MASON: Despite cheese, ceremony made me smile

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Steve Mason



Steve Mason regularly anchors Fox Sports Saturday Night and We Are There Sunday on Fox Sports Radio Network. He is broadcasting the Salt Lake games for Westwood One Radio Network. Steve previously anchored the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan and the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. His new television interview show, The Steve Mason Show, will premiere on PBS in September 2002. "When you're being chased by giant icicles, it's never good." Those words, uttered by Bob Costas on the NBC telecast of the Opening Ceremony at the Salt Lake Games last night, capture the ridiculous theatrics that are a part of any Olympic ceremony. A little kid on skates is literally being chased by giant icicles as I look on. My head is saying, "That's ridiculous." My heart is feeling a little tug of emotion. The swelling music, the crazy costumes, the schmaltzy images ¿ and still somehow, the show managed to "Light My Flame Within." There were some great musical performances including Sting with Yo-Yo Ma and R. Kelly. There were great entrances by a stunning array of American athletes including Scott Hamilton, Peggy Fleming, Bill Johnson, Dan Jantzen, and the "Miracle On Ice" U.S. hockey team, which lit the Olympic cauldron. And 55,000 or so fans were as silent as they could be as the WTC flag from ground zero was marched into the stadium. And the Opening Ceremony passed "the Mom test." My mother in Toledo, Ohio loves the Winter Olympics because of figure skating. She's the same woman who has asked me to get Dick Button's autograph for her. I spoke to her after the big show, and her comment was, "It was so nice to see Kristi Yamaguchi again." Twelve hours before the Olympic flame entered Rice-Eccles Stadium, I found myself on a crowded bus in a blinding Utah snowstorm. My assignment? To cover the K90 Ski Jumping Qualification Round at Utah Olympic Park Friday morning. It's a little early to make a blanket pronouncement about the organization of the 2002 games, but I got a pretty good taste of what spectators and media members can expect when they begin their Olympic odyssey. The weather here is very unpredictable. A forecast of snow flurries can quickly become a foot-and-a-half of snow. There don't seem to be enough busses, shuttles, and vans moving people around the venues. And, worst of all, security is so tight that spectators can expect to wait a long time in the cold before they even get a sniff of a metal detector. I rode my crowded bus to Olympic Park this morning, and then I spent a solid hour waiting to pass through security (and I was at the media gate). I grabbed a shuttle up the hill, which missed my stop, leaving me to hike back down the mountain. Then I waited at my broadcast position while the K90 Ski Jumping was postponed twice before finally being canceled. The success of any Olympic games begins with the transportation system created to handle the extraordinary volume of travel between and within venues. The last time the Winter Olympics were held in the U.S., it was at Lake Placid in 1980. Television viewers remember those games for "The Miracle On Ice," but there are still grizzled media veterans here who grumble about how bad the transportation was there and how long they had to wait in the bitter cold for their bus. 2002 may very well be remembered for the unbearably long lines at security checkpoints. It's one thing to be in a long line inside a warm airport terminal. It's another to stand for an hour or two in bitter below-freezing temperatures and heavy winds. Sports fans and media types in Salt Lake will have very short fuses by the end of this 17-day spectacle. At this year's Winter Olympics, "The War on Terrorism" officially becomes "An Attack On Comfort and Convenience." I had a chance to spend some time with Jonna Mendez, who will represent the United States in the Women's Downhill and Super G. Our conversation revolved around the opening ceremonies. To go or not to go? Four years ago, Jonna made the U.S. Olympic team as an 18-year old. She went to the Opening Ceremony in Nagano, lived in the Olympic Village, hung out with athletes from other nations, and probably ate a few Big Macs. She even put a totally fabricated bio into the Olympic information system just for fun. In fact, she has never been "married to Julio Jose Hermino De la Rosa with four kids named Garamel, La La, Juan, and Tuti" as she claimed. In sports, we call that loose. She had that "nothing to lose, I'm enjoying the Olympic experience" kind of attitude. She didn't win. She didn't even finish in the top 10. She was a kid, however and wasn't supposed to. But 2002 is a different story. Jonna Mendez is serious this time. She's skipping the Opening Ceremony, staying in a hotel, and there is no time for mingling with fellow athletes, fans, or media. I don't know if that's the best way to cook up a great Olympic performance. Four years ago, there was the story of Michelle and Tara. Michelle Kwan was the seasoned veteran and the heavy favorite to win the gold medal in figure skating. Tara Lipinski was the top challenger, but she focused on "her Olympic experience." Michelle was serious. She came to Nagano just before her event was scheduled to begin and stayed in a hotel. Tara arrived in Nagano early, marched in the Opening Ceremony, and hung out in the Olympic Village. Tara skated loose and won. Michelle skated tight and finished second. We'll see if the strategy works for Jonna, who has an outside shot to medal in the Women's Super G. She and her best pal Caroline LaLive have a chance to make an impact both here in Salt Lake and again four years from now. For now though, they are in the shadow of the star of the team, Picabo Street. Most Olympic fans know Picabo's story. She took a surprise silver medal in the '94 Downhill at Lillehammer followed by a dominating gold medal performance in the Super G four years later. Before, between, and after she has been surgically reconstructed more than Joan Rivers. She has ruptured her left ACL, torn her right ACL, broken her jaw, fractured her right femur, and broken her left femur. And those are just her top five injuries. I was surprised by the comments Picabo made at a U.S. Ski team press conference. There were rumors that she had been lobbying fellow U.S. Olympians to elect her as the team's flag bearer (which seemed distasteful and un-Olympic to many, including me), but at this media gathering she copped to it. She seemed to be trying to turn the low-key tradition of the U.S. team choosing an athlete for the honor into a political event. Perhaps her talk of wanting to be the flag bearer was a ruse to hide the fact that she had a prominent role in the lighting of the Olympic cauldron. But I suspect she really wanted the validation that comes from being honored by her peers. When Picabo Street hits the slopes of the Downhill course known as Wildflower on Monday, it will be her Olympic swan song. She has not been skiing well, but maybe she has one great run left in her resilient body. The self-aggrandizing campaign to carry the U.S. flag into the stadium aside, it would be nice to see her and that winning smile on the medal stand one more time.

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