Originally created 02/11/02

Under deep blue skies, games bring excitement and fun to Utah



SALT LAKE CITY -- They began with a solemn tribute to a torn flag, then quickly turned to the business of fun. Huge crowds cheered, the home team's athletes soared and Americans watched as never before.

The Winter Olympics opened to rave reviews on a weekend where even the weather cooperated, with skies clearing to reveal a picturesque scene of snowy mountains towering over the city's Mormon Temple.

A $310 million security plan worked almost flawlessly, people partied in the streets and U.S. athletes quickly grabbed a gold medal and two silvers in their bid to make this truly America's Games.

Even some traffic snarls and a disappointing run for American skier Daron Rahlves couldn't spoil an opening few days that were more spectacular than even the proudest Olympic boosters could had hoped.

"I thought it would be a great big mess. I had my ifs, ands and buts," said Charles Adams of Provo, his four grandchildren in tow on a downtown street. "It's been great."

There was even dancing and drinking, much to the delight of visitors who worried that Salt Lake City would be too staid and its liquor laws too complex to allow full enjoyment of the games.

An Olympics that was once mired in scandal and financial turmoil made its debut on time and on budget in a state eager to show the world its good side.

Utahns grew increasingly excited as the games approached, and supermarket kiosks were crowded just before the opening ceremony with $420,000 worth of tickets sold on Friday alone.

There was also little of the jingoism that International Olympic Committee officials had worried so much about. Fans cheered athletes from all countries, though reserving the most boisterous shouts for the home team Americans.

"It was fantastic," IOC director general Francois Carrard said. "We knew it was well prepared."

While athletes were skiing in the nearby mountains and setting new records at the slick speedskating oval, the real action was downtown where fans jammed Olympic souvenir stores and haggled with Olympic pin traders and ticket scalpers hawking their wares on the sidewalk.

Streets normally deserted on a Sunday in this churchgoing city were packed with people enjoying the Olympic atmosphere. The night before, nearly 20,000 people crowded into the Olympic medals plaza to watch the two Americans accept their silver medals and then party with the Dave Matthews Band.

They weren't the only ones having fun.

NBC executives were ecstatic at ratings that showed 72 million people - or one in four Americans - tuned in to watch an opening ceremony that featured the World Trade Center flag and the 1980 gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic hockey team lighting the flame.

The first day of actual competition did almost as well, giving the network its biggest Saturday night audience since the Atlanta Olympics nearly six years ago.

"It was a great start," NBC spokesman Kevin Sullivan said. "We're trying to let the numbers speak for themselves."

American athletes quickly gave viewers something to cheer for. Mogul skier Shanon Bahrke, who nearly died three years ago from a staph infection, won a silver medal, and speedskater Derek Parra promptly added one in speedskating.

"I can't believe I'm on the podium, let alone the first American to win a medal," Bahrke said.

On Sunday, Kelly Clark won the snowboarding half-pipe, giving the United States its first gold medal and putting the team well on its way to a goal of 20 medals.

There were some opening problems, though.

Russian cross-country skier Larissa Lazutina had barely finished winning a silver medal when she bitterly criticized the security checks of athletes.

"Nobody has ever searched my personal belongings this way," she said.

And some fans who paid up to $95 to stand in the snow and watch the downhill fought traffic jams so severe that the race had been decided by the time they got near the finish line.

Ticket scalpers weren't getting the inflated prices they wanted, while some drinkers grumbled at the private clubs that suddenly imposed $12 cover charges and doubled the price of beer.

But predictions of people standing in long lines in the cold waiting to be searched never came true, although traffic on the way to the downhill left officials nervous about what might happen on Tuesday when the number of cars on Interstate 80 is expected to exceed the road's capacity.