Among Other Things, a House Built for Speed
A Guide to the Indoor Olympic Venues
The Winter Olympics have never really had it easy. Shunned in the first few years of their existence, and plagued by political turmoil and scandals of all sorts, more than once high-level officials have threatened to dump the Games altogether.
And yet, the Winter Games have produced some of the most dramatic and memorable events ever in the world and it is with those hopes and expectations that Games officials in Salt Lake City look forward to the Opening Ceremonies and 16 days of revelry.
Try this moment: 1980, in Lake Placid, when shadowed by the threat of American sanctions against the Soviet Reunion for their invasion of Afghanistan, the American ice hockey team came from behind to beat the USSR 4-3. ('Do you believe in miracles,' the announcer asked as the crowd chanted the seconds down. 'Yes!')
While the political tension just isn't there, there is no reason that a similar event could not take place at, say, the E Center in West Valley City, where the ice hockey events will take place, or the Salt Lake Ice Center, where the figure skating and short track speed skating events will be, or even the Ogden Ice Sheet, where curlers will take to the ice.
Curling is among the least familiar Olympics sports to Americans; it will take place at the Ice Sheet, which is about 30 miles north of Salt Lake City. Begun as play with smooth stones on frozen lakes in 16th century Scotland, curling involves sliding a stone across a rough ice sheet towards a bullseye. Along the 21.95-meter track are positioned two team members who sweep the ice with brooms to ensure a desired path, while at the bullseye waits the team captain, who directs strategy. Competing teams can try to knock the other's stone out of place; the winners are the team with the most stones closets to the center of the eye. The sport is perhaps most popular and competitive in Canada. The vast majority of America's top curling teams are located in the upper Midwest.
A different type of ice-borne speed and precision will unfold to the southwest of Salt Lake City, in Kearns, at the Utah Olympic Oval, which will host the short and long-track speedskating events.
The Oval is no run of the mill ice rink. Rather, this unusual-shaped and light-filled structure in 2001, the first year it was open, was the scene of seven world records in five events, and many top skaters are calling the track the fastest ice on Earth.
The Oval is designed with an obstruction-free slightly-domed roof that is supported externally by 12 suspension cables and 24 108-foot tall masts. The building's 55-foot ceiling - relatively low - means there is little difference in temperature between ice level and ceiling level. The Oval's ice is 99.9 percent pure and kept cool through 33 miles of 2-inch refrigeration pipes buried in concrete, lined with foam insulation, and resting on top of a foot of compacted sand that contained heating pipes. Want to experience it for yourself? The oval is open for recreational skating both before and after the Games. The events are run on a 400-meter track and racing distances range from 500 meters to 10,000 meters.
I think it's fair to say my mom's favorite event - probably everyones' mom's favorite event - is made of axels, loops, lutzes, slachowes and death spirals: figure skating, which takes place at the Salt Lake Ice Center (better known as the Delta Center, home of the Utah Jazz).
Olympic skating consists of four events: ladies' singles, men's singles, pairs and ice dancing. In both singles and pairs, the score is based one-third on the short, or compulsory, program, with two-thirds based on the long, or free skating, program. Ice dancing scores are based on: 20 percent for two compulsory dances, 30 percent for an original dance, and 50 percent for a free dance. Nine judges tally the scores, and none are thrown out.
The 'E' in E Center stands, I think, for entertainment. The 10,400-seat venue was built specifically to host hockey events, but the place also is home to concerts, monster truck races and car sales, among other things. The E Center, along with The Peaks Ice Arena, in Provo, will host the ice hockey events. Two teams of six players compete to hit a hard rubber disc - a puck - into the other team's goal. Players wear skates and carry wooden sticks that they use to pass the pucks around.
In American professional hockey leagues, for reasons that still escape me, the hockey players occasionally use their sticks to beat each other senseless. That is unlikely to happen in the Olympics, however: rules put a 25-minute penalty on any player who starts a fight. This year will be the second Games that have women's hockey - America won the first-ever womens' Olympic hockey games, in Nagano, Japan in 1998.America's great streak in ice hockey actually began long before the 1980 Lake Placid Games - in Squaw Valley, Calif., in 1960, when an odd assortment of players beat the USSR 3-2 and then, with millions of Americans watching on TV and with sage advice from the Russian team captain, beat Czechoslovakia 9-5.
Though not exactly event centers, there are two more places you might like to know about: the Rice-Eccles Olympic Stadium and the Olympic Medals Plaza.
The Rice-Eccles Olympic Stadium is on-campus at the University of Utah (my alma mater, and look where it got me) and will host the Opening and Closing ceremonies. This outdoor football stadium, with stunning views of the Wasatch Mountains, downtown and Great Salt Lake, was recently improved and expanded for the Games and now has a light-rail commuter train station at its west gate. Following tradition, Greece will lead the nations into the stadium, the torch will be brought into the stadium and the cauldron lit in a spectacular (and still undisclosed) fashion, and President George W. Bush, if he can get the words straight, will declare the Games open. During the Closing Ceremonies, the teams rush to the center of the field and greet each other.
The Olympic Medals Plaza, meanwhile, is a reworked vacant lot in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City on loan from the Mormon church.
The Plaza and its large temporary stadium will come alive each night during the medals ceremony. After the medals are handed out and before the nightly fireworks display begins, some of America's greatest performers will take to the stage, including the Dave Matthews Band, Foo Fighters, Barenaked Ladies, Sheryl Crow, Smashmouth, Train and Creed. There will be about 50,000 free tickets available for the shows combined, to be distributed in a variety of ways, including from a local grocery store chain.
Back when I was a freshman at the University of Utah I was on the swim team, and one of the things we had to do to raise money for our trips was to clean up the football stadium after games. More than once this involved picking up trash amid snowdrifts. But who would have thought then that just over a decade later things would have changed so much?
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