We begin this coverage of the XVI Olympic Winter Games with a bad news/good news item out of Albertville, France, where the opening ceremonies will be held on Feb. 8.
The bad news is that, beginning on Dec. 21, a catastrophic storm battered the region for two days before howling away over the Alps, leaving the area buried beneath five feet of snow. Roads were blocked for two days along 60 miles of the Tarentaise valley, which has the 13 Olympic venues strewn along its length. Seven thousand people were stranded. Avalanches, big and small, broke loose everywhere—including one on the Olympic downhill course above the village of Val d'Isère. Another avalanche buried a hotel in the village, and a third roared into La Plagne, site of the bobsled and luge course, and killed two people.
The French Olympic organizers, the Comitè d'Organisation des Jeux Olympiques, known as COJO, were helpless in the face of this onslaught. Although the French government had invested nearly $1.1 billion to improve roads and streamline transportation in an attempt to prevent a traffic snafu during the Games, the ferocity of the blizzard was so overwhelming that officials were forced to close the valley's roads.
The good news is that storms of this enormousness occur, on average, only once every 5½ years in the Tarentaise. Surely the gods of winter would not cruelly hit the valley with a second such storm within two months, one that could wreck the XVI Olympic Winter Games. Still, COJO is keeping its fingers crossed.
If the weather is willing, it's possible that a great French success is looming in the rustic—some would say backward—region of the Alps know as the Savoie. Indeed, this odd little cul-de-sac may be about to emerge as a badly needed balm to the bruised national ego of France, which is suffering from a near double-digit unemployment rate and has seen its political and economic role in Europe steadily diminished by a unified Germany. Even the sophisticates of Paris have embraced these far-off mountain Games as a symbol of a new and aggressive sporting France. The country intends to bid seriously for the 1998 World Cup soccer tournament and may try for the Summer Olympics of 2000 or 2004, to be held in Paris.
There has been pressure on the Albertville organizers to do well in order not to damage these hopes. So far at least, the Savoyards have risen to the challenge, particularly the co-presidents of COJO, Jean-Claude Killy, 48, the triple gold medal skier from the Winter Games of 1968, which were held in nearby Grenoble, and Michel Barnier, 40, a member of the National Assembly who has gained considerable stature among his conservative Gaullist party compatriots.
After a few embarrassing foul-ups—the most celebrated being the leakage of noxious ammonia fumes from the refrigerated bob-luge run in La Plagne, which led to the issuance of gas masks to people who live near the track—preparations for the Games have proceeded with an amazing lack of dissent and dysfunction. As always, the cost of some facilities got out of hand, notably that of the bob-luge run, which escalated from an estimated $15.4 million to $40.5 million, and that of the ski jumps at Courchevel, which soared from $10.9 million to $24.9 million.
And, as always, there were the noisy naysayers, particularly some local politicians who felt COJO was usurping their power. Andrè Baudin, the mayor of Tignes, site of freestyle skiing, was furious with COJO's handling of the storm's aftermath, especially after they blocked the roads to traffic. Not only had five feet of snow shown up all of COJO's heralded road work, but it also deprived the towns of the tourism the Olympics were supposed to generate in the first place.
"They are constantly shoving sticks in our spokes," said Baudin. "They never ask the local mayors. They are making decisions with fear in their guts. If things don't get better on the coordination level, we are headed toward a huge failure with the Olympics."
Even if the Games experience some difficulties, they will be a landmark event. For starters, 1992 is the last year in which two Olympics will be held; the next Winter Games will be in 1994, in Lillehammer, Norway, followed by the Summer Games in Atlanta in 1996, followed by the Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, in 1998. Albertville also is the first Olympics at which the new world order will show its colors. The U.S.S.R. has been replaced by an all-democratic lineup of nations and non-nations that is made up of separate teams from Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, plus a loosely gathered group called the Unified Team of Former Soviet Republics. Yugoslavia will be competing, and two teams representing Slovenia and Croatia, breakaway republics of that war-torn country, have been invited to compete and most probably will. Thanks to this fragmentation of the Eastern European countries, Albertville is expected to surpass the 1988 record for participating teams, with as many as 65, eight more than were represented at the Calgary Games.
As always, though, the essence of the Games is the individual athletes. The star of Albertville should be cross-country skier Elena Vialbe, a powerful woman from the Unified Team. She is one of the last products to emerge from the once great Soviet sporting incubator. A native of Magadan, Siberia, and the mother of a four-year-old son, Vialbe, 23, could well win five medals—most of them gold.
She is not the only athlete who could take home multiple medals. Alberto Tomba of Italy, Marc Girardelli of Luxembourg, Petra Kronberger of Austria (page 50) and Vreni Schneider of Switzerland should each win a couple of golds in Alpine skiing, and Norway's Johann Olav Koss should do the same in speed skating.
That is what's in the Olympic crystal ball for now. One might see the same thing by gazing into the 1992 Winter Olympic medals themselves: The Albertville medals are made of crystal, with a sliver-thin rim of gold, silver or bronze. Whether this unusual construction is a matter of French thrift or French originality is a matter of debate. Still, if the medals are the only kind of crystal that falls on the Savoie region during the month of February, it will be good news indeed.