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Glitches to glory as Olympics hit halfway mark

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — You can see it at the waterfront Olympic cauldron, transformed overnight from something more like a prison yard into a proud public square.

And at Cypress Mountain, where Shaun White introduced the world to the jaw-dropping Double McTwist.

And at Whistler, where the sun and Lindsey Vonn finally got a chance to shine.

The Vancouver Games are making a comeback.

"Every Olympics has their ups and downs," said Kelly Mullen, in town from Ontario and gazing in up-close awe at the flame from a newly opened promenade. "I feel like Vancouver's really rolling with the punches. I mean, they had to ship snow in. But somehow they're making it work."

Grief settled over these Olympics before the torch could even complete its relay.

During a training run hours before the opening ceremony, a young luger from the nation of Georgia was killed when he flew off his sled at the lightning-fast track and slammed into a steel pole.

The shock was so profound that John Furlong, head of the Vancouver Organizing Committee, said he felt like he had lost his own son — "just about the most severe human blow you could imagine."

The Georgian teammates of Nodar Kumaritashvili gamely decided to stay at the games, though the one remaining luger withdrew, and the opening ceremony was dedicated to the fallen athlete.

From there, the games were plagued by all manner of problems. And although the young luger's death put everything into a whole new perspective — which is to say insignificant — the series of mishaps was still remarkable.

Here's the muddle count:

It was too wet and too mild, messing with the skiing event at Whistler. There were so many delays and cancellations that they should have handed out a gold for rescheduling.

The timing was wrong at the biathlon. A Swedish woman was held up for 14 seconds and two of the men went off too early because of officiating errors.

The timing was actually right at the opening ceremony, but the hydraulics failed. An indoor cauldron at BC Place Stadium failed to fully rise out of the floor, marring the most anticipated moment of any games.

At Cypress Mountain, 28,000 tickets were canceled because people were slipping between the bales of hay under the snow. A man with a fake credential somehow got closer than he should have to Vice President Joe Biden.

A spigot came on at the luge track, spraying the finish area and delaying a slider. The ice machine at the Richmond Oval left behind water and slush instead of a glassy surface, forcing organizers to draft a Zamboni into service. From Calgary, 600 miles and a whole province away.

"It is embarrassing," Norbert Baier, the International Biathlon Union's technical delegate, said of the biathlon mistakes. "Why do we have this incompetence?"

It got the point when you thought of it as a kind of inverse Murphy's Law, wondering not just what else would go wrong — but what could. And that's when the spotlight turned to what was going right.

Canada had one goal coming into these games: Finally strike gold at home. It hosted two previous Olympics, the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal and the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary, and never heard "O Canada" on the medal stand.

Then freestyle skier Alexandre Bilodeau blazed and bumped and twisted down the moguls course at Cypress Mountain and did what no Canadian had done in 253 other events over 34 years.

"It's too good to be true," he said later, and an entire nation seemed to believe him.

How big of a moment was it for Canada? Put it this way: Within 24 hours, the national mint and the postal service had announced plans to put Bilodeau on a commemorative coin and stamp.

It was a giant step for Canada's $110 million initiative to dominate the medals stand, dubbed Own the Podium. Then the Americans, to borrow a line from snowboarder Nate Holland, decided to rent it for a while.

The United States is dominating the medals count, with nearly twice as much hardware as any other nation. The last time the Americans won the medals race at the Winter Games was 78 years ago, on home turf in Lake Placid, N.Y.

On Wednesday, the U.S. had its greatest day ever at the Winter Olympics. Six medals in all — a bigger haul than the U.S. had at the entire 1988 Winter Games in Calgary.

Three of them were golds, and they went to three of the biggest American stars in Vancouver.

Lindsey Vonn, skiing on a bothersome bruised shin, blistered a downhill course at Whistler that was slick enough to cause a series of scary falls, including one skier who had to be airlifted off the course.

Shani Davis became the first speedskater to win the 1,000 meters at two Olympics. The bronze went to American Chad Hedrick, and on the victory stand they held a U.S. flag together, their bitter rivalry from Turin having thawed into at least a grudging respect.

And that night at Cypress Mountain, with a gold medal already locked in, Shaun White wowed the crowd with a halfpipe move straight out of a three-ring circus — the Double McTwist 1260, an jaw-dropping series of flips and twists.

"I wanted a victory lap that would be remembered," he said.

Together, they did something really unthinkable: They beat "American Idol" in the ratings. NBC's coverage of Vancouver is being watched by millions more people each night than the last Winter Games, in Turin, Italy.

There was more: Sidney Crosby saved the Canadian men's hockey team and prevented a nationwide heart attack by scoring the only goal in a tense shootout to beat Switzerland, 3-2. And the Canadian women put up positively grotesque scores — think 18 goals against helpless Slovakia alone — in annihilating their early opponents.

The men's downhill delivered a scintillating finish. Switzerland's Didier Defago, Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway and American Bode Miller were separated by 0.09 seconds. Gold, silver and bronze in the snap of a finger.

And in figure skating, American Evan Lysacek pulled a stunner, beating Evgeni Plushenko for gold without even attempting the supposedly important quadruple jump.

Plushenko finished his routine holding up both fingers, and later openly said he thought he deserved gold. No one was more surprised than Lysacek himself.

"I saw that American flag go up," he said, "and I couldn't believe it was for me."

And for a second act? There's hockey, lots of it. The Canadian women try for their third gold in a row, with the Americans standing in their way. Crosby tries to lead the home nation's men to gold in a sport Canada invented.

Figure skating's attention turns to women. South Korea's Kim Yu-na, such a star back home that she needs bodyguards, is a favorite, but two other world champions are in the field, too.

And on the last day of the games, a Canadian named Brian McKeever who is legally blind because of a condition that mostly wiped out his central vision but left the peripheral alone, is scheduled to compete in cross-country. He would be the first winter athlete to be both a Paralympian and an Olympian.