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Inside the Rings: Be Olympian, most of all be safe

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — Kim Yu-na got her Olympic coronation. Shaun White wowed and brave Joannie Rochette skated her way into our hearts. But what we hoped for most from the Vancouver Olympics was that everyone could have made it home alive.

The horror of Nodar Kumaritashvili slamming into a metal girder, of medics frantically performing mouth-to-mouth on the dying luger, of his blood trickling over their fingers, means that the XXI Winter Games cannot be called a success.

Rush-job wooden boards slapped up overnight at the bend where the 21-year-old catapulted off while pushing 90 mph were hurriedly painted white. But organizers couldn't whitewash the fact that the Georgian might have survived had the safety screens been there to start with.

Everyone knew that the Olympic sliding track was the quickest ever — "stupid fast" in the words of bobsledder Shauna Rohbock. Kumaritashvili knew it was dangerous. He told his father how scared he was of the whooshing final curve with its misleadingly innocuous nickname, "Thunderbird." ''Curve of death" would have been more honest. Everyone hoped it would be OK. It wasn't.

A legacy of Vancouver is the need for a long, cold look at the risks Olympians run, and are made to run, so that the winter show can compete in wow! for advertisers' dollars and younger viewers' attention spans.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili's acerbic comment that "no sports mistake is supposed to lead to a death" was the smartest thing anyone said.

The most infuriating was IOC president Jacques Rogge's cop-out that "everyone is responsible" for the fact that Kumaritashvili flew home in a coffin.

The track at the next Olympics in Sochi, Russia, in 2014, must be safer. One death was a tragedy. Another would be criminal.

Despite the accident, the Olympics carried on, as they had to, because life does, too.

Rochette touched people everywhere by proving that. Her bronze medal-winning figure skate just days after the sudden death of her mother Therese — "my biggest fan, my best friend" — was the games' most poignant moment. The 24-year-old Quebecer said she competed because her mother would have wanted it and had taught her to be strong, an uplifting lesson that death does not have to be a finality.

The superstar of figure skating, without any doubt now, is Kim, the 19-year-old of amazing grace and steel poise. Her slinky come-hither short program skate to a medley of James Bond soundtracks brought her native South Korea to a standstill for 168 seconds. The country is obsessed with her the way the world was with Princess Diana.

For the first time since 1964, no American woman skater got a medal, but look for Mirai Nagasu in Sochi. Her fourth-place here was outstanding. At 16, she showed more maturity than Evgeni Plushenko, the defending men's champion nearly twice Nagasu's age who threw a tantrum when Evan Lysacek got gold without performing tough quadruple jumps. Plushenko, unhappy with his silver, is right that skating's scoring system needs tweaking to give more points for these exciting quads that the Russian mastered.

Bereft of gold for the first time since 1964, Russian figure skating heads to Sochi in disarray. Not so South Korea. Kim's gold, South Korea's first outside speedskating, is guaranteed to swell her already bulging bank balance and means she'll need more bodyguards.

The other hugely famous multimillionaire at these games, the flame-haired White, celebrated his halfpipe gold medal by showing off an impossible trick only he can do — two board-over-head flips inside of 3 1/2 turns. He calls it 'Tomahawk' after an 850-gram (30 ounce) steak he once ate. 'The Flying Tomato' nickname given to White himself, which he is not fond of, should now be dropped for something more respectful for this snowboarding pioneer.

In wealth and fame, the likes of Kim and White are exceptions, not the rule. Other competitors from Vancouver return home to the anonymity that is the norm for many winter Olympians. Athletes like short-track skater Thibaut Fauconnet of France, who leaves only with worries about how he will make ends meet.

With a full house in Vancouver — gold, silver and bronze — Alpine skier Bode Miller left us rueing his partying on an Olympic level in 2006 in Turin, where he got nothing.

Gold for forgiveness went to Dutch speedskater Sven Kramer, for sticking with Gerard Kemkers after the coach cost the world champion victory in the 10,000 meters by misdirecting him into the wrong lane.

Petra Majdic, who won cross-country bronze with four broken ribs and a collapsed lung, and the battered Lindsey Vonn, who took gold and bronze in Alpine, win the grit-your-teeth award.

On the last day of competition, Sunday, Canada's ice hockey players could send the nation into raptures by beating the U.S. men in the gold-medal game.

Like all the medalists, Kumaritashvili's name will forever be linked with Vancouver, too. But the price he paid for that immortality was unforgivably too high.

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org.