Posted: Mar 1, 12:10a ET | Updated: Mar 1, 11:26a ET

'Excellent and friendly Games' come to a close

The Winter Olympics overcome tragic start to win praise

VANCOUVER -- The cauldron went out even as fireworks roared, the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics coming to an end after a hockey game that couldn't have been scripted better for the home team, an exclamation point on an Olympics by and for Canada that now begs a pressing question: what light did these Games shine on the Olympic movement's unique place in our world?

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The 2010 Games wound to a close amid what organizers billed as "warm, happy, fun-filled ... Canadian good-bye," the capacity crowd at BC Place given moose-antler head-gear to wear while rocking out to a dapper and hatted Neil Young -- he played "Long May You Run" -- and, later, to stars such as Avril Lavigne and Nickelback.

International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge formally closed the Games after declaring them "excellent and very friendly."

History now gets its say. And how the story of these Games will be told and re-told is likely to prove complex and provocative.

Rogge is not in the habit -- as was his predecessor, Juan Antonio Samaranch -- of declaring succeeding editions of the Olympics "best-ever."

Instead, Rogge believes that each Games has its own identity. The IOC president since 2001, he declared Salt Lake City in 2002 "flawless," Athens in 2004 "unforgettable, dream Games," Torino in 2006 "magnificent" and Beijing in 2008 "exceptional."

The choice of words Sunday had to be delicate.

Munich in 1972 witnessed the massacre of 11 Israelis by Palestinian terrorists. Atlanta in 1996 saw the bomb in Centennial Park. Vancouver in 2010 -- the story of these Games is forever and inextricably bound up in the death just hours before the Opening Ceremony Feb. 12 of luge racer Nodar Kumaritashvili, 21, of Georgia.

The president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, speaking here at a news conference the very next day, said he didn't know all the details but "one thing I know for sure -- no sports mistake is supposed to lead to a death."

Canadian authorities and sports officials seem sure, with the Games now over, to conduct multiple and lengthy inquiries into Kumaritashvili's death. What, if anything, those investigations will determine remains highly uncertain -- as does the issue of assigning liability.

Rogge, in an interview with reporters a few days before the Games closed, said the IOC had a "moral responsibility" in the aftermath of Kumaritashvili's death, not a "legal judgment."

He also said, "It will be a part of the Games -- it will be a part of the Games, of course. It would be stupid to say the opposite.

"Just as if you speak about Munich, what happened in Munich is part of the Games. What happened in Atlanta, is part of the Games. There is no way you can isolate it, of course. But at the same time, I think we should be very fair -- for the organizers and the athletes, [Vancouver 2010] did a great job and the athletes had great Games."

He said Sunday night from the stage, "We have shared the grief of an Olympic dream cut short. The memory of Nodar Kumaritashvili will always be with us."

As will many, many other memories.

Because these Olympics, as ever, also proved a celebration of life and possibility, of the triumph of the human spirit through sports.

As Joannie Rochette, the Canadian figure skater, proved powerfully -- skating to bronze just days after the death of her mother, Therese.

As Alexandre Bilodeau, the freestyle skier, made plain earlier in the Games when he became the first Canadian to win a gold medal at a Games in Canada -- with his brother, Frederic, living with cerebral palsy, watching from down below.

Overall, perhaps, the Canadian telling of these Olympics will be Golden Games -- 14 gold medals won by Canadian athletes, most ever by any country at any Games, the 14th coming Sunday in the 3-2 overtime hockey victory over the United States, the winning goal fittingly scored by the team's star among stars, Sidney Crosby.

The hockey win set off a wild celebration here and across the nation -- the very Canadian connected-ness that Vancouver 2010 organizers had sought all along. The Vancouver street scene throughout the 2010 Olympics, Rogge said a couple days ago, is "what will stand out," a "kind of communion between the citizens of the city and the Games."

Indeed, these Games, as Vancouver 2010 Chief Executive John Furlong said, were designed primarily and very publicly as a "coming-out event for Canada," a Games "to give people a chance to share in something profoundly positive," and by "people" Furlong meant "Canadians." On Sunday he called the street parties a "beautiful kind of patriotism."

A pair of red mittens adorned with the five rings and a maple leaf became the must-have souvenir. Or maybe it was a Canada hockey jacket. Or both.

In so stoking the public spirit, the organizing committee clearly scored a major triumph.

It also, to its credit, overcame the worst economic climate in 70 years.

And the warmest January in 100 years. And more crummy weather during the first few days of the Games.

The committee also contributed significantly to an ambitious and controversial program called "Own the Program," designed to win Canadian athletes the most medals. That didn't work. But it did yield a turn that no one -- not even Canadian sports authorities -- foresaw, the Canadian gold rush.

In the United States, the Vancouver Games are likely to be long remembered for a record American medal performance. The U.S. team won 37, most-ever by any country at any Winter Games, a stunning development for a nation long perceived as a Summer Games powerhouse.

Germany came in second in the overall tally, with 30 medals. Canada owned third, with 26.

Winning gold were some of the biggest American stars: Lindsey Vonn, Bode Miller, Shaun White, Shani Davis and Evan Lysacek. Steve Holcomb drove "Night Train" to the first American bobsled gold medal in the four-man bobsled in 62 years.

Apolo Ohno won three medals in short-track speedskating, giving him eight for his career, most ever by an American Winter Games athlete.

The U.S. Nordic combined team broke an oh-for-86-year streak, winning four medals, including Billy Demong's gold in the large-hill event. Demong served Sunday night as the U.S. team's closing ceremony flag-bearer.

Of the 37 medals, 21 went to ski and snowboard athletes, validating -- finally -- the U.S. Ski Team's slogan, "best in the world."

Vonn overcame a painful shin injury to win two medals. She also crashed and broke a finger. She said in a news conference shortly before leaving: "I'm leaving these Games happy because I gave it everything I have."

That, in essence, is why the Olympics endure -- as the focus turns now to the Paralympic Games here in a few weeks, to the Summer Games in London in 2012 and then to the next Winter Games, in 2014, at and around a Black Sea resort, Sochi, in Russia.

And as complex as Vancouver proved, Sochi is likely to be immensely more complicated.

Security was barely an issue here. There -- Sochi is located near the border with Georgia. Russia and Georgia engaged in armed conflict during the 2008 Beijing Summer Games; tensions in the region remain high.

On a very different but nonetheless important level, the Russian team's performance here in Vancouver proved, by Russian standards, dismal -- sixth in the overall medals count, with only 15, amid intensified scrutiny before the 2010 Games of doping-related issues in the Russian winter sports program.

Even so, the Russians boldly declared here their intent to put on what Sochi 2014 Chief Executive Dmitry Chernyshenko called "innovative Games that will inspire and unite the world."'

Their first stab at that, in the eight minutes they got during the Vancouver 2010 closing ceremony, came in part in the form of snow globes, of the sort an American kindergartener might make for mommy or daddy's desk. The Russians called them "zorbs."

Along with antlers, everyone in the audience got a zorb. Each zorb came with a red, white or blue light. When all the zorbs in the stands were blinking away, the idea was to evoke the colors of the Russian flag as well as, according to the Sochi 2014 news release, organizers' "commitment to the involvement of people from all cultures and backgrounds."

Four years 'til Sochi, and counting. For now, though -- at precisely the stroke of 8 p.m. Pacific time, the jumbo screens inside BC Place went dark. But the street parties -- they were just getting going.



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