TERENCE SMITH: The 19th Winter Olympic Games came to a spectacular close last night in Salt Lake City. As always, there were some great and sometimes surprising highlights as athletes from 78 countries competed over 17 days. Australia earned its first ever winter Olympic gold, thanks to Stephen Bradbury on the speed skating short track and Alisa Camplin's aerials in women's freestyle. Croatia's Janica Kostelic made Alpine history when she became the first Olympic skier to win four medals, three of them gold. Swiss ski jumper Simon Ammann soared to capture two gold medals in the men's 90-meter and 120-meter jumps.
NEWSCASTER: Canada, the gold is yours!
TERENCE SMITH: And yesterday, Canada's men's ice hockey team ended the country's 50-year quest for gold in their national pastime. For the U.S., it was a record-shattering Olympics with 34 medals, one fewer than Germany's total, but more than double the previous U.S. winter high of 13.
In women's ice skating, Sarah Hughes nailed a series of triple jumps to win the gold. On the ski slopes, Bode Miller's wild second-run comeback earned him silver medals in the combined and the giant downhill slalom. He's the first American male skier to win medals in either event.
The U.S. swept the snowboarding half-pipe competitions with Ross Powers, Danny Kass and J.J. Thomas taking gold, silver, and bronze. In speed skating, Derek Parra's surprise performance on the long track earned him a gold and a silver medal. He's the first Mexican-American to medal in a winter Olympics.
On the short track, Apollo Anton Ohno won gold in the 1,500 and silver in the 1,000. On the bobsled track, Vonetta Flowers became the first black athlete ever to win gold at a winter games. She snared the top award with her teammate Jill Bakken in the debut of the women's event. And, Jimmy Shea, the first U.S. third generation Olympian, hurtled headfirst to win gold in the skeleton's return to the winter program.
But this year's winter Olympic games will probably be most remembered for the controversies. In the pairs figure skating competition, after a judging scandal, Olympic officials awarded a rare second gold medal to Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier. The first place honors were shared with a Russian pair.
Both the Russian and Korean teams threatened to pull out of the games over a string of decisions against their athletes, but ultimately joined the closing ceremony. And just a few hours earlier, the IOC disqualified three cross-country skiers, stripping two of their gold medals for doping. An average of 34 million Americans tuned in to NBC's coverage of the games. The next winter games will be held in Turin, Italy, in 2006.
TERENCE SMITH: For more on the games in Salt Lake City, we're joined by Howard Berkes, correspondent for National Public Radio; and Richard Sandomir, a columnist with The New York Times. He writes about television coverage of sports. Welcome to you both.
Howard Berkes, sum it up for us, what it's been like being in Salt Lake these last 17 days.
HOWARD BERKES: Well, it's been pretty exciting. There has been a lot of security, intensive security here. Everywhere you went, you went through metal detectors. I've had my car searched every day, but the security people were friendly, didn't seem to be overbearing. And the spectators I talked to, the athletes I talked to, and even some of the skeptical journalists I talked to all seemed to have a pretty good time and will remember, I think, these games fondly.
TERENCE SMITH: Howard, what do you think explains the extraordinary U.S. performance, these 34 medals? Was it just home field advantage or was there something more than that?
HOWARD BERKES: Well, the U.S. Olympic Committee says that it's been years of preparation and funding. The USOC has increased the funding for individual athletes and for sports. There also probably is... it's due in part to the building of the winter sports facilities that now exist here in Salt Lake City. You have to remember that when Salt Lake City was initially bidding to host the Olympics it first had to pass muster at the United States Olympic Committee before it could go on to the International Olympic Committee. And the U.S. Olympic Committee required Salt Lake and the other bidding cities to promise to build facilities even before they would be named the Olympic hosts.
Salt Lake City put up... the state of Utah put up $59 million to do that. And so some of these facilities have been here for ten years. That enabled young athletes in the western United States to have a place to train where they didn't have that before, especially for bobsled, luge, and skeleton, and for speed skating and ski jumping. And I think some of what we've seen in the past two weeks comes from that, as well as what is clearly an increased level of funding for athletes from the United States Olympic Committee.
TERENCE SMITH: Richard Sandomir, most people, of course, watched this on television. Was it a good show?
RICHARD SANDOMIR: I think it was an excellent show. In Sydney, a lot of viewers tuned out. A lot of viewers weren't interested in Sydney, and you could see that in the ratings. But in the ratings for Salt Lake, NBC was up 18 percent over Nagano, which were shown by CBS, and it was 14 percent better than the rating that NBC guaranteed to its advertisers. I think in pacing, in cutting down the number of features and showing as many events as possible, NBC did a far better job than it did in the past summer Olympics.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, you mentioned cutting down the number of features, some of which many people found to be a bit sappy. What did you think of the mix, as it was played out in these Olympics, between actual sports events and other coverage?
RICHARD SANDOMIR: You know, you could almost not even notice some of the other features. Some of them were so short - maybe less than two minutes - sometimes a minute and a half - they were blended much more seamlessly into the events. They didn't intrude on the events. They introduced an athlete before he or she was supposed to go for the... go compete. And it really was not intrusive. It really wasn't a problem. In Sydney, people were mocking NBC for the way they were doing this. That was an old format pioneered by ABC Sports when Roone Arledge was running things there. That has had to change. They also had to appeal to younger viewers who were totally turned off in Sydney. So with the coverage of skeleton and aerials and snowboarding, NBC appealed very heavily in both production and promotion to 18- to 34-year-old viewers, and the ratings in that group were way up.
TERENCE SMITH: Howard Berkes, most-- or many, anyway-- of the headlines out of Salt Lake City had to do with protests, challenges, controversies over the figure skating judging. How much did that affect the games?
HOWARD BERKES: Well, it's interesting because, yes, we journalists certainly were immersed in those stories. And in fact the very final moments of these games, when Canada was beating the United States in ice hockey and we all probably were wishing that we were sitting in front of the TV watching that, or in the arena, most of us... many of the journalists covering these games were in a press conference room at an International Olympic Committee news conference on these doping issues that you've talked about. It certainly was something that required our attention and deserved our attention, but in talking to athletes and to many spectators, I'm not sure they cared about it that much.
Athletes I spoke with yesterday at the end of the games, in trying to get some sense of their view of the games, said that what they do is they concentrate on what they have to do, and that is compete and win and do the best they can. And when they're not competing, they're cheering on their teammates. They told me they didn't pay that much attention to the doping scandal or the skating scandal.
TERENCE SMITH: Howard, will things be different in the future as a result of some of these scandals? For example, will there be different rules and means by which to judge figure skating?
HOWARD BERKES: There's already a plan that still has to be approved by the International Skating Union, which will dramatically change figure skating judging. But this scandal has brought to light what some have been troubled about with not only figure skating, but other judged sports in the Olympics. In the summer games, boxing is rife with problems of this sort, and I think there will be more attention to judging and how you can somehow remove politics and personal preference from the sports. And we know that the International Skating Union says it's going to look into this more deeply, and by April we'll have some more detailed reports on what happened here in Salt Lake City and what can be done in the future to prevent.
TERENCE SMITH: Richard Sandomir, in a perverse way, did those scandals and headlines draw audience for the games?
RICHARD SANDOMIR: Well, there's nothing perverse about it. I think any network that has the Olympics hopes for at least one good scandal. The best scandal was not the doping stuff for NBC because that really happened later, but it was the pairs figure skating scandal that erupted on a Monday, didn't go away until the following Sunday, when the duplicate gold medals were presented to the Canadians. So for six days there were huge headlines about figure skating. Now, figure skating is already the biggest sport in the winter Olympics, but by doing this about the pairs, which usually doesn't generate as much interest as women's or men's figure skating, this propelled interest up through the men's competition began, and really just created a halo effect on the ratings for NBC. I don't know if pairs figure skating has ever had this kind of interest, and may never again, but it really did help.
TERENCE SMITH: And these ratings were up, were they -- the biggest ever?
RICHARD SANDOMIR: The ratings for the winter?
TERENCE SMITH: Yes.
RICHARD SANDOMIR: No. The winter Olympic ratings were higher in Lillehammer eight years ago, but bigger than Nagano. Eight years ago in Lillehammer we had the Tonya-Nancy story. The ratings for the nights that Tonya and Nancy skated were in the mid-40s. Nobody will probably ever get that unless somebody else gets attacked again for the sake of good ratings.
TERENCE SMITH: Howard Berkes, you referred to the security arrangements at the very beginning, but of course in the end there were no security problems. There were no incidents. What does that tell you and what did these games tell you about the way Olympics are going to be held in the future in terms of security?
HOWARD BERKES: The International Olympic Committee actually says that this wasn't much different than past Olympics in their mind. This was my fourth, and it has not been this intense in my experience, including in Sydney two years ago. We'll probably see this kind of security in the future. We had no-fly zones above the city. All commercial air traffic was stopped during opening and closing ceremonies. Multiple fences that you had to get through to get to any place; metal detectors, x-ray machines, searches-- I think that's part of Olympic life now. And I have to say, while it caused some delays in people getting to their seats-- some people, you know, it took 45 minutes, an hour or to get through the metal detectors-- I didn't hear very many people complaining except a few journalists on deadline. Most people felt reassured by it. And I think that's another reason why we'll continue to see it as long as the host city and host country can afford it. You know, this was a $320 million effort, and I don't know whether everyone can afford that.
TERENCE SMITH: Was there a great sigh of relief, Howard, when it was over?
HOWARD BERKES: I think at the stadium last night while the fireworks were going off I sort of felt maybe spiritually perhaps this great sigh of relief here that nothing really terrible had happened. You know, we had a little bit of a melee down here in downtown Salt Lake City. There were some traffic jams, but not major ones. And there was no terrorist incident to speak of. So, yeah, I think everyone here is quite relieved that nothing terrible happened.
TERENCE SMITH: Richard Sandomir, from a television point of view, what was the highlight? What was the great moment of these games or moments?
RICHARD SANDOMIR: Well, for me just watching it, I have to think Jim Shea, Jr., winning the skeleton was a wonderful moment. Vonetta Flowers and Jill Bakken winning the first women's bobsled competition in the Olympics. I thought some moments of the opening and closing ceremonies were wonderful. Some of them were incredibly goofy. But I think the image of Jim Shea holding up the NASCAR picture of his grandfather, who won in the Olympics in speed skating in 1932, was probably the most moving moment for me.
TERENCE SMITH: And very infectious as well. Do you expect NBC to do things differently, or have they learned some lessons, do you think, from this time around?
RICHARD SANDOMIR: I think they learned some very big lessons. Not all of them can be carried over. "A," they can carry over the promoting and producing with the young viewers in mind. They can do more live coverage maybe in the afternoon, and a lot on their cable channels. But when they go to Turin in 2006 and Athens in 2004, they're still going to do a lot more prime-time taped coverage because of the time difference. Their ratings benefited heavily from a domestic location, from the U.S. team doing extremely well. There's no guarantee of those two things happening again in the next two or three Olympics that they have. But I think they learned as much as they can provide live coverage, as much as they can increase the pace, they will do that. I think that was the lesson learned out of Sydney, where nothing but the final men's basketball game was live.
TERENCE SMITH: Richard Sandomir, Howard Berkes, thank you both very much.