February 13, 1991
We decide to begin the journal of our journey through the land of the Winter Olympics at a point of maximum drama: the night we meet Nicole, a leather-loving snowmobile driver/hostess/fashion plate, for drinks, dinner and an evening of kinky entertainment at a wilderness refuge somewhere in the vast Pare National de la Vanoise in the French Alps.
The we in this journal is literally an editorial we—a writer, a photographer and a reporter from SI. We are embarking on this trip in the Savoie region of France in order to sample the weather, the roads, the hotels, the history, the pleasures and the pains of travel here and report to the outside world what visitors to the 16th Winter Olympics might look forward to, or not.
Our first advice to tyro voyagers in the Savoie: The items you will need most are 1) a car with front-wheel drive and chains, since you will be driving on some of the steepest, slipperiest, narrowest goat paths in the civilized world, and 2) a really thick—no less than two inches—paperback French and English dictionary.
You must also have maps, which will show you that the Savoie is a mountainous section of eastern France that borders on Lake Geneva and Switzerland to the north and northeast, the Italian Alps to the east and the Rhone River to the northwest, and that the Olympics will be held in an area of mean, gorgeous terrain covering the northeast quarter of the Savoie. This is known as the Tarentaise valley, a 60-mile gash cut through the Alps by the Isere River. At the top of the Tarentaise is Val d'Isère, a village huddled high in a pocket surrounded by peaks with passes that lead to Italy. The Tarentaise from Val d'Isere down is fitted with a slender, curling two-lane highway that is clotted with traffic during storms or big skiing weekends. Smaller roads with hairpin switchbacks over precipitous drops lead off the main highway and up, up, up to tiny, isolated resort villages that contain most of the Olympic venues, of which there are 13.
At the lower end of the Tarentaise, the two-lane road becomes a mighty 26-mile freeway that sweeps into the Games' host city, which is, unfortunately, a numbingly drab depotoir ("dump") called Albertville. This is the logical spot to start our pre-Olympic scouting trip, but we already know that we don't much care for the place, so we begin on a higher plane, heading 30 miles up the highway to our rendezvous with Nicole.
It has snowed during the afternoon. We must ascend a heart-stopper of a road that lacks any semblance of pre-Olympic improvement (widened corners, protective barricades over sheer drops) because it leads only to the infinitesimal village of Peisey-Nancroix, which has nothing to do with the Games. The hamlet is situated on the edge of the Pare National de la Vanoise, a nationally protected region of 13,096 acres that was declared forever wild in 1963 and has no ski lifts or groomed trails or resorts.
The climb is uneventful except for the moment a lunatic French snowplow driver roars down the hill on the wrong side of the road, merrily blasting snow onto the other side as he rounds a switchback. We skid maybe 50 feet and stop roughly four inches from the prow of the plow, which could have cleaved our radiator like a watermelon. The plow driver leans out of his cab and says, "Pardon!"
The day is darkening when we arrive in Peisey-Nancroix. We find a tiny cafè in an open area at the edge of the park. Nicole is not there, although it is already past the appointed hour of 5 p.m. We sip red wine and look out at the silent woods as the time passes. Finally, at 6:15, we are startled by a fierce snarling sound outside. It is Nicole on her moto à neige ("snowmobile"). We had, of course, visualized a French frontierswoman—red-nosed, wintry-cheeked, wrapped in wool and sheepskin, and wearing big, furry frostproof boots that leave tracks like those made by the abominable snowman. We had visualized wrong.
Nicole is willowy and stylish, dressed to the nines in an outfit that would easily pass muster on the Champs-Elysèes any winter day or night: trim leg-hugging leather pants, a bright, multicolored jacket, gold necklaces showing at the collar, a pair of knee-high, fur-lined leather boots and a fashionably sassy raccoon cap complete with tail. She hands us a luminous teal-blue business card with her name, NICOLE PORRAZ, in delicate black script above a graceful abstract design.
She tells us that a ski safari of German businessmen who have been trekking through the park all day will arrive momentarily, and she will drag us all on towlines behind her snowmobile to Rosuel, the refuge in the park that she manages for the government. The German group arrives, exhilarated and yodeling, and we all line up to ski behind Nicole. There is a mischievous smile on her face. She boards her machine and quickly accelerates, giving us a high-speed bucking ride through the woods. There are half a dozen people on the towline, and, of course, the front skier loses his balance and falls, causing everyone else to flop into a clownish pile in the snow. The wilderness rings with German curses and French and American laughter. Then we all rise and finish the mile-long trip.
Rosuel is a large log lodge with a fire burning in the raftered main room. A couple of Nicole's assistants are stirring a pot on the stove that contains ham that has been cooked on a bed of hay for seven hours. A bed of hay? Really? Nicole shows us the hay. She says cheerfully, "One shouldn't expect very good cooking in a mountain hut."
It is a robust meal with many bottles of Savoyard wine. We have arrived during Fasching, the German carnival, and the German trekkers have brought all the paraphernalia for a classic Fasching fete—costumes, wigs, makeup, funny hats and, believe it or not, an accordion. One of the skiers, wearing lipstick and a feathered hat, squeezes out a rollicking German drinking song and explains jovially to us, "We bring our own nightclub in our rucksacks."
Nicole gazes at the silly-looking revelers, who are dressed like Tyrolean trolls and Paris streetwalkers, and she chuckles. "Only Germans do this," she says.
Nicole, wearing the same fur cap, gold necklaces, leather pants and boots, serves us breakfast, and we hook up behind her snowmobile for the return trip. When we reach Peisey-Nancroix, heavy snow is falling, and we learn that Europe is under siege. This, of course, is what most concerns French Olympic organizers—a horrendous blizzard that could shut down access to the venues and side valleys of the Tarentaise, bringing the whole grand operation to a snowbound halt. We wonder what this storm will show about Olympic traffic. But first we must drive our car down the same slippery ribbon of switchbacks and unfenced drop-offs that we came up.
It is about five miles down, and it takes us more than an hour and a half. Included in the thrilling trip is an encounter with a yacht-sized tour bus that has stopped on a hairpin turn so the driver can put on chains. This would be crisis enough, but the driver is lying under the rear tires with his legs stretched across half the snow-filled road. We honk softly. For some reason, he refuses to move his legs so we can pass. We honk again. Two dozen passengers are huddled along the road. They rail at us about crushing les jambes of the driver. We rant back. The legs don't move. We inch grimly ahead, assuming that he will move his legs when he feels our tires against them. The passengers shout louder, in ever greater alarm. We yell back. We keep rolling. Apparently the driver moves his legs. We hear no screams of pain as we proceed past the bus and on down the steep road.
Once on the main road, we drive to Val d'Isère. The snow is worse, almost blinding, but snowplows and sanding trucks have done their work, and traffic is moving at a stately pace. We feel reassured about the prospects of carrying off a bad-weather Olympics. When we reach Val d'Isère, everything higher than the rooftops is invisible in the storm. We know that above us there is an enormous ski area with 109 lifts over 185 miles of ski-able terrain. It is named Espace Killy after the local hero, Jean-Claude Killy, winner of three gold medals at the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble and copresident of the Comitè d'Organisation des Jeux Olympiques, which is running the '92 Winter Games.
We can't ski in such snow, so we go to a restaurant that we know Killy himself likes—La Grande Ourse. It is situated in a wood-and-stucco chaletlike building on the edge of the village, where the ski slopes end. It serves down-home mountain food, and we have beef stew, bread, the house red wine. Killy is not there, but we are joined by an old friend of ours, French ski journalist Patrick Lane, an expert with strong opinions on just about every aspect of ski racing.
Out of sight today, along with everything else above the village, is the Olympic men's downhill course, which is expected to be one of the jewels of the Games. It begins in a nearly vertical rocky chute at the very top of Bellevarde mountain and falls in a visually spectacular cascade of bumps and turns, almost all of which—on a clear day—are visible from the bottom. So far, because weather has caused cancellations, the course has not been run in World Cup competition, and it is thus something of a mystery. We ask Patrick what he knows of it. "In the early '50s people ran downhills on this slope, but never from the very top, because it was too dangerous. Now it is considered very safe, even though you go 85 miles per hour right off the top. But it is not easy. It is difficult to memorize, with so many turns and jumps. It is also very tricky, because of the weather. If you don't have blue skies, you cannot race on this hill. Visibility is a big problem. They were even thinking of putting big lamps alongside the course to put shadows around the bumps and the rocks."
The course was designed by Bernhard Russi, the great Swiss downhiller of the 1970s, but contemporary downhill racers are not ecstatic over Russi's creation. "They complain that you are never scared, that you don't need big balls to win on this hill," says Lang. "However, it'll be a fantastic show for spectators. You can see 90 percent of the entire race from the bottom. There's never been anything like that."
We drive to Albertville. When it was selected five years ago by the IOC, Albertville was arguably the least inviting community chosen to host the Winter Games since 1972, when they went to Sapporo, a formless urban blob of a million people on Japan's northernmost island, Hokkaido. In late 1986, Albertville had only 17,000 people, and it didn't sprawl and stink like Sapporo, but it had a pervasively industrial quality to it. Though mountains loom near, Albertville was never a resort town, and truckers outnumbered skiers or hikers on any day, winter or summer.
Now, more than five years later, Albertville is a little brighter, because most main-street shops have been painted; a little quainter, with Victorian street lamps installed on a couple of newly cobblestoned shopping streets: a little trendier, with the opening of some antique stores and the brasserie St. Michel, a warm and woody combination of British pub and American saloon that has a sing-along piano and 71 brands of beer from 15 countries, including Bud en bo‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√úte ("in a can").
But the town is still dowdy—and why should it be anything else? The crafty Olympic organizers hoped that by selecting a place so nondescript, they would avoid the flaming jealousies that would blaze up and down the Tarentaise if they chose one of the more attractive resorts in the valley over the others.
Before we lose all faith in Albertville, we visit a monument, the restaurant at the H‚Äö√†√∂¬¨•tel Million. Since 1980, it has held a two-star rating in the biblical judgment of the Guide Michelin, but the establishment has been in business since 1770. The Million is not named for a lucky number: Million was, and is, the name of the family that has owned the hotel for, lo, these 222 years. The current Million heir is Philippe, 51, a tall, spare fellow who, as a chef, follows in the footsteps of many other Millions. The line could have been broken when Philippe's father, Ferdinand, died at the age of 39 after he was taken prisoner by the Nazis in World War II, but Philippe's mother and aunt kept the restaurant going—brilliantly—until he was ready. In 1966 Philippe cooked in Paris under the master chef Raymond Oliver at his three-star restaurant, Grand Vefour, and then he came home to the Million. The restaurant received its first Michelin star in 1969, and Philippe became head chef a year later. "I wanted two stars," he tells us, "but what delayed it was the quality of our service. We weren't clearing tables after each course. I changed that. Now we have two stars, but there is no guarantee we will keep them. The criteria of the Michelin people are very serious and very mysterious. I don't know how often they come, but whether they are here or not, I cook according to my taste, more classic than nouvelle, more harmonious than sensational."
There is one small note of discord in the harmonies of the Restaurant Million: Philippe and his wife, Renèe, are childless. Will the long line of Millions come to an end? "No," says Philippe with a smile, "we have nine nephews and we expect some of them to take over."
We lunch at the Million—brilliantly—on fricandeau de veau, le far‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√ºon aux pommes croustillantes (veal stew with crisp potatoes) and feuillantine de homard (lobster in puff pastry). We leave Albertville at about 3 p.m. under clean blue skies. We drive 20 miles on the new thruway, take a right and climb until we are well above the eaves—if not quite to the peak—of le toit d'Europe (the roof of Europe), as the guidebooks call the Alps. Our destination tonight is the highest resort on the Continent, a cold, lonely hamlet called Val Thorens. From there, we will ski the largest ski area on earth, a territory known as Les Trois Vallees ("The Three Valleys").
On the way up the Vallèe des Belleville, we pass through the resort of Les Menuires, a busy cluster of stark, boxy buildings above the tree line. It was built in the mid-'60s and is the site of the Olympic men's slalom. We don't like the look of it.
A five-mile labyrinth of hairpins and another 1,590 vertical feet farther up, we come to Val Thorens. Its architecture isn't a great improvement on Les Menuires', but its setting is so dramatic in the deepening afternoon sunlight that it is as if we are arriving at a golden Oz of the Alps. The village is at 7,500 feet and sits in stunning isolation, a speck of human presence in a panorama of raw mountain beauty.
There was nothing at all here until 1972. Christine Goitschel, who grew up skiing in Val d'Isère and won two medals in the '64 Games, came to Val Thorens in '72 with two small daughters and her husband, Jean Bèranger, who had been her coach. Christine recalled, "Jean and I were asked by the national minister of education to create a resort here. It was so beautiful that it was like a dream, but it was so difficult. We were like pioneers. There were blizzards here that lasted for a week, never stopping for even a few hours. There was no doctor, no pharmacy. We carried up all of our food. First we built the lifts to the near peaks, then a cable car up the glaciers for summer skiing. Then we started the hotels and the buildings. There were so many challenges, but we overcame all of them. Not many years ago, this was a poor valley full of poor people. But with two resorts, the valley isn't poor anymore. All the people have found work."
Godforsaken though this last resort is, we find its creature comforts to be remarkably pleasing. We stay in a four-star hotel, the Fitz Roy, full of warm wood, warm people and blazing hearths. And as an end-of-the-world cold night falls over the lonely village, we sigh, "Toujours Val Thorens."
Even in the morning sun, it is four below zero, and riding the Trois Vallees chairlift above Val Thorens to a bare ridge 10,827 feet high is a bitter trip. Frostbite could occur in a matter of minutes. We cover up but still peek about. We see an entire horizon of monumental peaks. At the saddle above Val Thorens we can see, roughly 40 miles to the north, higher than anything else in Western Europe, the thick-shouldered white giant, Mont Blanc.
Though it is by far the most famous tourist sight in the Savoie, Mont Blanc is part of the Vallèe de Chamonix, not the Tarentaise, and it will play no direct part in the '92 Olympics. It was this mass of snow and stone and ice, however, that originally made these Alps user-friendly to the outside world. In 1741, a pair of intrepid young British mountaineers named Windham and Po-cock found their way to the Chamonix valley and came upon the monster face of Mont Blanc. They climbed on it and proceeded to write so thrillingly about its ice fields that outdoorsmen from all over Europe rushed to the scene. This turned the Savoie into the first tourist playground in Europe "a full 100 years before travelers discovered the C‚Äö√†√∂¬¨•te d'Azur," according to local tourist-office propaganda.
Now, more than two centuries later, we have the wonder of the Trois Vallèes ski area, whose 40,000 acres stretch away so far below us that they seem to be half the size of Antarctica. The area has 350 miles of ski runs, 190 lifts and an hourly lift capacity of 200,000, which is more than all the resorts of Colorado and Utah combined. We are way above the tree line as we start skiing down from the ridge above Val Thorens, and we have a giddy sensation of being weightless in a vast white outer space.
At lunchtime, we are in Mèribel, site of the women's Alpine skiing events. We meet Georges Mauduit, 51, a dashing fellow who was one of the fine French ski racers of the '60s. Owner of a sporting-goods store in Mèribel, he is an Olympic volunteer working for Killy, his old friend and teammate. He recalls his days as a ski racer this way: "What a life! Always in sunshine, always in four-star hotels, always in jet planes or sports cars." And he speaks of current events with equal zest: "These Olympics are of inestimable value! Roads are better, the high-speed trains run from Paris, the region is throbbing with progress. The economy is growing—there are eight, maybe 10 more golf courses and driving ranges in the Tarentaise. This region was so poor once that it cannot be described. But now? People are prosperous, people are grateful."
We ski through the brilliant afternoon far behind the streaking skis of Mauduit. As it grows late, we make an intricate series of connections on lifts and wind up skiing to Courchevel, in the next valley. We have reservations at the Byblos, which is reputed to be the best hotel in the Tarentaise. We decide this had better be true when we learn that the cost of a single room for a single night is $545. Of course, that includes breakfast, we are assured.
The rooms are pleasantly decorated but not large, not memorable. The lobby, bar and restaurant are spacious yet cozy. We do not faint with pleasure. If it cost $245 a night, perhaps we would. But Courchevel is a jet-set destination frequented by the rich and the profligate, who think that paying far too much for things is half the fun. We have been told that the IOC has engaged the entire hotel to serve as its Royal and Ancient clubhouse during the Games.
So we shrug about the price until...
...the following morning, during breakfast, when we take a spoonful of scrambled eggs and a strip of bacon and find $10 added to our $545 room bill for this "extra" portion of food. Met with shrugs and cold eyes by the desk clerks when we question such a two-bit item, we leave without tipping but feel that we still didn't make our point. Sometime later, we learn that the IOC has decided not to stay exclusively at the Byblos after all. This is not due to the absurd price of eggs and bacon, but we feel vindicated—sort of.
At yesterday's lunch in Mèribel, we met Jean-Marie Choffel, an affable history buff who is director of the town's tourist office, and now we drive back to interview him. We have been reading guidebooks to the area, and in one we have come across this bleak paragraph: "In the past, Savoie was considered a poor region, where the living was hard and where the people were rough in manners and lacking in culture, and often suffered from goiters from drinking snow water. In the late-19th century, that was about all that the rest of France knew about Savoie." We ask Choffel if things were really that bad. He begins our history lesson in perfect idiomatic English: "You must realize that the Savoie has been a part of France for no time at all—only since 1860—not even as long as our Caribbean possessions, which we got in the 17th century. The Savoie was a part of Italy for centuries, a mixed-up place where sometimes the borders were nothing but heirlooms from family feuds, and power came in and out of the region from many different points. For such a backwater place, it has had a pretty lurid history."
He speaks in a lovely flowing stream of consciousness about past centuries of life in the Savoie. He tells us about ancient Mo‚Äö√†√∂¬¨‚Ñ¢tiers, now a bustling town on the new superhighway from Albertville, which will be the TV and broadcast headquarters for the Olympics. But Moutiers began life in the fifth century as a settlement huddled around a monastery, and in the ninth century Charlemagne made it one of the six capitals of his Holy Roman Empire. Thereafter Moutiers was referred to elegantly as an "ecclesiastical metropolis."
Choffel speaks of Bourg-St-Maurice, another ancient town, 20 miles up the valley. It lies at a historically strategic crossroad leading to Italy via the Petit-St-Bernard pass, which Julius Caesar used to advance his legions in 45 B.C. and which Hannibal may have crossed with his elephants in 218 B.C.
Choffel tells of the invasion of the Saracens—nomads from the deserts between Syria and Arabia—who looted and roamed these parts in the eighth century. He tells us about Humbert of the White Hands, a count who in 1034 founded the noble House of Savoie, which lasted more than 900 years, until the abdication of King Umberto II of Italy in 1946. Why "white hands"? Choffel does not know why. He tells us about Amèdèe VII, a fighting duke of Savoie, who extended his reign all the way from Piedmont to Nice in the 14th century and was called the Red Count, because he was always covered in blood. He tells how the Savoie at various times came under the dominion of Sicily, Sardinia and France.
He goes on and on, and it all seems like some mad, glamorous old Technicolor drama played out on a drive-in movie screen. But beneath the royal politics and skulduggery, there were darker layers of life, Choffel says: "Living in the mountains was always hard. In the Middle Ages entire villages of Savoyards moved up and down the mountainsides with the seasons, living up high in summer so their livestock could feed on the Alpine grass, going lower in winter to houses that the villagers shared with their cattle for warmth. And in the 18th century some peasants were so poor that they could not afford to keep their children during the winter. They sent them out of the mountains with traveling bands of chimney sweeps supervised by men who were sometimes real-life Fagins. The children were small and agile, ideal for chimneys. Many of them never came home. They died or perhaps they took up lives of crime in the cities."
However, Choffel explains, it wasn't all Dickensian tragedy in these mountains: "The literacy rate was unusually high among Savoyards because in the winter, grandmothers taught those kids who were still around to read. Savoyards were good, at transporting things through the mountains. This led to some smuggling, of course, but even today Savoyards are big in transportation in France, owning truck fleets and such. And, because they transport most important works of art, they are important in art auctioning."
We leave the loquacious Savoy savant and drive down the switchbacks to the main road below. It is about noon, and we turn up the next valley to La Plagne, where the bobsled and luge events will be held. A light snow is falling, but halfway up, we break through clouds into a vast dazzling ski landscape. La Plagne is yet another mammoth area, in which 106 lifts connect 130 miles of trails with an hourly capacity of 75,000 skiers. The valley includes 10 connected resorts, each architecturally different from the others.
Plagne-Centre is made of boxy apartments, Plagne-Bellec‚Äö√†√∂¬¨•te of "castles" decorated with larchwood and towers, Belle-Plagne of chaletlike apartment blocks, Plagne-Villages of peaked-roof Savoy-style apartments. Some of this is lovely, some awful, but at the very top resort, Aime-la-Plagne, we come upon what is certainly the most mind-blowing building in the whole Tarentaise. It is a huge wood-and-concrete complex of 850 apartments that is designed to look like the last thing you'd expect to find parked in the snow above the tree line: an ocean liner.
We stare in disbelief, have a lunch of cr‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢pes jambon and white wine in a restaurant in the bowels of the great ship and go skiing for the rest of the day, until it is time to drive to the village of Tignes for the night.
And a very black and snowy night it was. The storm began just before evening, as we were driving in from La Plagne, and now, as we arise, we find close to a foot of snow on everything. We are staying at a decidedly low-rent, though snug, hotel called Le Refuge, where everything is modest, including the price ($25 a night) and the size of many rooms (about the square footage of a pool table).
Tignes, which is eight miles down the valley from Val d'Isère, will be the site of the Olympic freestyle skiing. Once upon a time, there was another Tignes—a medieval mountain village with an ancient stone church—but the place was ticketed for destruction in 1952 when the Tignes Dam was built and the waters of the resulting man-made Lake Chevril covered the town. People say sadly: Tignes s'est noyè ("Tignes was drowned"). At any rate, the medieval Tignes was replaced in 1956 by the modern Tignes, and it is awful to behold.
Even the Dictionnaire d'Amboise: Pays de Savoie, a generally upbeat encyclopedia of the region, knocks Tignes hard, describing it as being, in the beginning, full of the "big, soulless, city-style buildings that were so eagerly demanded by people seeking cheap apartments." The Dictionnaire insists things got better after that, but we are studying the architecture today and even though the town lies beneath a foot of snow, which should soften and beautify everything, we are appalled. We are looking at a classic example of the stark stacked-box architecture once described by Henrik Bull, an American designer of ski homes, as Brutalist Bauhaus.
Though Tignes' buildings are more brutal than most, we realize that we have been looking at all sorts of architectural garbage all over the Tarentaise. As we shovel our car out of knee-deep snow, we wonder if there is some relationship between the relentless tastelessness of modern French architecture and the relentless tastelessness of Jerry Lewis, whom the French absolutely adore. We agree that there is an unmistakable Jerry Lewis-ness to much of the new Olympic architecture—particularly the white-ice-cube-warehouse design of Olympic headquarters in Albertville. Can all French bad taste be blamed on Jerry Lewis?
We find great promise in this premise, but it is too profound to pursue in a snowstorm. We put chains on the front wheels of our car and begin, reluctantly and very slowly, the treacherous descent to the valley. The snow is so heavy that it covers the road within minutes after snowplows clean it off. We speak little during the hour it takes us to crawl the 10 miles to the main valley road. Our knuckles are white all the way down, and we wonder vaguely if this could be how Humbert of the White Hands got his name.
We leave the Tarentaise and the Savoie until the Olympics—which happen to be the third Winter Games held in France.
Of course, Games Number 1 were in 1924 in Chamonix, beneath the scowling face of Mont Blanc. In those days, winter sports were pretty much the province of the rich and idle, and those Games were played out in a unique social mix of high sophistication and raw naivetè. The spectators were the sophisticates, the athletes the hicks. Roger Frison-Roche, who lived in Chamonix at the time and went on to become one of the Savoie's most beloved writers, recalled that at evening events, black tie was routinely required for all guests—except athletes, who could attend wearing team uniforms. Most of the 294 athletes were neophyte travelers. Einar Landvik, a Norwegian skier, recalled, "We were very unsure about French food, so we brought our own Norwegian goat cheese with us, just in case."
The opening parade was a happy straggle of Olympians, local mountain guides and volunteer fire fighters. The bleachers were half-filled for the opening ceremonies, and during the entire 12 days of the Games, only 10,044 tickets were sold, an average of 837 a day. But everyone loved the event. Speed skater Charlie Jewtraw, a Lake Placid, N.Y., boy who won the first gold medal in these first Winter Games, said simply, "It was like a fairy tale."
The second French Winter Olympics had less charm. They were held in 1968 in Grenoble, a big (pop. 250,000) town 40 miles south of Albertville that was known as a center of the French electronics and nuclear industries and a major producer of gloves. What Grenoble was not was a winter resort. The bobsled run was 37 miles out of the city, and Alpine skiing was 20 miles away.
Odd things happened in Grenoble. Roger Vadim, the movie director (then married to Jane Fonda), was appointed the official "social director" of the Games. Though Vadim had nothing to do with it, female Olympians were required for the first time to submit to random saliva tests to prove they were indeed female. IOC president Avery Brundage was so adamant about keeping commercialism off the ski slopes—he tried to outlaw visible manufacturers' labels on equipment and clothing—that the great French ski coach Honore Bonnet said, "If M. Brundage has his way, our racers will be performing in fig leaves." Grenoble was a French success largely because of Killy's three gold medals. But people today recall it as an event that was essentially soulless.
It is likely that the Games of Albertville will be better than those of Grenoble. "These Olympics are in the mountains, in the snow, not in the center of a city that is busy going to work every day," says Christine Goitschel. Attaining the charm and simplicity of Chamonix is, of course, out of the question.
But whatever happens here in February '92, the Savoie and the Tarentaise have come a long way: from starvation to two-star restaurants, from drinking snow water to swigging champagne and, yes, from the rule of Humbert of the White Hands to the reign of Killy of the Golden Medals. To the hosts of the Games, we hoist the classic toast: A votre sante. And to that we add: N'importe quoi se passe, on en peut toujours accuser Jerry Lewis ("Whatever goes wrong, blame it on Jerry Lewis").