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For U.S., golden finish

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Turin, Italy -- In the course of one evening, Apolo Ohno did what skier Bode Miller, bobsled driver Todd Hays and the U.S. women's hockey team could not do: win.

By taking the gold medal in the 500-meter short-track speed skating event and adding a bronze in the 5,000-meter relay, Ohno helped the U.S. Olympic team end the 20th Winter Games on a high note.

"I can't explain," Ohno said after the sprint. "I've been searching my entire career for the perfect race and that was it."

Yesterday's haul coupled with an earlier bronze, and with gold and silver medals from the 2002 Winter Games, allowed Ohno to match 1980 hero Eric Heiden's medals total. For Heiden, however, all five medals were pure gold.

U.S. Olympic Committee officials yesterday proclaimed themselves satisfied with the performance of the team, despite fewer medals than four years ago and unpleasantries involving a handful of unruly athletes.

With their competitions behind them, American athletes have collected 25 medals, fewer than the 34 they won in Salt Lake City four years ago, but breaking the record of 13 at an Olympics held on foreign soil.

Last fall, Olympic officials had vowed that the U.S. medals "would not decline."

But yesterday, Jim Scherr, head of the USOC, admitted he and others may have set expectations too high and praised the outcome as "an incredible performance."

"We've been competitive across the board ... with more than 60 top-eight finishes," said Sherr, who promised a vigorous campaign between now and the 2010 Games to "take those very close performances and turn them into medals."

Left largely undiscussed were poor performances by top contenders such as Miller, the hockey team and the sliding athletes. In five events, Miller was unable to finish three and had a top finish of fifth place in the downhill. The hockey team was flat from the start and was upset by Finland in the semifinal round. The bobsled, skeleton and luge squads finished with no medals after winning four in 2002.

Adding to the disappointment was the withdrawal of injured figure skater Michelle Kwan, the charismatic nine-time U.S. champion.

Several athletes earned headlines for non-competition activities. Miller partied until the wee hours before racing. Gold medalists Shani Davis and Chad Hedrick carried out a personal feud in public. Figure skater Johnny Weir hung out with Russian athletes and wore a vintage jacket embroidered with "CCCP," the designation of the former Soviet Union, to practice. Aerial skier Jeret "Speedy" Peterson was sent home yesterday after he allegedly punched an acquaintance in the face.

Sherr called the incidents a small part of the actions by the 211 members of the U.S. delegation and promised "significant adjustments" in the way athletes are counseled and disciplined.

"We take full responsibility for any unpleasant episodes," Sheer said. "We need to do a better job at making them understand how what they do affects the whole team and the country."

Tonight, those athletes still in town - including Bel Air's Kimmie Meissner - will take part in a closing ceremony built around the theme of the Italian festival of "Carnevale," and featuring sly tributes to film director Federico Fellini.

Speed skater Joey Cheek, who won gold and silver medals, was selected by his American teammates to carry the U.S. flag into the stadium. Cheek earned $40,000 from the USOC for his medals and donated the money to Right to Play, a humanitarian organization dedicated to helping disadvantage children through sports. He also challenged sponsors and corporations to match his contribution.

Musical talent will range from Italian opera singer Andrea Bocelli to Latin pop star Ricky Martin.

Always a highlight of the ceremony is the transfer of the Olympic flag from the host nation to the next one. Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan, a quadriplegic, will hold the flag in a special stand and race around the stage in his wheelchair to make the banner wave.

"It will be a very peculiar closing ceremony - full of art, melodrama and circus acrobats," said Daniele Finzi Pasca, director of the ceremony. "The aim is to have a big party that everyone will enjoy." candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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