Not to sound ungrateful or–heaven forbid–unpatriotic, but I found myself increasingly troubled by the stunning performance of the United States in the Winter Olympics. A home-field advantage is one thing, but from beginning to end in Salt Lake City it seemed the Olympic system that once hindered U.S. athletes and U.S. interests now provides an undeniable benefit to athletes supported by U.S. capitalism.

In many ways, this is a good thing. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic movement, was an elitist and a racist out to exclude undesirables. His emphasis on amateurism assured that the Olympics would be dominated by the leisure class–those with the money and the time to devote to esoteric disciplines–to the detriment of poorer athletes who couldn’t afford to do sport without getting paid for it; for instance, Jim Thorpe and generations of Canadian hockey players.

The cult of amateurism was so pounded into the Olympics and its fans that it might still be the prevailing ideal if it hadn’t become such an albatross during the cold war. In that era, state-sponsored socialist athletic combines had a clear advantage over capitalism when it came to developing “amateur” athletes. The surprise is that it took so long for the old system to be overthrown. It wasn’t until 1992–shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall–that the U.S. Dream Team of NBA stars showed everyone exactly what the best athletes in the world were supposed to look like. Even today, sports-page morons extol the ideal of amateurism in columns that bemoan the participation of NHL stars in the Olympics. Fact is, the Olympics are better and the Olympic movement is stronger when the games are open to everyone, the best athletes regardless of whether they’re amateur or professional.

That said, it takes a blind eye to look at this year’s winter games and not see how the current system benefits American interests. For one thing there are the new “extreme” events. The International Olympic Committee was driven by economics and by such competitions as the cable-TV-sponsored X Games to sanction sports like snowboarding and “freestyle” skiing, with the prime beneficiary being NBC, which has shelled out billions of dollars in fees for the rights to the games through 2008 and fully intends to get a return on its investment–in part by matching up advertisers with the young audience that is so difficult to attract. Of course, it didn’t hurt that snowboarding and freestyle skiing were huge here before they were Olympic sports, giving U.S. athletes a leg up. When U.S. snowboarders took gold, silver, and bronze in the halfpipe, it was the first U.S. medal sweep in a Winter Olympics in a half century.

What’s more, economic issues were clearly behind the International Skating Union’s decision to nip the judging scandal in the bud and grant a second gold medal to the Canadian figure-skating pair of Jamie Sale and David Pelletier after they lost in the finals to the Russian pair of Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze. To be sure, I thought Sale and Pelletier should have won–the Russians were more intricate in their skating but also more flawed, while the Canadians seemed to be two bodies moving under the same impulse–and there was abundant evidence of hanky-panky surrounding the French judge. Yet the media drove the scandal, and it soon became apparent that what the ISU wanted to avoid was the loss of its legitimacy, which would jeopardize its financial underpinnings in sponsorships and, in a worst-case scenario, prompt the IOC to try to run its own skating events.

Look at the uniforms of almost any team in almost any sport and it becomes apparent that commercialism is what now fuels the Olympics. Nike, Spyder, Adidas, Ellesse; Atomic and Rossignol skis (quickly taken off and thrown over the shoulder, the better to brandish the logo for the TV camera); Roots caps and Columbia jackets: the Olympics run on advertising. And, let’s face it, nobody plays that game better than Americans.

As I said, overall this game certainly beats the old amateur system, but it doesn’t mean the playing field is any more level than it used to be. Athletes from the Western nations come in with huge marketing pushes behind them, and this has to affect the outcomes, in the additional training resources they can draw on if not in overt judging bias. As little as 15 years ago, the ISU and the IOC never would have reversed themselves on something like pairs figure skating, no matter what the controversy. (Boxer Roy Jones Jr. is still waiting for his 1988 gold medal–lost in a disgraceful split decision, as is the 1972 U.S. men’s basketball team.) Now there’s more pressure on those governing bodies, and because they’re so dependent on commercial financing they’re more susceptible to that pressure.

Understand, I’m not suggesting the Russians aren’t whiners when they protest Sarah Hughes’s victory over Irina Slutskaya in women’s figure skating. Hughes was the only skater to come out, throw everything she had at the judges, and land everything. Everyone else skated not to lose. (Slutskaya was the least flawed but perhaps the most tentative of the three skaters who were ahead of Hughes before their final programs; she skated with none of her usual speed.) Yet I can see why the Russians feel they have a gripe. With a weakened state government unable to support sport the way it once did, and with a sputtering free-market system yet to make up the difference, the Russians are looking at a long decline in the Olympics. It’s worth noting that both of their medal-winning men’s figure skaters, Alexei Yagudin and Evgeni Plushenko, began as young products of that state-sponsored system. There is little in the pipeline after them.

The South Koreans have a legitimate beef in protesting the disqualification of their skater in 1,500-meter short-track speed skating. Short-track is one of the extreme sports brought in and it’s wild, woolly, and chaotic–speed skating meets Roller Derby. It can also be beautiful: the rushing skaters pose like statues, fingertips to the ice, as they coast around the turns, and the relay–in which skaters circle in the center and pop out onto the track to relieve their teammates–is like watching a time-lapse satellite image of a hurricane. Yet the South Korean skater’s infraction, for cutting off U.S. favorite Apolo Anton Ohno, was a ticky-tack call in a sport devoted to hurly-burly. It came off as a makeup call for the earlier 1,000-meter race, where a charging South Korean skater fouled Ohno on the last turn, causing all the top skaters to slide into the boards as Australia’s unlikely Steven Bradbury coasted across the finish line for the gold. But Ohno was gracious in claiming the silver in that event, and if the Koreans truly want to see justice done they can start by returning the gold to Roy Jones.

Bradbury with arms upraised, placidly, comically triumphant as Ohno and the other skaters struggled to their feet and the finish line, was one of the indelible images of the 2002 winter games. Those memorable images were plentiful. Bode Miller bouncing up off the snow and finishing his downhill run in the men’s combined skiing event, which allowed him to come from behind in his final slalom run for a silver. Finnish snowboarder Hekki Sorsa competing not in a crash helmet but a Mohawk. Swiss double-gold-medal ski jumper Simon Ammann in his Harry Potter glasses. The flayed-skin musculature pattern of the Canadian speed-skating uniform, especially as modeled by Catriona LeMay Doan. The cross-country skiers routinely finishing the 50-kilometer race with long strings of spittle hanging from their chins, beyond all concern for appearances. Croatia’s chunky Janica Kostelic winning three gold medals in Alpine skiing and missing a fourth by hundredths of a second to claim silver–the most dominating performance by a skier since Jean-Claude Killy swept what were then just three Alpine medals at Grenoble, France, in 1968. The joy and pride of the Canadian men’s and women’s hockey teams, after both won tense gold-medal games against the United States (it was the first men’s gold in 50 years for the country that invented the sport, and some of that time it didn’t bother to field a team because even its paid junior hockey players weren’t eligible). Michelle Kwan crying tears of disappointment as she skated to “Fields of Gold” in the figure-skating exhibition after the competition was over (she had obviously had other plans, but claimed bronze). Bobsledder Vonetta Flowers crying tears of joy alongside partner Jill Bakken at the finish line, as she became the first African-American to win a gold medal at the winter games. And finally Sale crying tears of rage as the Russian national anthem was played at the first medal ceremony immediately after the pairs final.

Yet note that the record U.S. medal count of 34 was almost three times the previous U.S. high for the winter games. (No fewer than 12 came in events that have been added since 1992.) That’s no mere home-field advantage. The balance of power has shifted dramatically in the Olympics, shifted in this country’s favor, which might make them more pleasant for us but has many

other countries feeling that they’re playing a fixed game. That can’t be good in the long run for the Olympic movement.