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Sue Goes to Salt Lake (05/02)


“It’s just another race,” I think as I stand amid the thousands of cheering fans, the flags of many nations and banners bearing Olympic logos, all reminders that I am in Soldier Hollow, Utah, site of the 2002 Olympic cross country and biathlon events. After twenty years of volunteering at biathlons in the U.S. and Canada, here I am at the Olympics.

The “Spectator Guide” describes biathlon as “... sprinting up 25 flights of stairs and, at the top, trying to thread a needle five times in a row without once missing the hole.” Athletes ski a course to the shooting range, where they attempt to hit five targets with a rifle from a prone position. If successful, they ski the course again, then attempt to hit the targets from a standing position. For every target missed, they must ski a 150 meter penalty loop.

My official role as penalty loop supervisor is to direct the work of nine controllers, or “loopers”, who record the bib numbers of the athletes in the penalty loop.

Biathlon and cross country skiers shared the same facilities at Soldier Hollow. Training days on one course were race days on the other. I had a loyal group of volunteers who helped me every morning to set up the range, penalty loop and course through the stadium, then take it all down at night for grooming. We outlined the penalty loop with about two hundred pieces of “V” board. On training days, our preparation was relaxed. On race days, we had to be perfect, driven in part by the television coverage.

I learned lessons in “detail” from a member of the Finnish television crew. Just prior to the race, he would approach me, “Madame ...”. He then would tell me where he wanted extra pieces of “V” board placed for a particular camera angle. He wanted us to “make it pretty.”

For the last race, I thought I had it perfect, when I spotted him heading for the penalty loop sign. Catching up to him, I told him the sign was solidly staked in the snow. I’d done it myself. Smiling, he pulled a small level from his pocket and made minute adjustments to the sign, saying, “pretty ... for the camera.”

Most days started with a 6:30 bus ride to the “mag and bag” volunteer security area (magnetometer and metal detector). Yellow-jacketed security volunteers and uniformed National Guard members were everywhere. Small, manned outposts, new since our visit a year ago, stood on tops of the hills and ridges surrounding the venue. Helicopters circled overhead. And that was only what we could see; we speculated about “others, out there”. One volunteer, in dire need of bathroom facilities, slipped behind one of the few bushes in the valley. The “bush” moved (Secret Service in camouflage) and suggested she might want to try somewhere else.

During my twenty-two day Olympic adventure, I saw far less of the games than I would have on my TV at home. We worked long days and our house of eight volunteers was often asleep by 9 p.m. However, I did see some of the world’s finest cross country and biathlon athletes train and compete for medals. My lasting memories will be of the experiences I shared with the other volunteers in what I consider this “once in a lifetime” opportunity to be part of the Winter Olympic Games.