Winners and losers: Canadians steal show

By Dan Wetzel, Yahoo! Sports
14 hours, 36 minutes ago

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – After nearly three weeks, the Winter Olympics are over, and the world’s obsession with the Games will go on hold until the summer of 2012, when the circus will hit London.

It’s been eventful trying to deliver the news, with varying degrees of success: I investigated whether the sport of curling was doomed due to the world’s supply of granite. I asked a man from the Netherlands why he skated in a skeleton outfit. I tried to find Swedish women to talk about Tiger Woods. I met athletes who deserve at least a sliver of the attention Tiger’s mistresses receive.

I wrote a column about a father who lost his son, a daughter who lost her mother and a sport that lost its way, playing a part in an athlete losing his life. I covered a lot of hockey.

I saw Shaun White fly, Apolo Ohno pass and Bode Miller deliver. I watched Kim Yu-Na skate. I watched as her mother couldn’t (nerves). I saw Joannie Rochette prove to be one tough skater. I saw Wayne Gretzky carry a torch in the rain and drive down the street in the back of a Silverado. I climbed up the mountains in Whistler and watched a Canadian hockey game in an out-of-control basement bar down by the harbor.

I didn’t come close to seeing everything. Or even most of everything. But I did see a lot, and as the torch goes dark, here are my winners and losers (a relative term) from the memorable Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

WINNER: The Canadian people

These Olympics began poorly. There was a lack of snow. There were events that had to be rescheduled. There was the tragic death of luger Nodar Kumaritashvili. There were embarrassing Opening Ceremony gaffes and the dumb decision to hide the Olympic cauldron behind high chain-link fencing. And Canada’s bold medal goals stumbled out of the gate.

But a funny thing happened. The people kept cheering. The athletes kept trying. And the Olympics, which too often are about a cold bureaucracy, about rules and arguments and pumped-up nationalism, somehow returned to the people. So what if the plans were going bad? There was no need to give up. Let’s grab a drink and watch some halfpipe.

A week into the games, with everyone still wringing their hands, a Canadian skeleton racer named Jon Montgomery came out of nowhere to win a gold medal. It was the epitome of unexpected excellence. Afterward, he walked through the streets of the mountain village of Whistler, still holding his helmet, with a television camera rolling. Unprompted, a passing woman handed him a pitcher of beer. Without breaking stride, he grabbed it, chugged it and the entire mood seemed to change.

It was a purely Canadian moment. It was perfect.

The people kept flooding the downtown streets and the mountain squares. Without tickets, they gathered to watch on giant televisions. They celebrated victories. They shared tears of disappointment and mourning. They rallied behind their hockey team and their bobsledders and their snowboarders and anyone wearing the red and white. Night after night they found something to go wild about. They just wanted to be a part of it, a part of something bigger than themselves, a part of the unique heights where spirits can soar when enjoyed in a group.

It wasn’t just here or up in the picturesque mountains. The video images came of bars going crazy in Toronto and Timmins, in Calgary and Charlottetown. Suddenly this country that had never embraced the enthusiasm of the Games the way some others have was showing the world how it’s done. Impromptu singings of the national anthem rang through the streets late at night, at karaoke bars, at curling matches.

You can’t wash away the tragedy of the luge track, but outside of that, you can’t stage a better Olympics. The city is beautiful. The venues are modern. The transportation is efficient. But this wasn’t about logistics. In the end it’s the people that power the movement. The Canadian people pushed these games back from the brink of disaster and right off into history.

LOSER: Vancouver Organizing Committee

It was obvious they had built a sliding track in Whistler that was too fast and too challenging. Luge athletes were complaining from the start of practice. Then Nodar Kumaritashvili died when he was ejected from the track and into a steel pole. They slowed the luge track, yet then watched bobsledders struggle to make it down later in the Games.

Later, documents, emails and other smoking guns became public that showed concern about the track from officials, including those within the International Luge Federation. Luging is a dangerous sport, but there is no need to make it this difficult. The death of Kumaritashvili should be used to improve safety going forward. It was a terrible and unfortunately lasting moment from these Games.

WINNERS: The athletes

Not one doping disqualification at the Games. Enough said.

WINNER: Bode Miller

His partying in Turin left him without gold, silver or bronze (although he may have won blonde). But the New Hampshire native returned at age 32 as a father sporting a more mature attitude. He wound up stealing the spotlight in the Alpine sports, winning a bronze in downhill, a silver in super-G and a surprise gold in the super-combined. It was potential finally reached.

LOSER: Cheryl Bernard

She was poised to be one of the breakout stars of the Games, one of the most unlikely “it” girls to ever emerge from the Olympics. Since when does a 43-year-old insurance broker from Alberta who curls turn so many heads? Bernard was a sensation. Then the Canadian Curling Cougar had two shots to bring home gold for Canada. She promptly blew both of them. It was a huge disappointment in a sport passionately followed here.

WINNER: U.S. Alpine team

Despite dealing with poor weather, delayed events and plenty of infighting drama, once the USA skiers hit the slopes the troubles went away. As a team they set a United States record for medals in one Olympics with eight, including two golds. The next closest competitors were Norway and Austria, each with four.

LOSER: Sportsmanship

The snit between Lindsey Vonn and Julia Mancuso was immature, ridiculous and unnecessarily distracting. Both are great athletes who had memorable Olympics. Instead, the news cycle spun with tales of jealousy, Twitter snipes and obvious hard feelings over who was getting more attention. None of it ever should have boiled to the surface.

No one is better at demanding attention than the men’s figure skater. Throughout the Games he found ways to garner headlines – declaring he was getting death threats from anti-fur activists, moving in with Tanith Belbin, even holding a press conference so he could attack ignorant comments from Canadian television personalities.

But he was more than just hype. Weir skated exceptionally well and backed up his wild outfits with intelligence and humor. He proved he has crossover appeal to almost all Americans.

LOSER: Fashion

The Norwegian men curled in checkered pants. The American snowboarders had baggy jeans – where is General Larry Platt when you need him? In men’s figure skating there was a skeleton costume, a sailor and a farmer. Johnny Weir sported “male cleavage.” The hot items on the street were silly red mittens with a white maple leaf on the palm. Somehow they tricked Wayne Gretzky into wearing them. You couldn’t buy them anywhere.

We’ll be trying to explain the fashion at these Games for years to come.

WINNER: Chad Hedrick

The long-track speedskater from Houston found himself in pointless battles with Shani Davis in Turin, only to come to Vancouver, like Bode Miller, with an improved attitude. He wound up winning two medals and acting with class and spirit. He wasn’t just here for himself; he provided needed leadership on a young silver-medal-winning pursuit team.

LOSER: Shani Davis

This is a close one, however. He did win gold in the 1,000 meters and silver in the 1,500, and he accounted himself at times with far better manners – although he could be a bear at points. He’s a moody guy and that’s fine. But his refusal to skate in the team pursuit likely cost the U.S. a gold medal. Since the event came after all the individual competitions, he can’t say it was going to distract or hurt him there. He remains an enigma – a talented enigma.

WINNER: Charlie White

Not only did he and partner Meryl Davis win a silver in the ice-dancing competition, the rumor is he’s now dating Tanith Belbin. Not a bad month.

In a testament to the strength of human will and determination, the Canadian figure skater shook off the unexpected death of her mother and not only competed but won bronze. Her short-program performance, after which she broke down in tears, left Pacific Coliseum with few dry eyes. She immediately became an international symbol of emotional courage.

“I would have liked to inspire people for another reason, but that’s the way it is,” Rochette said.

WINNER: Petra Majdic

The Slovenian cross-country skier entered the Games as a favorite to win two medals. Then she crashed in a training run, falling off the course, down an embankment and into a small creek, where she landed hard on some rocks. She broke four ribs and suffered a punctured lung. Only she didn’t quit. She not only competed, she won a bronze medal.

LOSER: Gerard Kemkers

They take long-track speedskating seriously in Holland, and Kemkers is one of the most prominent – and highly paid – coaches there. His latest prodigy was Sven Kramer, who was well on his way to winning the nation’s 100th gold medal with a strong performance in the grueling 10,000-meter race. Then Kemkers inexplicably told him to switch lanes at the wrong time and caused a disqualification. It was an unheard-of gaffe.

“It’s a coach’s responsibility,” Kemkers acknowledged. “This is a disaster.”

The South Korean figure-skating sensation was absolutely brilliant in capturing gold by a huge margin. Her world-record combined score of 228.56 merely offered a numerical confirmation to what everyone saw – an effortless, glorious performance by a rare talent.

WINNERS: Mirai Nagasu and Rachael Flatt

The two American teens didn’t medal, but both accounted well for themselves at the Olympics. Nagasu offered a lively free-skate performance that thrilled the crowd and earned her a spot in the skating gala. Flatt skated well and was a picture of class off the ice, even getting accepted to Stanford while in Vancouver.

LOSER: Alexander Ovechkin

The Russian hockey star arrived at the Games in a brooding mood. Gone was the loveable, quotable, accessible star of the Washington Capitals. In was the new Russian Bear, Ovechkin taking on the cold, all-business mood of his nation’s team. It was actually pretty cool.

Then his absolutely loaded team delivered a heartless performance against Canada in the quarterfinals, losing 7-3. Russia had predicted it would win 40 medals at these Games, and one of them was expected to be hockey gold. They wound up with just 15 and hockey was an embarrassment. The latter falls on Ovechkin.

WINNER: Bill Demong

So how good was this guy’s month going? First he was named the Team USA flag bearer for the Opening Ceremony, an unusual honor for someone who participates in the low-profile Nordic combined. Then Demong proved the choice genius by going out and becoming the first American to win gold in the event.

This was good. Even better came at a party after the victory, when he grabbed a microphone, got down on one knee, pulled out a ring and proposed to his girlfriend, Katie Koczynski. She said yes.

LOSER: Lindsey Jacobellis

After her hot dog maneuver cost her a gold medal at the women’s snowboard cross in Turin, the Olympic PR machine sold a new-look Jacobellis. She was more professional and a better snowboarder and destined for gold. Instead she performed poorly and didn’t handle the fallout very well. Another disappointing Games for a woman who certainly can do better.

WINNERS: Shaun White and Torah Bright

These are the world’s two best halfpipe athletes, the American man and the Australian woman pushing the fledging competition to new levels. Bright recovered from a poor performance early to deliver the run of her life, landing the “switch backside 720,” which features a blind landing that her opponents can’t manage. White hit the “McTwist 1260,” another groundbreaking maneuver that no one else was able to match. The two didn’t just rule the halfpipe, they advanced it.

WINNER: Jeret “Speedy” Peterson

In Turin he was thrown out of the Games for punching out a friend. He’s spent his life dealing with personal demons, alcohol issues and sexual abuse. He almost committed suicide. But he got himself straightened out and came to Vancouver, where in aerial skiing he landed his nemesis leap, the Hurricane. He hadn’t hit it in three years. When he did, he won silver, the culmination of a difficult journey.

WINNER: Curling

Six thousand fans packed the suburban curling venue here for three sessions a day. Ticket brokers worked the sidewalks with marked-up prices. Beer flowed liberally inside. Fans rang cowbells and sang songs. Both the men and the women were hailed for their sex appeal. It was wild.

Or how about this? What other sport could offer this sentence: The Danish women’s skip, who is a part-time topless model, broke into tears because the Canadian crowd was too rowdy.

This isn’t your father’s curling anymore. The sport received wall-to-wall television coverage in Canada, the United States and China, the latter a rising power. Long mocked as shuffleboard on ice, curling suddenly was cool. It’s the unlikely breakout sport of the Olympics.

LOSER: Evgeni Plushenko

The Russian figure skater landed a quad in his competition, something Evan Lysacek, the American who edged him out for gold, didn’t. This didn’t sit well with Plushenko. He both complained and belittled Lysacek. “You can’t be considered a true men’s champion without a quad,” Plushenko said, claiming the sport “regressed” with Lysacek’s victory. Disappointment is one thing, but at some point you have to show at least a moment of class. Plushenko failed to do it.

LOSER: Jacques Rogge

Plushenko’s comments showed zero respect for his opponents. At the Beijing Olympics, Rogge, the IOC president, ripped Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt for just such a thing when Bolt threw up his hands in celebration before crossing the finish line. “That’s not the way we perceive being a champion,” Rogge attacked.

When asked for comment about Plushenko’s antics, Rogge defended the skater to the Los Angeles Times. “I think he was very disappointed, obviously, and sometimes in disappointment, you express things you wouldn’t express at another time.”

There is one difference in these cases. Plushenko hails from a wealthy, powerful country. Bolt doesn’t. Rogge would never attack a Russian (or American or Chinese) athlete the way he did with Bolt. With the stuffy, elitist IOC, it’s always the same game. Power protects power, and when a suit like Jacques Rogge needs to act tough, you know who is going to get called out.

WINNER: CANADIAN HOCKEY

Sidney Crosby and Canada defeated the United States 3-2 in an epic, overtime final that showcased the heart-pounding sport at its very best. The roller-coaster finale is one reason hockey itself is the big winner. The tournament was played at an exceptionally high level, and the skill on display was unlike almost anything seen before.

The Canadian fans packed neutral games and offered a colorful backdrop. Both the Canadian and American teams captured their country’s imagination and delivered record television audiences – not to mention a dramatic and memorable gold-medal battle. The NHL isn’t suddenly going to leapfrog the NFL in the States, but it should get a boost from this tournament. If Ryan Miller and the Buffalo Sabres are coming to town, now you know it’s worth checking out.

It’s a way of making the Olympics last into the spring.

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