To say the 18th Winter Olympics had much in common with a classic Western movie might seem a stretch.
But after 17 days of gold medals, human drama and the exuberance of national pride, the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano might well be described as the good, the bad and the ugly. And in true spaghetti-western fashion, the good ultimately prevailed.In fact, it could be argued the bad and the ugly were far overshadowed by all the good generated by a Japanese nation eager to demonstrate its unparalleled hospitality and commitment to world-class sports competition that embraced athletes from disparate corners of the globe.
The bad and the ugly - mainly concerns over security and transportation - will be relegated to war rooms for organizers of the Summer Games in Sydney and the Winter Games in Salt Lake to remedy in 2000 and 2002, respectively.
The plot for the 1998 Winter Games could not have been scripted better, at least not for the Japanese hosts who saw their athletes garner more gold medals in Nagano than all previous Winter Olympics combined. The wins not only boosted national pride to a frenzy, they fueled an insatiable demand for tickets and Olympic memorabilia.
For almost three weeks, the attention of the entire world focused on Nagano, a previously unheralded mountain city of about 350,000 that sits among the most beautiful scenery in the world. Yet the city also suffers from an interminable inferiority complex (the city's blue-collar flavor conjures up frequent comparisons to Pittsburgh).
Hundreds of thousands of people, most of them from other regions in Japan, descended upon the city, and Nagano welcomed them with unbridled affection and a new-found pride. The residents' enthusiasm was palpable, even if most could not afford tickets to the games themselves.
It was an unequivocal hospitality that transcended language barriers and united the city behind the Olympic Games and the Olympic spirit. They simply ignored the temporary inconveniences of traffic jams, lost business revenue and boisterous foreigners with little appreciation for local culture.
They endured it with unwavering politeness and patience. Indeed the world was welcome here, and Naganoans never let you forget it.
More than 200 Utahns attended the games in some official capacity, and all were eager to tout Salt Lake City's hospitality. But after several says of Japanese hospitality, even the most ardent hometown boosters were saying Nagano would be a tough act to follow.
To the credit of the Olympic spirit of peace, evil did not rear its ugly head during these Olympic Games as it did in Atlanta two years ago or Munich more than two decades ago. But the potential for violence - and the lackluster Japanese security measures to thwart it - astounded one senior Utah security official.
"I guarantee the security will be different in Salt Lake," he said. "From a security standpoint, there isn't much here."
From his perspective, there was way too much public access to athletes, the metal detectors leading into secure facilities were inadequate and there was little attempt to verify that electronic equipment like cameras and tape recorders were in fact what they appeared to be (the bomb that brought down the PanAm jet in Scotland was no bigger than a cellular telephone, he noted).
In Nagano, there was virtually no attempt to ensure that a person wearing secure-zone credentials was actually the person authorized to enter the facility. Credentials are worn around the neck like a large pendant and can be easily stolen.
"To some extent, if you look like you belong there, you can go in (to secure areas)," added Salt Lake County Sheriff Aaron Kennard.
There was indeed a stunning visual presence as thousands of Japanese police in yellow and turquoise uniforms were posted on virtually every street corner. It was absence of security inside Olympic venues, in the Olympic Village and in the media centers that was most disconcerting.
After a tour of the Olympic Village where athletes are housed, Kennard said he observed several locations where a sniper could have fired into the village. And there was no effort to monitor those vantage points, he said.
"We have to face the fact that the Olympics are an attractive target for terrorism," said U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, who will try to get federal assistance for Utah's security and transportation needs.
Given the tensions in the Middle East and in Japan (the Tokyo airport was subjected to a rocket attack just before the Games began), organizers in Nagano were flat out lucky that terrorists stayed away.
Organizers of the 2002 Winter Games also got a peek at some of the ugly that happens when transportation systems are inadequate and the media's dissatisfaction is expressed through negative publicity. Nagano had plenty of both.
The Japanese mass transit system - touted for its punctuality - finally crumbled in the final days of the Winter Games, with most buses running late and some not running at all. And given the non-automobile nature of the culture, inconveniences quickly evolved into wide-spread frustration on the part of long-suffering residents, tourists and media.
Japanese hosts were profoundly embarrassed.
As ugly as the tattered transportation system was, it paled by comparison with the boorishness of some athletes who somehow missed the lesson on diplomacy and the spirit of competition and sportsmanship behind the Olympic Games.
An Austrian athlete tore up a hotel and called it an accident. Canada got a black eye when a snow-boarder tested positive for marijuana, which led to a litany of jokes (one suggestion is to change the name of the Canadian national anthem from "Oh! Canada" to "Oh! Cannabis").
American hockey players demonstrated their maturity as world-class athletes by tearing up their rooms in the Olympic Village.
That kind of behavior is nothing new to the Olympics, but generally those incidents and the athletes who initiated them are quickly forgotten. And that's perhaps the best part of the Olympics - the memories that will persist are those of winners who have overcome years of adversity and trial to claim a gold medal.
People like the injury-ridden Picaboo Street and Nikki Stone, and the persistence of the U.S. women's hockey team over their Canadian nemeses, all of whom are taking home gold medals.
The white hats from Salt Lake City may not be able to do much about the behavior of athletes. But their experience in Nagano should give them plenty of ammunition about what to do - and what not to do - come 2002 when it comes to transportation, security and media relations.
Fortune smiled on Nagano in that most systems worked most of the time.
Dave Johnson, senior vice president for the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, says Utah organizers will not count on luck. You make your own luck, he said, and Utah's luck will be built on exhaustive planning.
And that planning will be built in large part upon their experiences in Nagano in 1998, in Atlanta in 1996 and Lillehammer in 1994.
"We feel a huge amount of pressure to do the best we can, but we are not looking over our shoulder," insisted SLOC President Frank Joklik. Good approach. You never know when the black hats might be gaining on you.