WASHINGTON — Americans headed for Salt Lake City and the snowy mountain venues around it should understand that this edition of the Winter Olympics most likely would have been happening elsewhere without the proficiency of the city's sponsors in a sport that until recently at least has been more important than any other in the quadrennial Games — palm greasing.

It has been obvious to anyone associated with these events that the choice of a site frequently has had less to do with facilities or access than in how well applicants were willing to take care of those making the decision.

Does Nagano ring a bell?

So, just as the Games are beginning, the Justice Department is once again pursuing the two lead figures in the city's successful "bid" for Olympic gold. They have asked a federal judge to reinstate the bribery charges that were dismissed last year against Thomas Welch and David Johnson, both of whom, by the way, appear to have become local heroes once again after losing their jobs, savings and friends in the scandal surrounding their efforts. In fact, Mayor Ross Anderson has been quoted in the national press as saying that the two men should be honored at the Games, perhaps not for how they went about it but because they worked hard.

The Olympics are supposed to be about purity in sport and in competition and in fairness and in international relationships. That is what they are supposed to be but have never been and never will be. Mostly, they have been about politics and money, mainly money. So much of it, actually, that communities have been willing to hock their futures just to get a piece of the action. More than two decades ago, one American community, pushed by a courageous young editor, amazingly said "no" after being selected as the site of the winter extravaganza.

The Rocky Mountain News under Michael Balfe Howard should have won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for the job it did in bucking public opinion to explain to Denver and Colorado just how much this "honor" was going to cost financially and environmentally. But that was before it was popular to disparage the Olympics. The reward, however, came in the decision to let the Games go elsewhere.

Those who four years ago found their way to Nagano realized instantly that if they had been naive enough not to notice sooner, something was terribly amiss in the choice of this remote Japanese city. The location is halfway around the world and the difficulty and expense of getting there kept nearly everyone but the Japanese away. Despite the billions of dollars the good people of Nagano indebted themselves to fulfill the obligation, the indoor facilities were cramped in town and the slopes so far out that it took nearly forever to reach them.

The weather in the Japanese Alps also is notoriously temperamental, as evidenced by the postponement of major events like downhill skiing, forcing exhausting and fruitless trips up and down the mountain.

The question asked by nearly everyone was, why this place? The answer became clear fairly rapidly when it was pointed out that a major Japanese contributor and force among those seeking the Games owned hotels in the vicinity and had made a substantial donation to the favorite charities of members of the International Olympic Committee.

But all that was shrugged off and the Games went onward, with plans for Salt Lake City already begun before the closing ceremonies in Nagano ended. Then came the scandal over how the U.S. city was selected in 1995.

It ultimately led to expulsion of 10 members of the IOC who had received cash and scholarships and favors to vote for the Utah venue, and charges against Johnson and Welch. Hopefully, the highly publicized furor has made future selections a more honest process. The question now is what further purpose is to be served by continuing to seek the prosecution of Johnson and Welch, who rightly perceived the way the game was played and wrongly went along with it. It is easy to condemn both men on moral and legal grounds. But is it fair?

More and more, the people of Salt Lake City and Utah are beginning to believe that Johnson and Welch were victims of a corrupt system and perhaps the only real victims. The city and state stand to benefit handsomely as do the Games themselves in a well-suited site. This is one where justice seems to have been done already without the need for further action.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.