VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Shaun White defied gravity, Joannie Rochette choked back tears of grief and Petra Majdic ignored medical advice to haul her battered body to the podium.
Inspirational examples of courage, heartache and pain burned brightly at the Vancouver Olympics.
Yet none of the athletes who lived their dreams on the biggest sporting stage of all left their mark on the Winter Games as much as the one who died before the flame was lit.
Georgian Nodar Kumaritashvili, a little-known luger killed in a training crash at the world’s fastest track on the day of the opening ceremony, cast a heavy shadow that will linger for years to come.
“I have no words to describe how we feel,” said International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacques Rogge, voice cracking with emotion and tears welling in his eyes.
More were shed, in a city whose welcome was as warm as the unseasonable local weather, for the bravery of Canadian figure skater Rochette who won a bronze medal only four days after her mother’s sudden death.
“With all that had happened I did not have enough strength out there,” she said. “I had no more inside me but my mom was lifting me up.”
Despite a stumbling start, brickbats from foreign media critics and a daily battle against the elements, with ski races postponed by fog and snow-starved hills elsewhere, Canadians rose to the challenge and never stopped believing.
It may have rained a lot, there may have been mud and slush underfoot, but the hosts celebrated with unrestrained pride once freestyle skier Alexandre Bilodeau had triggered the gold rush.
In the land of Wayne Gretzky, where ice hockey is almost a religion, Canada beat southern neighbors the United States to win the gold that mattered most.
Sure, it was a mighty close run thing in the near lottery of overtime but Sidney Crosby’s strike for the 3-2 win will surely take its place among the very finest moments of Canadian sport.
The hosts’ bid to ‘own the podium’ initially did not go to plan, but a surge of victories at almost every venue meant they won more golds, 14, than any country at any Winter Olympics.
They had failed to win a single one in two previous Games on home soil.
No-one could match Norwegian cross country skier Marit Bjoergen’s three golds, but sometimes winning is not everything.
Slovenian Majdic, who skied on in agonizing pain after breaking five ribs when she fell into a gully in a training accident, felt her 1.4km sprint bronze was as good as gold.
“I won a medal just getting to the start line,” she said, collapsing in a heap at the finish.
American ski maverick Bode Miller was another triple medalist, the 32-year-old digging deep for gold in the twilight of his career to redeem the flop of Turin in 2006.
That was more than compatriot Lindsey Vonn, who was tipped to turn Vancouver into Vonn-couver but had to make do with a gold and bronze -- and a bruised shin and broken finger.
She still dominated the women’s downhill with a show of power that was -- in the parlance of competitors everywhere -- totally awesome. But Vancouver stayed Vancouver.
The transformation came elsewhere.
The once-mighty Austrians flopped to their worst showing in 76 years in men’s Alpine skiing. Former sporting behemoth Russia, the hosts in four years’ time in Sochi, looked weak shadows of the past.
It was left to Vladimir Putin to flex his muscles, the Russian prime minister declaring Yevgeny Plushenko’s silver to be worth gold after the figure skater lost out to American Evan Lysacek despite performing the highly-demanding quad jump that his winning rival avoided.
The doping cases that polluted former Olympics were remarkably absent while countries starved of success seized their moment in the limelight.
Queen of speed Amy Williams gave Britain a first gold in an individual winter event since 1980 when she won the women’s skeleton, while the United States won the four-man bobsleigh for the first time in 62 years with Steve Holcomb’s Night Train.
South Korea had their own ice queen in Kim Yuna, the country’s dazzling first figure skating champion who dissolved into tears of joy after obliterating her rivals with a near-perfect program.
They also took an unexpected title in the men’s 10,000 meters speedskating after overwhelming Dutch favorite Sven Kramer, who had hoped for three golds but ended up with just one, and his confused coach committed the gaffe of the Games.
Heading for certain gold, Kramer was mistakenly instructed by his coach to change lanes. He did so and was disqualified.
So too was speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno in the 500m short track but he still ended the Games as the most decorated U.S. Winter Olympian with eight career medals.
There was more controversy in the ski jumping where Switzerland’s Simon Ammann flew off with both individual golds despite Austrian grumblings about his boot bindings.
Nobody could argue with the achievement of Shaun “Animal” White, the first snowboarder to land back-to-back halfpipe titles with his gravity-defying Double McTwist 1260.
His reaction summed up the feeling of many winners.
“I felt like I came all the way to Canada, talked about all my tricks and it took blood, sweat and tears to land it,” he said.
Editing by Miles Evans
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.