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Heat is on: Can S.L. live up to Nagano's Olympic image?

Two weeks of Olympic gold and glory end today, with the torch tossed to Salt Lake City by day's end via tape delay. It will be exciting basking in the limelight, but let's hope we can take the heat.

There is no heavier burden than a great potential. Lofty but unmet expectations extract a stiff price. Just ask the beleaguered U.S. men's hockey team. Where much is given, big dividends are anticipated. And if you don't deliver the goods, watch out. The eyes of zillions worldwide are trained on your every blemish, magnified through the unforgiving lens of modern media.You don't garner the expected men's hockey gold and you ain't nothin' but a mangy hound dog, good for nothing except being kicked around back home - especially after you misbehave and trash the Olympic Village. Of course, if you come through with flying red, white and blue colors like America's women hockey players or figure skater Tara Lipinski, you may wind up on a Wheaties box.

These demanding expectations apply not only to athletes, but to hosts of the Games and the media that cover them. CBS has taken its shots the past 16 days, with ratings way down for several reasons, including the weather, a huge time differential and a United States television audience fragmented by more cable and broadcast options than Jim Nantz can count.

In other words, you can control some things, but those you cannot may bite you. Nagano managed the unexpected well, receiving excellent marks for its precision, hospitality and flexibility despite disagreeable weather and event rescheduling. Its transportation infrastructure with 1,000 buses hung together when stretched to the breaking point.

Yet as smoothly as logistics went, the just-completed Games never seemed to capture the collective hearts and fixed attention of Americans at home, attested by the lowest Olympics television ratings in 30 years. There were plenty of great moments and competitors - the aforementioned women's hockey triumph and Lipinski, freestyle skiing gold medal for Park City's Nikki Stone, Hermann Maier surviving downhill destruction to later win two golds and others - but not the gripping magic that glued Americans to the tube in the past.

These Games had no singing Italians celebrating a gold-draped Alberto Tomba, no Dan Jansen drama or Eric Heiden or Bonnie Blair, no Tonya and Nancy sideshow, no Eddie the Eagle, no center-stage Jamaican bobsledders, no 1980 men's hockey miracle over Russia.

Some speculated that saturated non-Olympics coverage of figure skating and other winter sports diluted the uniqueness of Olympic competition, Lipinski's dramatic upset of Michelle Kwan aside. Perhaps the SLOC could wrangle the addition of several new events for 2002 to boost interest, besides women's luge, bobsled and ski jumping already being considered. It would be a huge letdown to throw a party of Olympic proportions and have nobody watching.

Events in Salt Lake City will have stiffer competition than Nagano, with the Utah Legislature in session concurrently. Media will be torn between entertainment provided at Winter Games venues vs. that proffered on Capitol Hill. Maybe Nantz can co-anchor with Rep. Mel Brown from the House floor? Except that NBC and not CBS has 2002 TV rights. Will Marv Albert be back by then? Mel and Marv live from the House floor would be an alliterative anchor team with some bite, so to speak.

Adding events unique to the Wasatch Front and involving local participants might help ratchet up TV ratings. Here are a few suggestions:

- Skeleton. This one's for real, a type of head-first sled being proposed for 2002. Various public officials could ride the rocket course with or without helmets - depending upon their approval ratings.

- Seikaly Slalom. Invite Rony Seikaly back to Utah and plant him midway down the slalom run at Park City. Allow Jazz fans a jab with sharpened ski poles while racing past him against the clock.

- Cheap Curling. Competition for run-of-the-mill locals who may not be able to afford tickets to anything else but can afford a good broom on sale.

- Joklik Jumping. An optional event only played out if the Salt Lake Organizing Committee comes in over budget, sending SLOC president Frank Joklik and other trustees down the biggest ski jump sans bindings. Of course, if they shepherd the Games in successfully and under budget without taxpayer help as pledged, he and the others will deserve gold-medal recognition for their work.

Such is the gamble of great potential and lofty expectations.