people will say: ‘Good for them. I think they deserve it,’” he said.
Americans typically don’t fare well at the Winter Olympics, but even that might be different at these games. This year, the U.S. team is perhaps the strongest ever.
Might there be a hero of 2002, like the “Miracle on Ice” team of 1980? Perhaps Michelle Kwan, chasing gold after placing second four years ago. Or Apolo Anton Ohno, the speedskater with a great chance to win after failing to make the 1998 Games.
Still, at these games, said former Olympic luger Bonny Warner, “It won’t be so important who won and who lost.”
“It’s a little bit more about the Olympic spirit and people coming together,” she said.
Perhaps it will be enough that the games did go on.
That might be reason enough to celebrate.
February 5, 2002