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Olympics end, but the memories remain

The Olympic flame has been extinguished, the flag has been lowered, and eventually, the Norwegians will stop dancing.

It is time to go.

Even now, in the instant that the 1994 Winter Olympics are complete and the memories still are fresh, you find yourself trying to grab onto all that you can.

It's going to be difficult to pack for home. Not just the laundry. The memories.

Where do you put it all? How do you cram 16 days of emotion, of tears and laughs and dreams that were achieved and dreams that fell short? How do you carry that back home?

This is the thing about the Olympics. They touch you on so many levels. The athletes are more genuine, the dreams more pure, than most sports we follow. The tears are real, whether they come in the sobbing gasps of sorrow or the unbridled joy of achievement.

There will be so many memories of these Games. There will be the people, those smiling Norwegians, ready to invite the world into their living room and give it a hug. They cheered and sang for their athletes, and they kept a good share of gold inside their borders. But when they didn't win, that was all right, too.

If there was an MVP to these Olympics, it was skater Johann Koss, who took his nation's bonus for winning three gold medals (about $33,000 per gold) and donated it to Olympic Aide, trying to help the children in Sarajevo. Later, he allowed his skates to be auctioned and raised about $86,000 more. Pocket flashlights issued to the spectators at the Closing Ceremonies bore the inscription "Remember Sarajevo."

Do not forget about Johann Koss.

There were so many keeper moments. There was Dan Jansen, a winner all along, recognized at last. His victory lap was a dance of celebration from a man who had been released from a personal torment. There was a message in his perseverance for all of us.

There was Bonnie Blair, winning again. So what if she doesn't excite those who award endorsements; she wins. That's enough.

There was Tommy Moe, the downhill skier who flew down the ice to win what so many considered to be an unwinnable medal for an American.

There was an ice dancer named Elizabeth Punsalan, who didn't come close to a medal. But on the ice, she found the only escape she could from a world in which her brother is charged with murdering their father.

There was Nancy Kerrigan, who put the soap opera aside and skated wonderfully. The investigation as to why she only won a silver should begin any day.

Remember it all. Remember the way Jansen looked toward heaven to salute his late sister. Remember Blair's smile. Remember Punsalan's tears. Remember Moe's little dance at the finish line. Remember Kerrigan's elegance.

They are the essence of the Olympics, the spirit.

But there is so much more.

Remember the Bosnian bobsledders, who came to Lillehammer to plead for peace, and who know not where they are going now. There were the Jamaicans, still laughing. Now, they're laughing because they finished ahead of the American bobsledders. There were the Russians, still proud, still winning.

We are a nation of plenty. You only truly realize it when you are around athletes who scrape and starve as they train. There was a man here from Armenia named Arsen Aroutiounian who would ski down 100 meters, then walk back up because there was no electricity for the ski lift. He would do this 20 times a day, on skies that cost him $120. For Aroutiounian, that was 40 months salary; yet, when he arrived in Lillehammer, he was not allowed to ski.

There is so much of that in the poorer countries, and that made it even harder to watch as the American bobsledders carped at each other for two weeks, griping about lineups, about personalities, about the new Bo-Dyn sled. In the end, they even griped that it was cold. They were told these were Winter Olympics, right?

It all ended Sunday, when Brian Shimer's team was disqualified for overheating its runners, which is sort of like trying to sneak a spitball past the umpire.

There was the mess with short track speed skating, and all the fingers pointing toward Cathy Turner. There was the hockey team, a disaster on the ice, reaching over from the bench to get a few shots in at a player for Finland.

And, of course, there was the circus that surrounded Kerrigan and Tonya Harding. I still think Harding had the right to be here; I also am ready to slam my fist down in indignation and say that she had the right to bring an extra boot lace, too.

Look, the Olympics survived the Kerrigan-Harding sideshow. That might be the biggest compliment you can give the Games.

There was the bizarre, from the Norwegians chemically producing wolf urine to spread around the train tracks to scare off the moose, to Koss revealing that his hobby was riding tamed moose, to the tent city where thousands camped for any possible view of the cross-country skiing.

Who knows what the future is? Probably, hockey will take on a Dream Team feel by 1998. More silly sports probably will be added in the name of giving television filler time. And Lillehammer will immediately begin to chase down other Olympics.

But there will be a lot to remember about this time, too.

I will remember returning to the chalet at 3:15 a.m. after the men's figure skating, and awakening housemate Chuck Nevius of the San Francisco Chronicle. Nevius arose, walked out and grunted as he saw me remove my contact lenses. Then he walked in and turned on the shower.

A few minutes later, he was dressed and walked out into the night. It was later that Chuck explained he had looked at his watch and thought it read 9:45 and that I was going out rather than coming in. It was only the dark that told him differently.

I will remember leaving the women's figure skating at 5 a.m. on a particularly bitter night, and feeling my heart freeze when the car in which I was a passenger would not start. Two of us had to split a cab back to Lillehammer at $80 apiece. The other option was freezing to death.

I will remember walking down an icy slope and seeing someone slip. Good thing I bought good boots, I thought. Next thing I knew, those boots were flying by my head. Some 200 people broke bones by falling and 600 more were treated for cuts and bruises.

I will remember, perhaps most of all, standing outside in awe as the phenomenon called the Northern Lights danced in the sky above.

I will remember how strange songs such as In the Summertime, Wooly Bully and Achy Breaky Heart sound in Norwegian. Then again, they sound sort of odd in English, too.

Most of all, I will remember the way it blended in this wonderful thing that continues to be the Olympics. No other sporting event touches the heart the way these Games do. When you say goodbye, you try to remember that.

That is the true souvenir, after all. The one you keep in your soul.

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