Originally created 02/25/02

America rocks, rolls and exhales at closing ceremony



SALT LAKE CITY -- With a big sigh of relief and a star-studded celebration, Utah and America bid farewell to the Olympics on Sunday during a rollicking night of song and dance, a celebration of past athletic glory, and a quick glimpse into the future.

The closing ceremony was a wild ride - eclectic fun with a big dose of Vegas schmaltz.

Rock band KISS, in full face paint and body armor, shared the stage with skaters Katarina Witt and Kristi Yamaguichi. Harry Connick Jr. sang while Dorothy Hamill skated. Later, in a more serious moment, the Olympic flame that burned brightly for 17 days went dark.

Most of the 2,500 athletes at the games paraded into Rice-Eccles Olympic Stadium and watched from the stands. Bobsledding bronze medalist Brian Shimer, a five-time Olympian, carried the American flag.

At the end, the athletes came down to the ice sheet on the stadium floor to mingle and party together in the final gathering of 77 nations that came to Salt Lake City - not all of whom got along so well.

The Russians and South Koreans showed up despite threats they might boycott the ceremony to protest what they believed was unfair judging.

The mass of skiers, skaters, snowboarders and sledders watched a ceremonial rite of passage - the passing of the Olympic flag between the mayors of Salt Lake City and Turin, the Italian city that plays host to the 2006 games.

Earth, Wind and Fire sang. So did Gloria Estefan. Tap dancers danced. The lights went out and a passel of glowing "stick men" skittered across the stadium, while ultraviolet paints shined through the darkness. Vice President Dick Cheney was in the audience.

Narrating the whole thing were a pair of huge dinosaur heads that hovered over the corner of the stadium, chiming in with the occasional wisecrack. Their voices were provided by Utah's favorites, Donny and Marie Osmond.

The Child of Light, urging everyone to "Light the Fire Within" throughout these games, made his final appearance, and skated with Scott Hamilton.

A crowd of 55,000 in the stadium and millions more TV viewers around the world watched this festival of Americana unfold - kitschy, sparkling and funky.

They also saw a six-minute "introduction" to Turin, in which images of Ferraris, the Sistine Chapel and the Mona Lisa were flashed onto the ice while a singer belted out "Volare."

Salt Lake City organizers and the International Olympic Committee were happy and relieved. The games weren't tainted by violence. Traffic problems many people predicted never materialized.

IOC president Jacques Rogge had said he would not call any Olympics "the best games ever," as his predecessor, Juan Antonio Samaranch often did.

In his closing remarks, Rogge thanked the city and country "for offering us these two unforgettable weeks" and applauded the athletes for "great performances."

"We were thrilled by your spirit of fair play and brotherhood," he said. "Keep this flame alight. Promote the Olympic dream in your countries. You are the true ambassadors of the Olympic values."

Rogge also thanked the security forces that kept the games safe.

"People of America, Utah, and Salt Lake City, you have given the world superb games," he added. "You have reassured us that people from all countries can live peacefully together. Thank you. Thank you."

SLOC president Mitt Romney felt he had led a winning effort.

"Clearly the games have far exceeded our expectations," he said.

Of course, expectations were low because of the various scandals, roadblocks and distractions that buffeted these games from their beginning to the very end.

Now that the Olympics are leaving the nation for at least 10 years - Athens, Turin and Beijing are the next three hosts - the United States and IOC will take an unflinching look at what went wrong and how to prevent future problems.

"I can only assure I'll do my best to see that everything goes in the right direction," Rogge said.

The tumult began in 1998, when members of the Salt Lake City Olympic bid committee were accused of bribing IOC officials to bring the games to Utah.

During the games, a judging controversy in figure skating overshadowed almost everything else over the first 10 days. At the end, Russians claimed there had been a North American judging bias and threatened to walk out.

Long before that, the games were thrown into jeopardy because of the Sept. 11 attacks. A $310 million security effort turned this city, home of the Mormon church, into an armed fortress.

Even at the closing ceremony, those cuddly Olympic mascots, Copper, Coal and Powder, weren't nearly as visible as the unofficial symbols of these games - police officers and metal detectors.

Was it worth the trouble?

It's hard to say 'No' considering all the exciting achievements that took place.

Chris Klug. Sarah Hughes. Jim Shea. Ole Einar Bjoerndalen. Vonetta Flowers. All made history in their own special way, and reminded the world of what the Olympics are really about - sports.

The Americans won 34 medals at these games, shattering their old record of 13. It still wasn't enough to put them ahead of Germany in the total medal count.

Still, these were America's games.

At the opening ceremony, U.S. athletes carried the tattered flag from the World Trade Center into the stadium. Later, the American "Miracle on Ice" hockey team lighted the Olympic torch.

While the opening truly did feel like a ceremony, the closing was a party - irreverent, wild, rocking.

Bon Jovi and Christina Aguilera took the stage at the end. A 4 1/2 minute fireworks display rained over the Wasatch Mountain Range to close the show - a grand spectacle to cap a massive Olympic endeavor that was memorable for lots of reasons, as many good as bad.