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AS SMOOTH AS SILK IN SAPPORO

Feb. 22, 1971
Feb. 22, 1971

Table of Contents
Feb. 22, 1971

The Memory
Sapporo
Dr. Meriwether
Frazier
  • "I'm a small piece of leather but I'm well put together, and nobody commands me.... I don't see how he can survive, unless he runs." So says Joe Frazier in a rare interview with Morton Sharnik

St. Vincent
Track & Field
Boxing
Motor Sports
Body Surfing
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

AS SMOOTH AS SILK IN SAPPORO

The Japanese staged a full-scale dress rehearsal for the 1972 Winter Olympic Games last week and it came off as a colorful blend of clockwork precision and quite scrutable Oriental charm

Once upon a time on Hokkaido, the bleak and beautiful northern isle of Japan, there lived for one year an American botanist from Massachusetts. His name was William Smith Clark and his game was helping Japanese pioneer settlers of a wilderness village called Sapporo to organize an agricultural school. A fire-and-brimstone enthusiast, William Smith Clark not only put the farm school on its feet, he also converted most of the students to Christianity, taught everyone rudimentary English, designed new buildings for the school and once publicly smashed four dozen bottles of wine in a ditch in order to convince the natives they should sign a pledge of abstinence from alcohol.

This is an article from the Feb. 22, 1971 issue Original Layout

After his busy year in Sapporo, Clark mounted his horse to leave and his loyal students and faculty sadly trailed him out of town on their own mounts. Suddenly Clark reined in his horse, turned and cried out to his distraught entourage: "Boys, be ambitious!" Then he wheeled and galloped off toward America.

Today, some 95 years later, those words are engraved in stone at the base of a statue of William Smith Clark at the University of Hokkaido in Sapporo. And it would seem they are carved even more deeply into the civic soul of the city. For Sapporo has grown from that primeval shanty settlement to a town a million strong. By day it is a throbbing, though infinitely mundane, metropolis that looks most of all like seven smoggy Fort Waynes laid end to end. By night the place turns on in a splattering cascade of Japanese neon and all-round Oriental candlepower that makes Times Square seem dull.

There is ambition, all right, in Sapporo. And next year at about this time the former leading frontier hamlet will host the Winter Olympic Games of 1972. Naturally, the question arises: can a drab young city in the cold wastes of northern Asia, 5,000 miles from any major winter sports center, under frequent threat of storms from Siberia and with low mountains and narrow roads, really carry off an Olympics in style? Naturally, the question cannot be properly answered yet, but last week, blessed by a stunning run of sunny days, the city hosted a pre-Olympic meet called Sapporo International Sports Week as a test of its facilities, its civic mettle and its essential hospitality. The results were encouraging—perhaps even inspiring.

As one official booklet of the Sapporo Olympic Organizing Committee said in the kind of gentle Japanese-English that is often more eloquent than good grammar: "There have been made preparations, both spiritual and material, in good earnest." In good earnest, indeed.

Never has an Olympic spectacular been so near its final form so soon with such an impressive assortment of man-made venues and God-given vistas. From the 90-meter Okurayama jump hill with its flowing landing ramp and 50,000-seat stadium to the Makomanai indoor skating rink with its dodecagon-capped roof and even to the checker-patterned designs in the ice walls of the bobsled run on Mount Teine, the Japanese have produced something approaching good art. An elegant elliptical stadium that surrounds the Makomanai speed-skating rink was the scene for last week's opening ceremonies (as it will be for the Olympics) and things proceeded with an almost mystical Japanese combination of pomp, clockwork and charm. To the sound of regal band music and a fine massed chorus of students, the crown prince and his princess arrived and soon the infield was covered with military ranks of athletes and officials—about 550 of the 800 assembled being proud, bright-eyed young Japanese athletes. As Japanese words of welcome were spoken, an instant English translation appeared in lights on the computerized Seiko timing board. And then, once the ritual had subsided, hundreds and hundreds of lovely doll-like Japanese children appeared, each carrying a bobbing bouquet of balloons. En masse, they skated unsteadily around and around the racing oval until, at last, they all permitted their balloons to escape slowly into the sky to become countless colored specks against the blue.

Perhaps beauty will be the byword of the Sapporo Games. The Alpine events are to be held on two mountains which, when it comes to sheer breathtaking natural majesty, present panoramas that seem to outdo every travel calendar ever made. On Mount Teine, which is called "The Roof of Sapporo" since it is on the outskirts of town, there are the slaloms and giant slaloms for both men and women, along with the bobsled and the 1,140-meter luge courses. On a clear day you can see eternity through snowy Japanese birches—to the street grids of Sapporo far below and on across the broad flats of the Ishikari plain to the icy waters of the Sea of Japan and beyond. At Mount Eniwa, in Lake Shikotsu National Park, the men's and women's downhill runs form a massive squiggly X across the mountain face, and from the top of the courses there is a vista of delicate black pines and deep blue Lake Shikotsu and mountains that seem to have risen straight from a Japanese silk print.

Yet once the first raptures over the landscapes had worn off last week, there were some rather sharp points of criticism concerning the Alpine courses. After inspecting the downhill runs, judges from the Fédération Internationale de Ski were appalled to find that neither had sufficient safety nets, hay bales and assorted tree-trunk pads to protect rocketing racers if they fell. They ruled that the top of the men's downhill was too steep and ordered the starting gate moved 150 meters lower. It was a bizarre racecourse even then. Although the top and the bottom seemed steep and classy enough, there were strange long flat sections in the middle—so flat that some of the lesser young Japanese racers (flocks of whom entered the competition) were forced to pole along to keep up momentum.

The FIS experts also agreed that although the slaloms and giant slaloms on Mount Teine were steeper than most World Cup courses (the men's slalom had an average pitch of 25.3 degrees), they felt the runs were too smooth and thus not challenging enough. The Japanese responded by sending up some Sno-Cats and a battalion or so of Japanese soldiers with shovels to build a few new bumps.

In no way has the Sapporo committee spared expense in installing facilities. The Mount Eniwa downhill courses cost more than $2 million, and the complex on Mount Teine came to more than $4 million. In all, the committee has budgeted no less than 6,384,838,000 yen (more than $17 million) for the '72 extravaganza. Beyond that, the treasuries of the Japanese national government, of the Hokkaido prefecture and of the city of Sapporo will contribute another 14,700,000,000 yen ($40 million) for airport improvements and freeway construction.

Even the unfinished and unvarnished elements of the Olympic complex are impressive. The Olympic Village is a vast development that has risen on a sweeping white plain outside Sapporo, a full community for Olympians that will have 23 five-story and two 11-story buildings. It will surely look like the Lefrak City of northern Asia. A $120.5 million subway system, with gleaming bulletlike aluminum trains, is also being built between downtown Sapporo and the Olympic Village about two miles away.

It must be said that even though Sapporo has all its civic ambition fluttering high for the Olympic project, not everyone is completely charmed by it all. Downtown Sapporo has been strangling in construction barricades and Hokkaido hard hats for months, making bad tempers and bad traffic somewhat routine. Also, a committee sworn to preserve the cherry trees of Japan has campaigned against the building of a boiler plant in the Olympic Village on grounds that its fumes could pollute and endanger the rare cherry trees on nearby Mount Sakurayama. One resident of the Makomanai district, where the Olympic Village subway rises from the ground, told a reporter, "Mount Sakurayama can no longer be viewed from my house. Birds no longer visit my garden. My TV images have begun to flicker. Isn't this a kind of environmental disruption?"

Well, whether the '72 Winter Olympics become an environmental disruption or another Japanese national triumph, along the lines of the 1964 Summer Olympics and Expo '70, remains to be seen, but last week's test-pattern competition went smoothly enough. Perhaps too smoothly. The Sapporo committee could well have used a good Siberian blizzard to test its ability to cope with an emergency. Almost no spectators attended some of the more remote events, and except for one splendid, angry traffic tangle just before the opening ceremonies—when cars were stopped for miles around to allow the crown prince's limousine a clear route—the maddening jams that have become routine for Olympics did not occur.

The competition last week was by no means of Olympic caliber, either—largely because World Cup Alpine races and world championships for other events were being held at about the same time in Europe. However, a few top-class athletes turned up to win the "inexpensive gold medal" that the Sapporo committee had modestly promised. The Russians' 1970 world champion cross-country contestants—men, women and relays—dominated their events. Franz Keller of West Germany, the 1968 Olympic combined Nordic events champion, won easily. Perhaps the best all-round field of entries came in ski jumping. There was Czechoslovakia's Jiri Raska, the 1968 Olympic champion at 70 meters, along with Russia's Vladimir Belousov, the '68 champion at 90 meters, and Russia's Gari Napalkov, the 1970 world championship winner in both events, as well as Norway's Ingolf Mork and Japan's Yukio Kasaya, who collected a silver medal in the 70-meter event last year.

For the Japanese, the rising sun climbed highest during the 70-meter jump at Miyanomori Hill. The stands were crowded and the slope alongside the landing run-out was carpeted with several thousand schoolchildren—all of them chattering excitedly together in a massed choir of high voices that sounded like a forest full of crickets. But when their hero, Kasaya, stood poised above them for his final jump, the children suddenly fell silent. Kasaya glided to the lip of the jump, launched himself powerfully, soared with immense grace above the crowd and landed with a firm clap of his skis. He sped into the run-out area, his hands clasped in triumph over his head. Suddenly the children's voices rose in delight and washed over Kasaya like a burst of music. He had won Japan's first gold medal of the week. Almost immediately Kasaya was squashed in a cursing stampede of Japanese photographers, who formed a flailing, angry human pyramid to shoot him—and may have won both the Olympic and world titles as the most brutal photographic corps on the planet. Later in the week Norway's Mork finished first off the 90-meter jump and Kasaya came home a creditable fourth.

The Alpine competitions were overwhelmed by Europeans. France's Annie Famose, now 26 and definitely middle-aged by racing standards, never stopped chewing gum as she won both the downhill and the giant slalom. Next, Annie raced to a second place in the slalom, just 1/100 second behind Rosi Mittermeier of West Germany. In the three women's Alpine events, Famose, Mittermeier and Jocelyne Périllat, France's dashing 15-year-old waif, shared all three medals. The men's downhill was won by an Italian customs agent named Marcello Varallo and the men's giant slalom went to that extremely veteran Frenchman, Georges Mauduit.

The U.S. sent a skeleton team to compete that managed to distinguish itself at the opening ceremonies by marching among the immaculately uniformed teams of other nationals in cool-and-casual wear that made the Americans look as though they had just been shopping at the Larchmont A&P. As expected, Julie Lynn Holmes won a gold medal in figure skating and America's slender 14-year-old Dorothy Hamill won a bronze. The only U.S. Alpine skiers to compete were Rosi Fortna, Hank Kashiwa and a cocky new boy from Anchorage, Alaska named Paul Crews. Given to wearing frayed and baggy ski pants and bearing a strong resemblance to Steve McQueen, Crews astonished everyone by winning a bronze medal in the downhill. When asked about his performance, he shrugged as if it were perfectly predictable, and said, "Listen, we deal in superlatives around here."

Once last week's dress rehearsal was over, Sapporo could begin to assess its performance—and its potential—as an international host. It was true that almost nobody beyond the plastic lobbies of Western-style hotels could speak any language but Japanese. And it was true that the snow on the streets had turned a depressing black, that a sour beige smog hung overhead much of the time and that every taxi driver in town had a streak of kamikaze in him. Yet no one could deny the charm and the hospitality of a city where the garbage trucks play gay music over loudspeakers, where the local dairy industry insists upon giving free milk to hung-over reporters at breakfast and where the children cry out hallo! to every gaijin (foreigner) they see.

Whatever happens, one can scarcely help wonder what might have become of Sapporo and the XI Winter Olympiad if William Smith Clark had simply said sayonara when he left town that day. Who knows? Perhaps a big Hokkaido bear would be holding forth in place of Avery Brundage.

TWO PHOTOSJapanese kids on skates released balloons at the opening ceremonies. Then stars like France's Annie Famose (left) went to work.PHOTOIce blocks form checker pattern on luge run.PHOTOThe vista of Lake Shikotsu and its surrounding hills creates a striking backdrop for the men's and women's downhill courses on Mount Eniwa.