- The Washington Times - Monday, February 25, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY Juan Antonio Samaranch isn't around to say it, so we will: These were the greatest Winter Games ever.
And it's not even close.
Forget peace, unity, the hefty United States medal haul. For scandal, controversy and sheer absurdity in other words, everything we know and love about the Olympic movement the Salt Lake City Games have raised the bar. And then some.
Think stolen mascots. Botched doping tests. Crooked French judges. Paranoid Russians. Indignant Koreans. A seriously peeved Wayne Gretzky.
All that and Kiss. Somebody pinch us.
Of course, the Games weren't perfect: Tonya Harding couldn't make it. But there's always Torino, and frankly, we don't want to sound greedy.
In the meantime, the International Olympic Committee ought to congratulate itself for a job well done, perhaps with a pompous score from "composer" John Williams. As a wise someone on NBC possibly Bob Costas, probably Katie Couric once said, they couldn't have written a better script. At least not without a hand from, say, Joe Eszterhas, who at this point could probably use the work.
But we digress.
If Skategate didn't happen, we would have had to make it up. After all, polygamy jokes and curling cracks only go so far, and 16 days worth is probably a stretch, even given the inherent comic value in multiple wives and, um, pushing a broom across a sheet of ice.
A polygamous curling team, on the other hand … well, dare to dream.
Skategate was the Games' answer to Christmas fruitcake, a gift that kept on giving. It gave us Marie-Reine Le Gougne, a craven, ridiculous figure culled from World War II collaboration drama, swaddled in a fur coat to shame Ray Lewis. It gave us soon-to-be trivia answer Ottavio Cinquanta, clumsily sidestepping questions in two languages.
It gave us Sale and Pelletier, cute and adorable in that very special way that makes you want to punch them both in the face.
Yeah, we said it.
And let's not forget: An outraged Scott Hamilton, for once incensed by something other than two-footing the quad, was by himself worth the price of admission. There's really nothing quite like a little man worked into a big lather, especially if he's a bug-eyed little man to boot.
Yeah, we said that, too.
The best thing about the skating Crime of the Century was that it never really ended. Just when we were grudgingly resigned to pretend that cross-country skiing, women's hockey and ice dancing were worthy of actual attention, along came the Skategate fallout, which stepped into the breach with about, oh, 500 hours of breathless MSNBC coverage.
Would Sale and Pelletier be awarded a gold medal? Would the dank, corrupt, quid pro quo world of figure skating judging be dragged into the light? Would the Canadian delegation hold yet another news conference?
These were big, serious questions demanding big, serious answers, lest our sense of justice, fair play and respect for the Olympic ideals of graft and corruption be shaken to the core.
Besides, it sure beat the alternative: Striking out to watch skeleton, or, God forbid, Nordic combined. Not that we've actually seen Nordic combined. Still, we have a sneaking suspicion that the combination in question doesn't involve a certain Nordic bikini team, and as such, well, what's the point?
But we digress. Again.
Our thanks to the Russians for having the good sense not to leave well enough alone. Nobody not even Oliver Stone does paranoid quite like the homeland of Ivan Drago, and the once-mighty Olympic power was in rare form.
Spooked by the figure skating fiasco, the Rooskies saw boogeymen around every corner. They demanded a second gold of their own. They threw a fit over a flunked drug test. They threatened to pull out of the Games, then threatened to create an event of their own, completely independent of Ted Turner.
They even grumbled about the officiating in a hockey match against the Czech Republic, a match Team Russia won.
And to think: It all came in a single, glorious, bellicose day. Sometimes, getting out of bed is reward enough.
Door prizes go to the South Koreans, the IOC doping police and Gretzky, not necessarily in that order. The drug cops caught Belarusian short-track skater Yulia Pavlovich with everything but the needle still sticking out of her arm yet were forced to void a positive test.
The reason? A courier mistakenly broke the seal on the envelope containing the skater's urine sample, possibly to stuff in a pizza delivery receipt.
Pavlovich's steroid blood levels were more than 300 times the IOC limit, and the banned substance in question, nandrolone, isn't exactly the kind of muscle-building protein powder you can pick up at the local GNC. Unless you're Pavle Javanovic.
Meanwhile, the South Koreans did their best to fumble and fume like the Russians and nearly succeeded. Riled up over a disqualification in short track, they also demanded a second gold, then threatened to boycott a Closing Ceremony headlined by Kiss.
Ultimately, though, the South Koreans backed down and settled for little more than a strongly worded letter, which is something we can understand, being in the business of, well, strongly worded letters. Of course, we're not as sympathetic to their decision to watch Gene Simmons wag his tongue, but then again, we're not South Korean, either.
We're also not Gretzky, who provided the Games' most unintentionally comic moment, a rambling, unprompted soliloquy on the world's deep and everlasting hatred of Canadian hockey.
It's OK: Read that over if you need to.
In what amounted to a verbal cross-check, the Grate One even claimed that the United States takes special pleasure in the failure of its northern neighbor, a curious proposition given: 1. America's propensity for importing Canadian hockey teams; 2. America's general indifference to all things Canadian, beer and Peter Jennings excluded.
Considering the NHL's abysmal television ratings, however, we're willing to admit: Maybe Gretzky has a point.
While all of the above saved us from covering biathlon, a fate worse than, say, covering bobsled, it didn't put the Salt Lake City Games over the top. Nor did Prince Albert of Monaco falling out of his forgive us for this can.
To be honest, we weren't absolutely, positively, 110 percent sure that these Olympics were the greatest ever until Lekki, a stuffed mascot from the Nagano Games, was stolen from the main media center.
And no, we're not making this up.
Lekki, it should be noted, is nearly four feet tall and almost two feet wide. He's not the sort of bird or owl or whatever that can be jammed into a laptop bag. Unless you're packing a UNIVAC.
Nevertheless, he's gone, confounding the Games' vaunted $310 million security effort. In a fit of desperation, organizers have gone so far as to plead publicly for his return, no questions asked.
Our theory? Sale and Pelletier did it. Unless it's Le Gougne. Or the Russians. Or the South Koreans. Or maybe Gretzky, still haunted by Team Canada's fourth-place finish in Japan.
Whoever's to blame, one thing's for sure: After these Games, Torino has a lot of catching up to do.

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