On the last day in Nagano, as they did for much of the last two weeks, Bjorn Dahlie and Dominik Hasek rose above the rest.
They had little in common but Olympic success: the Norwegian Dahlie, a national hero in the obscure sport of cross-country skiing, and the Czech Hasek, a National Hockey League MVP accustomed to the limelight.On Sunday, the last day of the last Winter Games of the 20th century, the pair delivered one last time to collect gold medals - the record eighth for Dahlie, the first for Hasek.
The first 15 days of the games belonged to a variety of people: skiers Hermann "The Herminator" Maier of Austria and Deborah Compagnoni of Italy; German luge master Georg Hackl; Japanese ski jumper Masahiko Harada; America's women hockey team and teen skater Tara Lipinski.
Their successes were randomly interrupted by conflict: A Canadian snowboarder who lost and regained his gold medal after a positive marijuana test, an American hockey team which handled defeat with the aplomb of a fraternity on rush weekend.
But the last day belonged to Dahlie and to Hasek.
Dahlie won four medals in Nagano - three golds and one silver - to become the most successful Winter Games athlete ever with a dozen medals. But not even Dahlie himself was optimistic about closing out the games, and possibly his Olympic career, with a victory.
"Before the race, I didn't believe in a medal at all," said Dahlie. "Mentally, I was finished with these Olympics."
Not quite. Dahlie, in the 50-kilometer race, managed to summon up one more great effort. After crossing the finish line for what may be his last gold, the 30-year-old Dahlie collapsed in the snow.
"Right now I feel I have finished my ski career," an exhausted Dahlie said. "I've no motivation."
Dahlie's medals helped Norway to the second-best total in Nagano - 25 over 16 days (10 gold, 10 silver, five bronze). The leader was Germany with 29 (12-9-8), while Russia (9-6-3) was third with 18.
The United States, led by its women, matched its best-ever total of 13 winter medals. The Americans were one of the medal favorites in hockey, but Hasek prevented them from getting even a whiff of a medal.
Hasek, the NHL's three-time goalie of the year with the Buffalo Sabres, allowed only six goals in six Olympic games - five of them victories. In his last three games, the Czechs defeated the United States 4-1; the Canadians 2-1 in a pressure-packed shootout; and the Russians 1-0.
The last victory, in addition to securing the gold, avenged Hasek's only defeat of the games.
Like Dahlie, Hasek had his own problems before the competition actually started. Would the 11 NHL players on the Czech team be able to return to their homeland for a celebration of their success? All were due back in the United States before the NHL schedule begins Wednesday.
"There were distractions yesterday because we talked about going back to Prague," Hasek said Sunday. "Can we do it? Can't we do it?"
And like Dahlie, Hasek put those concerns aside. The Buffalo star turned away 20 Russian shots to lift his team to their first hockey gold medal and to stake his claim as the world's best goalie.
The Czechs then boarded a private jet Sunday night and flew home, where tens of thousands of fans planned to party with their heroes.
Once the competition ended, the closing ceremony followed. Hundreds of athletes from 72 nations gathered to dance and celebrate the Nagano Games. Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, had the final word on the festivities.
"Congratulations, Nagano and Japan," Samaranch said in his speech. "You have presented to the world the best organization in the history of the Olympic Winter Games."
Arigato for the memories, Nagano.