SPECIAL REPORT

The Olympic Dream

CHRIS WOOD December 2 1991
SPECIAL REPORT

The Olympic Dream

CHRIS WOOD December 2 1991

The Olympic Dream

SPECIAL REPORT

SWEAT AND PAIN ON THE TRAIL TO OLYMPIC GLORY

In legends worldwide, mountains are the dwelling place of gods. They inspire man-kind to scale their mysterious heights even as they expose the human frailty of those who make the attempt. That paradox may have led the ancient Greeks to dedicate their quadrennial athletic contest to the mythical deities who dwelled

on Mount Olympus, the highest peak in Greece. Certainly, it

will be at work in February, when athletes from more than 60

countries travel to the French Alps to compete in the 16th

winter edition of the modem Olympic Games. In a dozen sports

and nearly five times that number of events, 2,000 young men and women will give performances on ice and snow that, at

their best, will seem to transcend mortal ability. In fact, they are all-too-human Olympians, their fears and aspirations intensified by the expectant pride of nations. Many bear the visible scars of a young lifetime’s single-minded pursuit of the relentless Olympic standard: “Faster. Higher. Stronger.” And still, they will astonish.

The Olympic flame will ignite at Albertville, France, on Feb.

8, signalling the start of that country’s third Winter Games— the event was inaugurated at Chamonix, France, in 1924. They will be the first Winter Olympics since Calgary in 1988, and the last to fall in the same year as the Summer Games. In 1994, at Lillehammer, Norway, a new four-year cycle of Winter Games will begin, separated by two years from the Summer Olympics,

The Games in Albertville and nine other towns in France’s

I ream

Savoy region will also be the first Olympics since the Berlin Wall fell. For the first time since Hitler took the Olympic salute in Berlin in 1936, Germans will march into the arena under a single national flag.

Canadians, in the throes of an acrimonious constitutional debate, could conceivably be doing that for the last time in next year’s Olympics.

Under the clear sun of ancient Greece,

Olympic competitors dedicated themselves to training for 10 months before their games. The athletes who will do battle this winter in France have been planning their attacks on the outer limits of human performance for years. Most began their preparations, knowingly or not, in childhood. Now, with little more than two months left before the flags rise over Albertville, there is only enough time to smooth out a few wrinkles and rough spots—and to fight back fear.

Canadian figure skater Kurt Browning has a particular reason for nervousness.

Dazzling showmanship and legs that propel him through gravity-defying leaps and spins have carried Browning to three successive world championships. No one carries a larger share of Canada’s hopes for a gold medal in 1992. But the years have taken a toll on Browning’s ankles and back. On some days, he cannot jump at all without wincing in pain. In mid-November, Browning was in Albertville, testing the Olympic ice surface in a pre-Games international competition and rehearsing the performance that he hopes will capture the gold in February. But that competition left his damaged ankles and strained back in such pain that doctors advised him to suspend his training schedule in order to give the injured tissues time to recover. Even if Browning’s back responds to rest, he also confesses to fears that the mystique of the Games z themselves could defeat him (page 18).

Windsor, Ont., bobsledder Chris Lori g established his medal claim with a first§ place finish at a World Cup race in Calgary in November. In mid-December, Lori will I be in the Alpine village of La Plagne, site | of the Olympic bobsled run, trying to 5 memorize every ice-lined curve of the | track, replaying its corkscrew turns re= peatedly on videotape—and in his mind’s eye (page 22). In Calgary, meanwhile, skier Kerrin Lee-Gartner is snatching a few stabilizing days of home life with her husband before flying to Italy next week for the season’s first international World Cup race (page 24).

For every would-be medallist, the struggle is much the same: to preserve the discipline of training in the face of mounting distractions. As the Games near, demands for public appearances and an athlete’s own rising anticipation can throw the most carefully planned training regime into disarray. From his own experience, Canadian figure skater Brian Orser, a silver medallist at Calgary in 1988, advises athletes following in his steps to prepare for an emotional roller coaster in the weeks ahead of—and after—the

Games. Says Orser: “You are bookended by a high going in—and a low going out” (page 28).

No single clash of titans seems set to command attention in quite the same way as the duel between Orser and his American rival, Brian Boitano, dominated Calgary. Still, Browning will have to outskate the formidable Soviet Victor Petrenko if he is to fulfil his golden promise. And there are all the ingredients for a showdown between the diminutive and intense Midori Ito of Japan and American Tonya Harding: the two figure skaters are the only women in the world whose competition performances have included triple Axels—head-spinning jumps in which their bodies complete 3V2 rotations in the air. But they do not have a lock on the gold: France’s dynamic Surya Bonaly, who has

performed a quadruple jump in practice, and American Kristi Yamaguchi are also strong contenders. On the slopes, Austrian Petra Kronberger’s overall first-place finish in last year’s women’s World Cup of ski racing makes her the challenger that French home-town favorite Carole Merle—who took the 1990-1991 World Cup super giant slalom title— must defeat on the way to the medal podium.

For Canadians, the figure and speed skating arenas will produce some of the most exciting moments. Even before Browning’s expected first appearance on Feb. 13, the Canadian pairs duo of Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler—who finished first at a pre-Olympic tournament in Germany in mid-November—are likely to face Soviets Natalia Mishkutinok and Artur Dmitriev, last season’s world champions, in a runoff for gold. In the second week of the Games, attention will shift to short-track speed skaters, who will be competing for the first time for Olympic gold.

Quebec’s Sylvie Daigle will have a chance to better the world record that she set in the 500-m sprint event on the Albertville track on Nov. 16.

The cross-country trails at Les Saisies could produce yet another Canadian medal, from former Canadian army cadet Myriam Bédard. The Quebec athlete came second in last season’s World Cup series in the biathlon, a combination of cross-country skiing and marksmanship with roots in the winter tactics of Nordic infantry (page 20). And with the formidable Eric Lindros adding his skills to the Olympic hockey team, there is even the chance that Canada will break free of a losing streak in its own national sport: Canada last won a hockey gold in 1952 (page 46).

The ceremony opening the Games on Feb. 8 and the one 15 days later to extinguish the Olympic flame will both be held at Albertville. But the Games belong less to that industrial town of 18,000 people than they do to Savoy, a former duchy that sprawls across the slopes of the Alps to the west of 16,000foot Mont Blanc. Chamonix is also in Savoy and Grenoble, the 1968 site of France’s other Winter Olympics, is 50 km southeast of the region. All told, the various events as well as the Olympic Village and media centres will be scattered among 13 villages in the most widely spread Games ever held (page 34). But the distances that separate Olympic sites—as much as 118 km, from Val d’Isère (men’s Alpine skiing) to Les Saisies (Nordic events)—and the precarious switchbacks on the roads that connect them, have caused organizers continuing concern. Despite $1 billion in improvements to the area’s highways and rail service—and a reserve fleet of snowblowers—an Alpine blizzard could paralyse the Games (page 50).

Other, less tangible uncertainties also overhang the 1992 Olympics. Experts are divided over whether Germany’s newly united team will reflect the daunting athletic muscle which that country’s formerly Communist eastern half once fielded. Some say that the dismantling of East Germany’s hugely successful—but harshly authoritarian—sports regime has left its athletes disoriented and distracted. As for the Soviet Union, politics has split, rather than united, its crumbling team. The three Baltic states have reactivated dormant national Olympic committees and are planning to send separate Lithuanian, Estonian and Latvian

teams to Albertville. Their independence has already cost the Soviet hockey team its star goaltender, Latvian Artur Irbe. Other nominally independent Soviet republics may insist that their own flag and anthem accompany any of their athletes who mount the medal podium.

On a more sombre note, Quebec’s scheduled referendum on separation next fall could result in the Winter Olympics at Albertville, and the Summer Games that follow in July and August in Barcelona, seeing the last team from a united Canada. “It is sad but true,” laments Carol Anne Letheren, president of the Canadian Olympic Association. Added the former gymnast, now a marketing executive in Toronto: “When the political climate changes, sport will mirror it.”

Whatever the future allegiance of Canada’s athletes, more than 120 of

them will wear the Maple Leaf in France next February. The team that Canadian Olympic officials plan to announce officially on Jan. 20 will be the largest that the country has ever sent to the Winter Olympics—surpassing even the 117 who competed at Calgary. The anticipated presence among them of such stars as Browning and Bedard, Daigle and Lori, LeeGartner and Lindros, holds out the prospect of the country’s richest harvest of Winter Olympic medals, as well. Canada may also reap gold and silver in the demonstration sports of curling and speed skiing, as well as freestyle aerial and ballet skiing.

But the likelihood of Canadian athletes delivering their best medal performance ever at the Games also has an unsettling side. A new federal policy expected to be released in December will dramatically redirect public sports funding away from potential medal-wing ners, in favor of encouraging wider =j Canadian participation in sports I (page 32).

But even in the shadow of the Olympic flame itself, the human drama is often most gripping away from the medallists’ platform. For every medal awarded in February, nine athletes will depart in empty-handed disappointment. Many will then face a difficult choice between abandoning their Olympic dream and keeping it alive for another try at Lillehammer—with just a two-year wait instead of the usual four. For a handful of the most desperate athletes, the drive to win at any cost at Albertville may expose a more sinister flirtation—with illegal chemical shortcuts to victory.

Doping is only the most Faustian, however, of the uneven bargains that every Olympic athlete makes with an exquisitely conditioned—and often appallingly abused—body. The pursuit of the Olympic standard makes fierce demands on human bone and sinew. The strains show. Browning’s ankles no longer absorb the immense force of his body’s impact on the ice at the end of his dazzling jumps, which instead resonates painfully up his legs to his spine. Surgeons have reconstructed both of Lee-Gartner’s knees after she damaged them in spectacular falls. Lori’s battered face testifies to a brush with death when his bobsled flipped at a track in Italy in 1987.

But the high price of Olympic glory should surprise no one. The gods have always demanded sacrifices of those who seek their favor.

CHRIS WOOD