Let the fun and Games begin

"This whole dream, was it wishful thinking? Was I just fleeing reality, as I know I'm liable to do? But ... it seemed real. It seemed like us. And it seemed like, well, our home. If not Arizona, then a land not too far away, where all the parents are strong and wise and capable, and all the children are happy and beloved. I dunno. Maybe it was Utah."
-- Nicholas Cage in "Raising Arizona"

In 1847, Brigham Young led his Mormon followers more than 1,000 miles across the country's plains and over the Rockies, braving violent attack, disease and starvation in search for religious freedom. They eventually settled in the valley by the Great Salt Lake, described by Harriet Young as a "land of desolation and loneliness," an arid world so inhospitable that weak and weary as she was, she felt "I would rather go another thousand miles further than remain in such a forsaken land as this."

So forsaken was the land that there was only one person to greet them after this incredible journey: Utah coach Rick Majerus, who was busy reviewing game film in his suite at the Salt Lake City Marriott.

Ha! That's just a joke. Actually, there was barely adequate vegetation for the pioneers to live on the first year, let alone a hotel with room service adequate to service Majerus, while the valley was so remote that it took nearly 150 years before the International Olympic Committee could even dispatch a representative for its first bribe for the 2002 Winter Olympics. Brigham Young may have said, "This is the right place," when he reached Salt Lake, but it took more than $7 million in "gifts" and an estimated $1.5 billion in federally funded development to convince the IOC.

Young and his initial band of 147 brave, self-reliant pioneers planted crops, built an irrigation system, survived freezing weather and a plague of locusts that first year to lay the seeds of what would become a flowering city with a greater metropolitan population of nearly one million and now hosts the 2002 Winter Olympics. Young and his followers trekked for nearly four months before reaching what is present-day Salt Lake City, but the modern Olympian can reach the city by plane in two hours from the West Coast and three hours from the eastern seaboard.

Of course, Brigham Young's journey may seem short and easy by the time passengers clear the security measures significantly expanded after Sept. 11.

Security always is intense at the Olympics and now it is especially so. This is the first major international event since the World Trade Center attacks and with a U.S. site, a worldwide television audience and 2,300 athletes representing 72 nations, it is considered a tempting target for terrorists. So much so that an IOC member initially expressed concern that the Olympics should be postponed due to the terrorism before changing his mind. Soldiers, uniformed police, plainclothes officers and volunteers will provide a security force supposedly larger and more omnipresent than the Osmonds.

With all that security, Utah governor Mike Leavitt promises the Olympics will be the safest place on earth. At least, that's the hope and the prayer: that in these anxious times the only violence and destruction at the Olympics will be restricted to the U.S. men's hockey team dorm.

The U.S. men's hockey team gave the country a black eye four years ago in Nagano but they best break their dorm room furniture quietly and before 10 p.m. this year. That's because new IOC president Jacques Rogge plans to stay in the Olympic Village dorms as well in a very public attempt to distant himself from the Salt Lake bribery scandal, a scandal Rogge described this week as, "a profound crisis that nearly destroyed the IOC."

The IOC, however, is even more resilient than a Mormon missionary in Afghanistan, and the bribery scandal has faded from the spotlight behind security concerns and the eager anticipation for the Games themselves. After seven years of preparation and several years of scandal, Salt Lake is ready for the Olympics to finally begin. There are even 12,000 condoms for free distribution in the Olympic Village. While some conservative residents find that offensive, they should consider themselves lucky. Back when he skied in Olympics past, Italy's Alberto Tomba kept 12,000 condoms by the hot tub just for his personal use.

Of course, Tomba would be considered old school by the tattooed, hair-dyed, body-pierced athletes who joined the Olympics four years ago when the Nagano Games introduced snowboarding and the concept of marijuana as a performance-enhancing drug to the Winter Games. In a never-ending effort to expand the competition and fill air time, even more X Games-style events have been added this year.

One is actually a very old sport returning to Olympics for the first time in half a century -- skeleton, a sport in which the athlete sleds down a treacherous slope at up to 80 miles an hour headfirst. The name, apparently, derives from what is left of the losing sledders.

Women's bobsled also makes its Olympic debut, already causing no small amount of embarrassment for the U.S. team. After appearing together on cereal boxes and in a commercial for a credit card company that charges interest rates up to 16 percent above prime, Jean Racine dumped her brakeman and (former) best friend, Jen Davidson. This sort of thing happens fairly often in men's bobsledding and should be taken as an indication that women's sports have finally become as cutthroat, win-at-all-costs and what-have-you-done-for-me-lately as the NFL. So that's good news.

In all, the Winter Olympics have about doubled in events since the 1980 Lake Placid Games when the victory over the Soviets by a team of college kids from Minnesota and the Northeast inspired those ubiquitous chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" Given the surge in all things red, white and blue since Sept. 11, expect many more such chants and much flag-waving by patriotic fans, occasionally by some who actually voted in November.

Considering that the U.S. rarely fares all that well in the Winter Games, those fans may not have all that much to cheer. Then again, performing in front of the home crowd may give U.S. athletes just the boost they need to strike gold. Many of the U.S. athletes have been training at Salt Lake's nearly mile-high venues for some time, which might make all the difference. At least the USOC hopes so, confidently setting 20 medals as the goal.

The home-field advantage is such that some U.S. athletes can commute to the Games, with gold medalist skier Picabo Street so close to home that there is a street named for her near the downhill course in Park City -- Picabo Street, naturally.

"I think we all dream of being able to compete in our own country and for all our friends and family to be there," said Street, back for her third Olympics.

Street is just one of many familiar Olympians returning. Figure skater Michelle Kwan, an alternate in Lillehammer at age 14, is back, determined to win the gold medal she missed in Nagano. So, too, is Todd Eldredge, who first skated in the 1992 Olympics. There also is five-time Olympian Brian Shimer, who has been trying since 1988 to put America back on the medal platform in bobsled.

And while David Letterman's mother is not here this time, Jim McKay is. The man who was as much a part of the Olympic experience as Juan Antonio Samaranch's extended open palm, returns to the studio, where he will join NBC host Bob Costas.

There are plenty of new athletes to follow as well. Short-track speedskater Apolo Ohno competes in a sport considered obscure even by winter Olympic standards (a short track event that does not involve at least one disqualification is as rare as an all-night strip joint in Salt Lake) but with a flashy name and street cred, he's already found himself on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

The great thing about the Olympics, however, is that the athletes reflect so many different demographics, not just the ones who think "Freddy Got Fingered" deserves an Oscar nomination. The athletes range from curler John Gordon, a 43-year-old grandfather, to biathlete Kristina Viljanen-Sebasteanski, a 32-year-old sharpshooter in the National Guard, to Sarah Hughes, a 16-year-old figure skater. There are hockey players with $10 million NHL contracts and bobsledders with bank loans owed for their equipment. Biathletes with rifles and curlers with brooms. There are even a husband and wife, French biathletes Raphael Poiree and his wife, Liv Grete Poiree.

Obviously, it's a wide, wide world of sports. So wide, in fact, that occasionally it's hard to know where an athlete is really from without a starting bib and a passport. There is a 43-year-old professor from Philadelphia skiing for Thailand, a bobsledder from San Jose competing for Armenia and a bobsledder from Idaho competing for Trinidad and Tobago.

They can do so because of dual citizenship loopholes, and while it seems odd that Thailand's lone winter Olympian teaches chemistry at Drexel University, perhaps that's what the Olympics are all about -- or at least should be -- athletes competing together no matter where they're from, for the simple goal of competing together.

"You go into the stadium by countries because they sort you that way, but I look at it as athletes of the world coming together," said Don Young, a 38-year-old Las Vegas city employee who will compete for Puerto Rico in bobsled. "I don't like looking at it as countries and comparing medal counts -- we're just athletes competing."

The Greeks held an Olympic truce during the ancient games, a guarantee that the world's athletes could put aside their differences to compete in peace. Unfortunately, the modern games have been canceled three times by war (1916, 1940 and 1944) and interrupted by terrorism (1972). They also have been used as propaganda to further Hitler's Nazi Germany (1936). And they are far too often a source more for nationalist pride than a true uniting of the human spirit.

As Rogge told an audience in Salt Lake this week, the Sept. 11 tragedy "changed the face of the world and reminded us, if we still needed it, that sport is closely linked to the political and economic framework within which it develops."

We live in a world where men turn themselves into human bombs. We live in a world where men can twist religion into justification for mass murder and global terror. We live in a world where anthrax is sent through the mail and explosives can be hidden in tennis shoes. We live in a world where men armed with box cutters can pilot planes into skyscrapers and kill innocents by the thousands.

These Olympics already have been rocked by scandal, bribery and abuse, threatened by potential violence and tainted by corporate excess and marketing. Yet is it a dream that they can also still provide a site where men and women may gather in a spirit of excellence? Is it wishful thinking that after the past five months, there still is a place where we may unite through our common hopes rather than be divided by our religions and flags? Are we fleeing reality -- as we are liable to do -- to think the Olympics still may be "the right place" to view the best the world can achieve rather than the worst the human race can deliver?

Can there still be a home where the athletes are strong and wise and capable, and where all those who participate are happy and beloved?

We can hope and we can pray that there is.

And maybe, just maybe, it is Utah.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com