Some of us are just Olympic tourists

We milled about in the athletes' village like a bunch of prom kids, fixing each others cowboy hats, straightening out our stars and stripes jackets and giggling at everyone elses' uniforms even though we looked, at best, equally ridiculous. But we were thrilled. We had made it to the Olympic Games. And we were about to walk into Lillehammer's Olympic Stadium for the Opening Ceremony.

An Alpine skier, I gawked at speed skater Dan Jansen and then watched him gape in turn at downhill skier Tommy Moe. Heroes and anonymous athletes alike, we lined up next to each other as teammates. For two restless hours we were at a standstill outside the stadium. We chanted, we shivered and we jockeyed for position, hoping to get ourselves on television. The chill of dusk began to set in, but just as the colors of every nations' flag started to fade, the procession suddenly began moving, headed for the warm light of the stadium door.

Instant pandemonium. Our private parade stepped into the festivities. Colors and flashbulbs exploded, the snow sparkled under the lights and someone announced "the United States of America" over the loudspeaker in 10 different languages. Despite being muffled by mittens and gloves, the crowd's applause was deafening. The sudden transition, and the magic of the moment, made me giddy -- and I found myself smiling, laughing and waving like crazy. We all did. I cheered for the crowd just as loud as they were cheering for me. How else does one react to the culmination of a lifetime of wishes?

Later that night, I was still dreaming that maybe we really had brought peace to the world that evening, if only for a moment. I was having dinner in the cafeteria in the athlete village, and one of my American teammates, a Nordic skier, asked me: "So, when do you race?"

Plucked out of my dream-state, I managed to come up with an answer ... barely. I played it cool. But that was when it really hit me: I had peaked for the Opening Ceremony.

My event was still fifteen days away, but I realized that the ceremony -- not a race -- was the thing I had wished for on every star. Walking around that sacred circle was what I had pictured in my head every time I blew out the candles on my birthday cake.

Wasn't that what every Olympian dreamed about? The pageantry, the history and the symbolism? Wasn't that what made the Games more meaningful than other competitions?

Apparently, not for everybody.

"There was no way I was going to stand around for four hours in the heat when I had to swim the next day," said Olympic swimmer Nelson Diebel, who skipped the opening ceremony in 1992 in order to get a good day's rest for his event the next day.

"It's not just a fifteen minute walk in," says two-time Olympic shot putter and discus thrower John Godina. "It's a long laborious process. [After the ceremonies in 1996], I pointed and laughed at all my friends walking in the door looking hot, sweaty and miserable. I pulled the 'I told you so' card about 400 times." Godina also planned to skip his third chance to party on opening night in Athens where he will throw for his third medal -- a hoped for gold in the shot put.

The most popular ticket at the Olympics, the Opening Ceremony goes for $1,000 a pop, if you can even get your hands on one. Yet some athletes choose to give up the experience in hopes of one even more valuable: winning a medal.

To be sure, with 10,500 athletes competing in 301 events in Athens, the percentage who will come away with a weighty new necklace is small. Especially when you figure that there are superstar athletes like U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps in the equation, who could take home as many as eight of those precious medals.

So for some athletes, it becomes a betting game: How much are you willing to bet on yourself? Are you a pre-race favorite? A dark horse? Or are you an "Olympic Tourist," code for someone who performed great just to make it to the Games at all? How much do the ceremonies themselves distract from the athletic events?

For Diebel and Godina, their bets paid off -- big. Diebel won gold the first day of the Barcelona Games in the 100-meter breaststroke, and Godina owns a silver from Atlanta in 1996 and a bronze from Sydney in 2000.

"It's not that I wouldn't have loved being in [the Opening Ceremonies]," Diebel said. "But it certainly wasn't worth [the risk]."

On the other hand, for husband and wife distance runners, Americans Shayne and Alan Culpepper, all bets were off. At least the first time around. For them the greater risk to their first Olympic experience would have been not to go. And the payoff, though not made of metal, was priceless.

"There was no question we were doing the Opening Ceremonies [in Sydney]," Alan said. "That defined the whole experience for us, we walked in together and when we took that first step into the stadium ... that was unbelievable. "

Added Shayne: "Aside from the birth of my child, it was the most amazing experience I've ever had. I would never recommend skipping it to anyone. It's something every Olympian should experience."

That said, the Culpeppers will not be going to the opening night festivities in Athens. "It's not that we weren't trying to race well [in Sydney]," said Alan who will compete on the last day of the Games, in the marathon, "but we were more into the experience. This time we're trying to focus more and not do too much to distract us." Shayne will compete in the 5,000 meter event.

There are still other athletes who may have placed their bets years ago, whether they knew it or not. "It wasn't even an option for me," says 1992 Olympic swimmer Summer Sanders. "I was competing in the breaststroke the next day. But I never dreamt about the opening ceremonies as a kid. I only dreamt about winning, standing on the podium and hearing the national anthem played. Maybe that's why I wasn't devastated not to go."

Or maybe she wasn't devastated because her payoff was in bronze. Sanders' medal came the next day in the 100-meter breaststroke. And Sanders had time to enjoy being an Olympian when her races were done.

"That was my exciting beginning to the next two weeks," she said.

It might seem as if there is a direct relationship between Olympic success and avoiding the opening ceremonies, but it's not that simple.

I know I didn't get a memo at the Olympics in 1994 that read: If you want to win a medal, don't go to the Opening Ceremonies. If you don't want to finish 18th in the slalom skip it.

The choice is one everybody makes, but either way the ceremonies hold enormous power, which is why it's a toss-up for many athletes.

As Shayne Culpepper said, "if it were a given that I'd win a medal if I didn't go to the opening ceremonies, I'd pick a medal, no question. But if the guarantee was only for a top-ten ... I'd debate."

Me, too. On the other hand, if memory serves, I won the Opening Ceremonies in Norway. I know it. I was there.