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Test events inspire confidence

While the success of the 2002 Winter Games will depend as much on peripheral things such as transportation schedules, the availability of good food and entertainment and the hospitality of Utahns, Olympic organizers have left little doubt that the venues for the events themselves are ready to go.

Last weekend, the speedskating oval in Kearns, perhaps the most troublesome of all the venues because of its seemingly never-ending construction problems, staged a debut tournament that set the skating world on its head. Five world records fell as skaters competed at the world single-distance championships. The ice was fast, the facilities were functional, and all the timing mechanisms worked flawlessly.

The oval was the last of the permanent venues to undergo a so-called test event. At only one of these — the World Cup parallel giant slalom earlier this month — were major technical problems encountered. A starting mechanism burned out, causing flames and smoke, and then a backup timing system failed.

Ironically, those problems almost elicited a sigh of relief from Salt Lake Olympic boss Mitt Romney. Until then, he was beginning to worry that things were going too smoothly. "I worried everything was working too well," he said, adding that he was wondering, "Are we learning anything?"

He even struck a cautionary note amid the speedskating euphoria this weekend, noting that a temperature inversion, which seems to strike the Wasatch Front at least once each winter, might increase humidity levels enough to slow the racers a bit, should one occur during the games.

We don't blame Romney for worrying. That's his job. He has an enormous responsibility, and he understands that a flawless test event one year before the Olympics does not guarantee a flawless performance when the world is watching.

But the success of these test events should be seen as a good sign that organizers have planned well, down to the smallest details. All in all, these events inspired much more confidence than they would have if problems surfaced at every turn.

Olympic organizers, acting out of necessity in a state where the people are prudent enough to reject large public expenditures on such things, have had to emphasize substance over style. In many ways, the speedskating oval embodies that philosophy.

After this weekend, the world media described the oval's appearance in less-than-flattering terms. Phil Hersh of the Chicago Tribune said it looked like "a rec center rink." The Colorado Springs Gazette said it was "like a Sam's Club. With ice on the floor." The Deutsche Presse-Agentur in Germany said the Kearns neighborhood, with its strip malls and nearby Kearns High School, gave "no indication you are approaching a world-class facility."

But all of them agreed on one thing — the oval is great for setting world records.

In the end, athletic performance will mean more than anything. Organizers have been wise to concentrate less on expensive doodads and more on venues that function well. That will give everyone else more time to concentrate on all the little things that make an Olympics memorable.