SALT LAKE CITY -- They're back, amid snow-covered peaks and streets packed with chants for the home team. They're back, in a country desperate for another "miracle," ready to wave the red, white and blue.
They're back, this time in the land of American Indians and Mormons, rodeos and the Rockies.
Two decades after some college hockey players wrapped the nation in Olympic glory at the Lake Placid Games, the Winter Olympics have returned to America.
Only this time, they're draped in the sentiment, celebration and drama of a nation rattled by terror and ready to show the world it has recovered.
The 2002 Winter Games begin Friday night, and Utah, one local said, is "WAY more than ready."
For that matter, so is America.
"The anticipation is exciting, but now it's like, 'Whoa!"' said Patricia Haslam of Bountiful, Utah. "Now, it's just awesome."
The Olympic torch arrived Thursday in Salt Lake City, the last leg of a 13,500-mile, 46-state journey toward its final destination: the opening ceremony at Rice-Eccles Olympic Stadium.
The celebration that raises the curtain on 17 days of skiing, sliding and skating takes place under a cloak of security. With America still on high alert after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, an unprecedented 16,000-member security force has been deployed to patrol Olympic grounds and the skies above.
The security program is "far more thoroughly planned and comprehensive" than any other at a U.S. Olympic Games, said Salt Lake City organizing chief Mitt Romney.
"Now that perhaps the most terrible terrorist incident in the world's history has happened on our shores, it calls for a very serious response to terrorism and to protecting our people and our guests," Romney said. "Does that mean it's impossible for anything bad to happen? Of course not."
Authorities quickly dispensed with one possible threat on Olympic eve. Police detonated a suspicious package - a plastic grocery bag filled with fuses and electrical wire - found in a parking garage three blocks from the Olympic media center. Construction workers spotted the bag near a support beam and alerted authorities.
Despite security concerns, 55,000 spectators will attend the opening extravaganza, enduring long waits in frigid temperatures to pass through metal detectors and have their belongings searched. Tickets were going for anywhere from $400 on the street to $885 from organizers.
President Bush and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan were scheduled to attend the event, which promises to be sentimental and celebratory - juggling American patriotism and Olympic protocol.
The International Olympic Committee agreed Wednesday to let Americans carry into the stadium the flag recovered from the rubble of the World Trade Center. Eight U.S. athletes, joined by New York police and firefighters, will carry the stars and stripes in a solemn tribute after the parade of nations.
The frail banner, the country's new symbol of recovery and resilience, will serve as the official U.S. flag of the games. Speedskater Amy Peterson, a three-time Olympic medalist, will carry another flag on behalf of the U.S. team.
Even before the official start of the games Friday night, competition gets under way hours earlier with qualifying rounds in ski jumping. Competition begins in earnest Saturday on the powder and the ice, with events in moguls, cross country skiing, ice hockey, figure skating and speedskating.
In all, more than 2,500 athletes from 77 countries are participating in the games, expected to draw up to 80,000 spectators a day. The sporting program is the largest ever for a Winter Olympics, with 78 events in 15 disciplines and seven sports. That includes 10 new or returning events, among them women's bobsled and skeleton, a headfirst version of luge.
While security was a dominant presence - even athletes were forced to wait outside the Olympic Village while their bags were searched - it didn't detract from the spirit of the games.
"It's a dream to be here," an exuberant Jeremy Bloom, an American moguls competitor, said after he arrived. "This is it!"
Athletes were focused on the competition, tourists on scooping up souvenirs. Even residents were reveling in the Olympic frivolity.
Haslam joined a small crowd outside a downtown shopping center this week to cheer on her son, Christopher, and 60 other third-graders as they belted out patriotic songs in a prelude to the games.
"We are so excited we can't stand it," she said. "We see all these people and license plates and think, 'Cool, where are they from?"'
"It's once in a lifetime," added her husband, Tim. "It's something we won't ever see again."
But 9-year-old Christopher perhaps summed it up best.
Is he worried about an attack? Nah.
Overwhelmed by the crowds? No way.
Excited about an international event coming to his little corner of the universe?
"Big time," he said, flashing a gap-toothed smile. "The whole world's watching us. I think it's pretty cool."
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