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Olympic memories are priceless

by Ed Odeven

It was only fitting that hockey’s beloved icon lit the Olympic torch and Canada’s top current star scored the gold medal-clinching goal — in overtime, the proverbial icing on the cake — on the final day of the Vancouver Winter Games.

Wayne Gretzky, known to his fellow Canadians and hockey fans alike as “The Great One,” provided a warm introduction to the 2010 Olympics just hours after the tragic death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili. And let’s be honest; to not include Gretzky in the opening ceremony would have been as ridiculous as, say, outlawing smiling.

Sidney Crosby, already a hero for the Pittsburgh Penguins after last season’s squad raised Lord Stanley’s Cup in euphoric celebration, raised the spirits of an entire nation when he ended the Canada-United States hockey final with a wonderful wrist shot past Ryan Miller 7:40 into the extra period.

I won’t ramble on and on about the storybook qualities of those two acts, but there was something genuinely special about both moments.

Can you call me a sucker for classy introductions and classic conclusions?

Absolutely.

In between Gretzky’s iconic moment and Crosby’s, the XXI Winter Games gave us innumerable instances of thrilling theater, even if much of it was on tape delay here in Japan. And hey, I won’t lie about the fact that I was happy Canada captured the most gold medals (14) during the 16-day extravaganza. When the host fans are happy, the Olympics has a better atmosphere.

Who can forget the Canadian women’s hockey team’s 18-0 win over Slovakia in the tournament opener?

Who would want to forget the lasting impression made by Japanese figure skaters at the Pacific Coliseum? Mao Asada’s stirring performance in the free program only moments after Kim Yu Na’s jaw-dropping, record-breaking (points) routine won her newfound admirers on the international stage, clearly proving she’s not afraid of pressure.

Kim’s combination of elegance, beauty, confidence and cool established a new standard of excellence in the sport.

Moreover, Mao’s country mates Miki Ando (fifth place) and Akiko Suzuki (eighth) provided quality.

Joannie Rochette’s courage to skate four days after her mother’s death offered a lesson to all of us that life goes on after the most sorrowful moments, and in these moments we can accomplish great things despite our doubts. I doubt anyone wasn’t happy to see Canada’s now-favorite daughter receive the bronze medal in figure skating. It was truly a touching moment.

Or as Scott Hamilton, the gold medalist at the 1984 Sarajevo Games told reporters: “The Olympics are the world’s biggest stage, but some things just transcend the competition.”

On the men’s side, Daisuke Takahashi gained a place in the hearts of Japanese fans by taking home the bronze medal. Nobunari Oda’s seventh-place finish and Takahiko Kozuka’s eight-place showing were bold reminders that Japan has quietly become an elite nation — the real deal — in the sport.

(And it’s probably safe to suggest that Oda will now be the most meticulous shoe-tying individual in Japan after that bizarre delay he experienced in the free program.)

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I don’t consider myself a curling enthusiast nor am I well-versed in the intricacies of the sport. But, hey, it was mildly amusing to follow the online hullabaloo over the Norway men’s team’s red, white and blue argyle pants.

Even royalty got caught up in the excitement over the fashion buzz — and the competition.

King Harald V of Norway had no problem accepting a gift from his subjects — a now-famous pair of pants.

“He was like, ‘Yeah sure, they’re the coolest pants I’ve ever seen,’ ” Norway curler Thomas Ulsrud told reporters.

“But I would never have dreamed of just hanging out with the king and wearing the same pants, and, you know, say, ‘Hey, you look cool, king.’ “

(Incidentally, one of my favorite headlines from the 2010 Games appeared in The Washington Post for a wire story about curling. “From throne to stone: Norway king attends curling,” the Post proclaimed on Jan. 23.)

Kids growing up in northern locales, where frozen ponds are common and where everyone wants to be the fastest kid on ice, admire the longevity and overall success of American Apolo Anton Ohno, who added to his now-legendary legacy in Vancouver.

Competing in his third Olympiad, Ohno broke Bonnie Blair’s national record of most Winter Games medals (five golds, one silver).

He finished the Games by picking up a silver medal in the 1,500 short track race, a bronze in the 1,000, and a bronze in the 5,000 relay.

One of the most revealing passages I’ve read about the ultra-focused Ohno appeared in the New York Daily News.

“These Olympics are about so much more than chasing medals,” the 27-year-old was quoted as saying. “It’s about finishing my circle.”

The United States’ King of Winter, Ohno now owns two gold, two silver and four bronze Olympic medals.

Quite a fine item for anyone’s resume, wouldn’t you say?

Moving right along to Alpine skiing . . . . And yes, Lindsey Vonn, who probably has the world’s most famous shin by now, had a successful time at the Winter Games, too. Winning a gold in the downhill and a collecting a bronze in the super-G qualifies as a job well done.

What makes ski jumping a spectacular visual spectacle?

Well, it’s fun to watch people soar through the air after zooming down the runway slope. It’s always been one of my favorite Olympic sports to watch on TV, maybe more so now after seeing Switzerland’s Simon Ammann dominate the competition in the individual normal hill and individual large hill events.

Amman accomplished the same feat in the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, a reminder that great athletes remain motivated to add to their legacy years later.

I’ve never been interested in shooting a gun or skiing and shooting a gun during my leisure time. But that doesn’t mean I don’t consider Norway’s Ole Einar Bjoerndalen an amazing athlete.

Anyone who can earn 11 Olympic medals (one less than the all-time Winter Olympic record held by Norway’s Bjorn Daehlie, a cross-country skier) must be doing something right — mental preparation, physical conditioning, and so on.

Bjoerndalen’s sixth gold medal, occurring as the anchor for Norway’s 4×7.5-km biathlon relay, was a reminder of his athletic greatness.

Let’s return to ice hockey for a moment. Give credit to Team Canada coach Mike Babcock for his decision to replace struggling goalie Martin Brodeur, one of the game’s all-time greats, with the team’s talented but lesser-known backup, Roberto Luongo, after Canada’s 5-3 loss to the United States on Feb. 21.

Without a doubt, Brodeur, the NHL’s all-time leader in victories, yielded two soft goals to the Americans, as every Canadian in watering holes from Prince Edward Island to Yukon Territory would tell you without hesitation.

Babcock’s move, a smart one, reminds me of a Major League Baseball manager’s decision to yank an ace pitcher before he has a chance to implode in a game’s later innings.

(Think the opposite of what Boston Red Sox skipper Grady Little did in Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series when Pedro Martinez ran out of gas against the New York Yankees at Fenway Park.)

Luongo, by the way, went 5-0 in the tournament, turned aside 114 of 123 shots (92.68 save percentage) and posted a 1.76 goals-against average.

Not bad, eh?

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After spending three weeks in Beijing in August 2008 on the Olympic beat for The Japan Times, I followed the Vancouver Games with a more subdued demeanor from my apartment and office in Tokyo.

Sure, I had time to watch highlights, scan the headlines of dozens of newspapers online and help produce the daily sports section, and all of those activities were enjoyable. But there’s something almost magical about being at the Olympics.

When you’re at the Olympics, surrounded by hundreds of other journalists and thousands of fans wherever you go, live action in dozens of sports and the exchange of ideas can be exhilarating, and each news conference provides one or all of the following: quick quips, long-winded answers, surprising responses, awkward lost-in-translation replies. Those memories are priceless.

At the Olympics, one adjusts to limited sleep and information overkill, a stressful combination. But it’s the sheer grandiose atmosphere, the quadrennial world party, that tips the scale in the direction of F-U-N.

Yes, I wanted to be there. But countless special memories still remain from the Vancouver Games.