SPECIAL REPORT

The Sprawling Games

FRANCE HOSTS ITS THIRD WINTER OLYMPICS, IN THE SAVOY ALPS

ANDREW PHILLIPS December 2 1991
SPECIAL REPORT

The Sprawling Games

FRANCE HOSTS ITS THIRD WINTER OLYMPICS, IN THE SAVOY ALPS

ANDREW PHILLIPS December 2 1991

The Sprawling Games

SPECIAL REPORT

FRANCE HOSTS ITS THIRD WINTER OLYMPICS, IN THE SAVOY ALPS

The first sight that greets a driver entering the modest French city of Albertville is a distinctly ugly aluminum factory. The second is an auto-wrecking yard. The town itself is a charmless industrial centre of 18,000 people at the foot of the Alps, where little snow falls even in the depth of winter. But on the southern edge of town, an array of new buildings—a stadium and two rinks—indicates that something special is taking place. On Feb. 8, the 16th Winter Olympics will open in homely, humdrum Albertville—perhaps the most unlikely site ever for the Games.

In fact, the Games will take place in a vast mountain playground that spreads over 620 square miles of Alpine peaks and valleys. Albertville itself will host only the figure skating and speed skating events, as well as the opening and closing ceremonies. The rest of the competitions will be fought out at sites in nine other villages as much as 118 km apart. Organizers have scattered the Games over the entire Savoy region to

give all of its deeply competitive valley communities a piece of the Olympic action. The result promises to be the most complex Winter Olympics ever, with the athletes’ feats rivalled only by the challenge of moving a million spectators over heart-stopping mountain roads through the February snows. “Of course it would be simpler to put everything in three locations, as they did in Calgary in 1988,” says Jean-Albert Corrand, director general of the Olympic organizing committee, known by its French initials COJO. “But the challenge here was to involve the whole region—and solving the problems that come with that.” Involving the whole region meant overcoming the traditional insularity of the Savoyards. Their Alpine home did not finally become part of France until 1860; previously, it was the domain of the dukes of Savoy, a dynasty noted for its strain of insanity. Older residents in some of the more remote villages still speak an Italian-influenced dialect that reflects centuries of close links with the people on the other side of the Alps. And it is not only language that sets the Savoyards apart. Even more than most mountain folk, they are renowned as a particularly prickly people

who are tight with money and suspicious of outsiders—even those from the next valley. Many Savoyards refer to newcomers, including people who have lived there for decades, as “Chinese.”

For years, tourism officials despaired as local residents hired to work the ski lifts and hotel counters refused even to smile at visitors. The area developed a distinct image problem. But with the Games in sight, many companies have sent their employees on compulsory hospitality courses. Still, acknowledged Emy Menez, who has run such courses for six years: “It’s an uphill battle. It doesn’t seem to come naturally for the Savoyards.”

The plan to win the Games for the Savoy region was born 10 years ago. In December, 1981, two of the region’s most dynamic figures— Jean-Claude Killy, the triple-gold-medal skier for France at the 1968 Winter Games in nearby Grenoble, and Michel Bamier, a rising star of local politics—announced a campaign to get the 1992 Games. Under Olympic rules, however, a region cannot bid for the competition. As a result, Killy, 48, and Barnier,

40, who is president of the Savoy's regional assembly, had to designate a host city. That raised a problem because of a traditional rivalry among the area’s ski resorts: singling out one as host would inevitably offend the others. The solution was to nominate Albertville, where the lack of a winter sports tradition made it acceptable to the rest. It was also the only town in the area with a sizable year-round population and easy road access.

But long-standing suspicions were not easily assuaged. Three months after winning the Games in October, 1986, Killy announced a plan to reduce the number of competition sites. It would have left two resorts—

Tignes and Les Menuires— with no events at all. The neglected towns organized furious protests, and Killy resigned as co-president of COJO (he returned in March, 1988). Barnier, cojo’s other co-president, put together a compromise that satisfied local honor: Tignes got freestyle skiing and Les Menuires will host the men’s slalom.

The rest of the events will be held at sites at eight other resorts ranging from bustling Val d’Isère (Killy’s home town and the site of men’s downhill skiing) to ritzy Courchevel (ski jumping) and Méribel (hockey and women’s downhill). The main Olympic Village will be in the spa town of Brides-les-Bains, while two other towns will serve as media centres.

The arrangement was politically adroit, but it presented the organizers with a logistical challenge of truly Olympian proportions. The Savoy road network had already lagged far behind the explosive growth of its ski industry, leading to infamous 12-hour traffic jams on the twisting two-lane roads linking the resorts. The solution was a massive program to upgrade the area’s roads and railways—almost $1 billion worth of government spending that packed what would normally have been 15 years of building into four. Now, a new four-lane highway links Albertville with Moûtiers, a third of the 85-km distance to Val d'Isère, and the mountain roads beyond Moûtiers have been widened. Upgraded railway tracks now bring high-speed passenger trains

directly from Paris into the heart of the mountainous region.

For the 16 days of the Games themselves, organizers have devised an intricate plan. They will close the final few kilometres of roads leading into competition sites to everything but essential traffic for two to three hours before and after events. A fleet of 1,200 buses will ferry spectators, officials and reporters among events, while an army of snow-clearing machines stands ready to keep the roads open. But transport is still the Games’ potential weak spot. Michael Hollett, 49, a Toronto native who has lived for 23 years in Grenoble and now acts as the Canadian team’s Olympic attaché and on-the-spot fixer, warns that a major blizzard could block access to the remoter sites like Val d’Isère for as long as 24 hours. Noted Hollett, who teaches computer studies at the University of Grenoble: “They have to blow the avalanches with dynamite before the roads can even be cleared, It’s the only part of the system that hasn’t been tested.”

The rugged relief of valleys alternating with high mountains means

that climatic conditions may vary considerably from site to site. Games officials and the French meteorological office have installed automatic weather stations throughout the Savoy region to improve the reliability and accuracy of forecasting during the Games. Organizers have also taken the precaution of scheduling key events, such as the men’s downhill competition, early in the Games to allow for postponements caused by bad weather. But that strategy, in turn, may create a spillover effect that would overload the transport system later on and create even worse road jams.

Many athletes will five at their competition sites to ensure that they, at least, turn up for the events. The Brides-lesBains Olympic Village will house only about 1,300 of the expected 2,000 athletes. That arrangement will ease transportation concerns, but some Canadian officials express fears that it may also undermine the competitors’ sense of being part of one Olympic team.

Other difficulties were more easily overcome. With the exception of the temporary stadium for the opening and closing ceremonies in Albertville, all event sites have been finished for months—in some cases, for two years. All the sports facilities have already been used for international competitions, during which problems were corrected as they arose.

All the sites are generally considered to be excellent, although Canadians in particular may find the hockey arena at Méribel somewhat claustrophobic. With only 6,500 seats, it is more like a large community rink than an Olympic venue. COJO officials even managed to keep within their budget of $850 million, despite major cost overruns in building the bobsled track at La Plagne and the ski jumps at Courchevel. Declared COJO director general Corrand: “Our mission is to deliver the Games on time and on budget.” Albertville seems close to meeting that promise.

ANDREW PHILLIPS in Albertville