Olympics close on fitting note: a polka Politics plays a part but can't steal stage


ALBERTVILLE, France -- It started with a ballet of bungee jumpers and ended with a polka.

There was a former superpower in search of a name, a unified country in search of an identity, and a divided country in search of peace.

The United States was just looking for a man, any man, to win a medal.

The 16th Winter Olympics, which ended last night under cloudless skies in this crossroads town of the French Alps, were more than just a 16-day television show.

It was political and athletic theater played out on ice and snow. After four years of traumatic political change, the world stopped and took stock of itself.

The new world order didn't look so bad, after all. Certainly, it made more sense than the ceremonies that opened and closed the Games. After the bungee jumpers and the angel on a unicycle, after the drummers suspended 300 feet in the air by cranes and the march of hockey players on stilts, the whole thing closed down with a crowd of 35,000 crammed into an amphitheater, invited to the stage for one last dance:

The polka.

Why not? This was weird, from start to finish.

Something called the Unified Team emerged from the embers of the old Soviet empire. The athletes, mostly Russians, competed under a five-ringed Olympic flag and heard the Olympic anthem each time they won gold. But they were so poor and so desperate that they sold the team jackets off their backs for cash.

Two Germanys marched as one, but there remained an invisible wall between the old East and West. A driver on the four-man bobsled, Harald Czudaj, was ensnared in the Stasi spying scandal, a vestige from the vilified Eastern police state.

Slovenians and Croatians and other Yugoslavs appeared together on mountains and in arenas, even as their countries warily observed a truce in their civil war. But Croatian figure skater Tomislav Cizmesija told of missing training because air raids shut down his ice rink in Zagreb for two hours a day.

But this was not an event merely of politics. This was about sports and images.

What remains are the faces of the Games.

Julie Parisien of the United States weeping in the snow, losing a bronze medal by .05 of a second in the women's slalom. Minutes later, she got up, and said, "Heartbreak."

Bonnie Blair of the American Midwest, a speed skating comet, winning two gold medals, while in the stands, 44 of her relatives and friends sang, "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean." Last night, she carried the flag at the closing ceremony, a fitting symbol of the women's dominance in winning nine of the 11 U.S. medals.

Another race, another family. Four years after falling in grief, Dan Jansen returned to the Olympics and finished fourth in the 500 meters. On a cold, drizzly day, his mother, Gerry, sat shivering, but was finally satisfied, that her son had completed a circle, from failure to fourth.

Paul Wylie, an elf in skates, finding joy in a sport that always broke his heart, winning the silver in men's figure skating. On the podium, Wylie waved and laughed, looked to the ceiling, and nearly cried.

Football star Herschel Walker fasting on bread, water and M&M;'s, racing in the two-man bobsled, and then getting cut from a team for the first time in his life when he was banished from the U.S. four-man bobsled. He was last seen helping carry a 600-pound sled off an equipment trailer.

Ray LeBlanc, the man behind the stars-and-stripes mask, the career minor-leaguer enjoying two weeks of glory, making save after save to become the symbol of the U.S. hockey team that came from everywhere and nowhere.

Ye Qiabo of China, weeping after winning her country's first Winter Games medal, in speed skating, speaking in halting English of a doping scandal that prevented her from competing at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta. Four days later, accompanied by members of the Chinese delegation, she declined to speak in English, saying she could not be adequately understood. Still, in an act of quiet, almost unnoticeable defiance, she answered questions spoken to her in English without the need of translation.

The prettiest picture: Americans Kristi Yamaguchi and Nancy Kerrigan sharing a medal podium with Midori Ito in ladies' figure skating. They laughed together. Posed for pictures together. Rejoiced together.

The longest flight: Toni Nieminen, a 16-year-old national hero of Finland, launching himself off the side of a mountain to win TC gold medal in the large-hill ski jump. Dazed, yet triumphant, he was led to the medal stand by a cordon of police. He had nothing to say.

But the singular personality of the Games was an Italian ski racer who looked like Elvis in Lycra, and raced like a wild bull on snow.

Alberto Tomba came here in search of double gold.

He got a gold in the giant slalom, and a silver in the slalom. And after his last, breathless race, he was asked, if he would party, gorge and imbibe, as before.

He smiled, and said in English: "I start tomorrow."

The 1994 Lillehammer Olympics start in 718 days.

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