Marcus Hayes: Canada takes partial ownership of podium at conclusion of Olympics

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Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette, with her coach, lost her mom days before competing.

VANCOUVER - It was a hell of a party.

It featured Canadian hockey drama and a brave figure skater and a pair of gorgeous U.S. skiers. It rolled on through logistical snafus, planning errors and an El Nino system that made a mess of the mountains.

Every night, Canadians and their visitors made downtown a 40-block Mummers parade.

But this Olympics will be forever haunted by two words: "driver error."

The death of luger Nodar Kumaritashvili just hours before Opening Ceremonies served notice to all countries: Winning medals, especially gold, should rank far behind international fellowship in terms of importance.

For the next 17 days, that notice largely was ignored.

Instead of admitting culpability, the IOC and the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) blamed the 21-year-old Georgian for the accident that killed him. Not the track, which is the world's fastest; not their policy of limiting competitors' practice time before the games began.

It was the kid's fault.

Then, of course, they moved the luge start, altered the track and made safer the area where his body was thrown against unpadded supports.

Not their fault. No way.

And no matter.

Not as long as Canada's "Own the Podium" initiative became a success - a qualified success, perhaps, but undeniably, a success.

They began the $117 million investment 5 years ago in hopes of winning the most overall medals here. They claimed a victory by winning 14 gold medals, the most by any country in Winter Olympics history. The former USSR in 1976 and Norway in 2002 each won 13 golds.

Canada won 26 medals overall, also a national record, bettering its mark at Turin in 2006. No Canadian medal came sweeter than that of figure skater Joannie Rochette, whose mother died of a heart attack here 2 days before Rochette began her competition. Rochette soldiered on in her mother's memory and, on Thursday, took bronze, the only medal really up for competition, considering the top skaters in the field.

Then, the golds rained on Canada in a thrilling late rush. They went 1-2 in women's bobsled Wednesday night. They took women's hockey gold Thursday, and the team wound up creating more of a stir for suggestive photos snapped during a postgame, on-ice, beer-and-smokes celebration.

By hundredths of seconds, Canadians won two gold medals in men's short-track skating Friday night. Then came the Saturday swell: redemptive wins in men's curling, snowboarding, parallel giant slalom and men's long-track.

"It's a great moment in Canadian history," said VANOC chief John Furlong, a bit prematurely.

He said it in the middle of a gold-medal hockey game against the U.S. that Canada needed overtime to win. But the Canadians won, and that, remember, is all that matters.

The U.S. won just nine gold medals, but they were especially satisfying. One came from four-man bobsled driver Steve Holcomb, once nearly blind, ending a 62-year gold-medal drought in the sport for the U.S. A close second in the gold-medal sentimentality race: Billy Demong, leader of the plucky nordic combined contingent that lately had come tantalizingly close.

America finished third in the gold-medal race - Germany won 10 - but the 37 medals for the U.S. outstripped by three the 2002 games at Salt Lake City and validated a surge in funding after the 1998 Games in Nagano.

"We really don't view this as a competition between nations as much as a competition between athletes," said USOC chief Scott Blackmun, whose organization issued continual updates on the medal count.

Really, for the U.S., it was a competition among endorsers, many of whom made their sponsors proud.

Witness the wins from snowboard god and video-game mogul Shaun White and downhill skiing hunk Bode Miller and covergirl Lindsey Vonn, all of whom fulfilled their pre-Games promise. Miller took home three medals and Vonn got two. Both skied fast but neither turned especially well.

Vonn even supplied the games with a victim; first, of a nasty fall in training a week before her arrival and a finger-breaking crash on Wednesday; then, of nasty comments from two-silver ski teammate Julia Mancuso, who overcame a back injury but whose giant slalom hopes were sabotaged by Vonn's crash.

The crash cost Mancuso her first run, which could have cost her a podium.

It is one of several medals that might have been.

Short-track legend and dancing star Apolo Anton Ohno shoved a Canadian in the 500-meter final and was disqualified from at least a bronze. He did take home three from here, none gold, but the foul kept him from running his personal U.S. Winter Olympics record to nine medals.

Ohno's former girlfriend, Allison Baver, the Reading native, also was DQ'd in her feature race, but in a preliminary heat, on a much more objectionable call.

Showoff snowboard-crosser Lindsey Jacobellis DQ'd herself when she ran off-course in a semifinal race of the event she was heavily favored to win. That further cemented her Olympic legacy: She's the woman who, while leading the final at Turin, tried a trick on the last jump of the course, crashed and finished second.

Oh, well. There were much worse fates.

The Austrian Alpine skiers might be denied re-entry at their border after the men got shut out for the first time (it sent no representative in 1936). The women won four medals, but only one gold. The team Alpine total was down from 14 in Turin.

Ditto the Russian men's hockey team, considered the No. 2 seed in the tournament but heading back undecorated. Unluckily, they drew Canada in the quarterfinals, but the Russians clearly were outclassed.

They didn't look as bad as the Finns, who were overwhelmed by the U.S. in the semifinals, giving up six goals in the first 13 minutes. Hey, there's only so much Kimmo Timonen can do.

Kimmo, and VANOC.

But even the stink of the snafus won't linger.

Warm weather melted snow at the Cypress Mountain, which meant that 20,000 standing-room tickets were worthless to their holders. There was no backup plan. Those would-be spectators, who had traveled from all over the globe to watch the new, hip, X-Games events, often did not discover their predicament until they reached shuttle buses to the events and were denied access.

Back in rainy Vancouver, fans hoping to snap a photo of the Olympic Torch had to do so through a chain-link fence until organizers put up a few panes of Plexiglass - an improvement, but a minor one.

Public trains stopped service hours before the downtown bars closed, creating a transportation nightmare.

These things happen, eh?

Nodar didn't have to. In the wake of his death, a pileup of bobsled crashes increased the volume of complaints about pre-Games access to the track - access that might have made the course more negotiable, if not safer.

Two accomplished Swiss bobsled drivers withdrew from races after a slew of crashes in men's practice. The German women probably should have; Sandra Kiriasis, the top woman driver in the world, nearly crashed on all four of her runs, and Germany-2 driver Cathleeen Martini overturned in the final run.

Canada went 1-2 in the women's bobsled.

So, you know, it was all worth it.

Send e-mail to hayesm@phillynews.com