Winter Olympics: Spirit of the Games triumphs in Nagano

Mike Rowbottom looks back on a Winter Olympics in which the newly introduced sports generated the greatest interest
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THE earth moved for the 18th Winter Games - even if the reverberations were felt more strongly in some parts than others. The earthquake which shook Nagano and many other central areas on Saturday, measuring 5.0 on the Richter scale, was merely one in a sequence of natural phenomena which affected the running of these Olympics.

And while the Games may not have registered at the top end of the scale for the British - who were at least able to celebrate a medal on the final weekend courtesy of the four-man bob - Richter would probably be pushed to quantify the effects of a sequence of host nation successes, or the Czech Republic's epic victory in the ice hockey.

Canada, too, revelled in these Games, coincidentally generating some of the best stories of the event. And although the US television rights holder, CBS, lost its most potent ratings-grabber when the US team disappeared at the quarter-final stage of the ice hockey with three losses out of four defeats, there was still Tara Lipinski versus Michelle Kwan in figure skating - US v US - to lift ratings which had sagged to two-thirds of the levels averaged in the 1994 Games.

Fog, driving rain and too much snow played havoc with the alpine skiing programme, where the showpiece men's downhill event on the opening Sunday had to be postponed three times. A flu bug did for the chances of a number of athletes.

But the Games eventually cohered. The transportation, by and large, held up, the hosts were unfailingly friendly and more flexible than many had darkly predicted, and three new Olympic elements combined to provide outstanding points of interest.

The introduction of National Hockey League players to the Games resulted, belatedly, in a memorable tournament.

Canada departed with dignity intact after losing their semi-final to the eventual winners, the Czech Republic, on a shoot-out. Wayne Gretzky, making his Olympic and international farewell at the age of 37, was pained but restrained.

"When you don't win, you have to accept the lumps and take your bruises," he said. "When you win, you accept the flowers and roses."

The US collection of NHL millionaires, in contrast, left the Games talking money. Nothing unusual there, perhaps. But in this case it was the amount of damage they had caused to some of their rooms in the Olympic village after being eliminated.

The organisers said the cost in terms of broken chairs and doors was $3,000 (pounds 1,875). The US players claimed it was no more than $1,000. The cost in terms of bad public relations will be less easy to put a figure on. There is to be an NHL inquiry.

The introduction of snowboarding to the Olympics proved predictably fraught as a culture clash saw Canada's Ross Rebagliati stripped of the slalom gold after testing positive for marijuana, to widespread exclamations of "What did you expect?"

But a dopey attitude to drawing up rules enabled the Canadian to reclaim the medal on appeal and wear it with pride while he was being "routinely questioned" by the Japanese police - for 11 hours.

There is to be another inquiry here as the International Olympic Committee plan to standardise their doping procedure, which sounds something they might usefully have done, say, a year ago.

The last addition, curling, did its profile nothing but good with a series of absorbing games - not least of which was the semi-final in which Britain's women came within less than an inch of defeating the Canadian world champions in an extra end.

When people look back on these Games, two men whose fortunes experienced dramatic fluctuations will be remembered - Hermann Maier and Masahiko Harada.

The Austrian arrived in Nagano with the World Cup title virtually won and a reputation as huge as the risks he habitually takes.

He over-reached himself after just 17 seconds of the downhill, cartwheeling off the course and through two safety fences. It was a fall which would have ended the Olympics for many competitors. But he returned to earn two gold medals.

Harada, whose last jump at the 1994 Olympics had cost Japan the ski jump team gold in the 120m hill, came to the 1998 team contest as an individual bronze medallist whose form on his home ground had been wildly inconsistent.

He was consistent at least in his inconsistency. The first of his two jumps for the national team was so awful - 79.50 metres - that it was bettered by the bulk of the Korean jumpers who finished 13th and last.

But his final jump was 137m - further than which no jumper had gone. And so the man who had always seemed to smile in defeat became the man who cried in victory.

From a British point of view, the Games were given desperately needed gloss by the efforts of the four-man bobsleigh team on the final weekend.

Apart from their efforts, those of the women's curlers and Steven Cousins, sixth in the figure skating, there wasn't anything to get stirred up about from a 35-strong contingent.

Simon Clegg, the chief executive of the British Olympic Association, defended the selection criterion whereby competitors had to demonstrate they could finish in the top half of their world rankings. "We are not a winter sport nation and before the Games I said if we left here with a medal it would be a magnificent achievement," he said. "And we have done, and it is."

Words that would have been welcome to another competitor who earned third place on Friday, Lyudmila Prokasheva. After winning bronze in the 5,000 metres cross-country skiing with the performance of her life, the 29-year- old Kazakhstan athlete said team officials did not care a jot about her performance.

"In my first event, the 3,000m, I placed seventh and the officials on my team really didn't care at all," she said. "They said: `This is no result worth mentioning at all. You are not an athlete, you should go pack your bags and go home'. I think this will be the end of my career as an athlete."

Sounds like the Kazakhstan team could do with a good sports psychologist.