OLYMPICS

Golden moments

Igniting the flame of the Winter Olympics

ANDREW PHILLIPS February 17 1992
OLYMPICS

Golden moments

Igniting the flame of the Winter Olympics

ANDREW PHILLIPS February 17 1992

Golden moments

Igniting the flame of the Winter Olympics

OLYMPICS

Lloyd Eisler and Isabelle Brasseur were getting their first look at the arena where they will compete for Olympic gold this week. Inside Albertville’s futuristic Ice Hall, Canada’s leading hopes for a medal in the sport of pairs figure skating went through their routine one more time—getting accustomed to the feel of the

9,000-seat arena that will host the most glamorous events of the 16th Winter Games. “It’s the perfect size for us,” Eisler said enthusiastically moments after he came off the ice, his forehead beaded with sweat from the 45-minute session. “It’s very intimate, and that makes it easier to involve the audience and get them on your side.”

After making the final adjustments to their two-minute,

40-second short program,

Eisler said, he and Brasseur were as ready as possible.

“Right now,” he added with a broad smile, “we’re exactly where we want to be.”

The rest of the 2,200 athletes from 64 nations who gathered last week at the foot of the French Alps for the 16day Games could have said the same. For many, simply earning the right to compete in Albertville and the nine other towns in the mountainous Savoy region that are hosting this year’s Winter Olympics was a triumph in itself. And for some—such as those from the newly independent Baltic states—taking part in the Games was as much a public affirmation of their freedom as a celebration of their athletic ability.

But for the top medal contenders like Eisler and Bras-

seur, along with their fellow Canadian figure skater Kurt Browning, the expectations are much greater—and so is the pressure to win. Their moments of truth come early in the Games. After skating their short program on Sunday, Feb. 9, Eisler and Brasseur were scheduled to perform their final, long program on Tuesday. Their chief rivals will be the current world champions, Russian

skaters Artur Dmitriev and Natalia Mishkuteniok—setting up a showdown between the Canadians’ aggressive, athletic approach and the Russians’ more artistic style. Then, on Thursday, Feb. 13, and Saturday, Browning will compete for the men’s figure skating gold.

As world champion for the past three years, the 25-year-old Browning, from Caroline,

Alta., carries more hopes for Canada at the Albertville Games than any other athlete. But he faces stiff competition from the likes of Ukrainian Victor Petrenko and American Todd Eldredge—as well as questions about the effect of a back injury on his Olympic performance. The injury has kept Browning out of competition since November and forced him to

miss last month’s Canadian championships. But when he arrived in Albertville last week,

Browning appeared confident— and even cocky. He insisted that his back was fine, adding that he had made a major change to the short program that he will skate on Thursday. Browning will substitute a more difficult triple Lutz jump for the triple flip he normally performs, making his routine more challenging in a bid to impress the Olympic judges. However, Browning has not performed the triple Lutz in competition since 1987, making the change a major gamble for the Canadian skater. But Browning said his biggest worry is his three-month break from competition. “I just hope that in the competitive moment, I’m here,” he said, putting a finger to his temple.

Even before the Olympics were officially opened, Canada’s hockey team, featuring controversial junior superstar Eric Lindros, was in action in the first event of the Games. The team survived a scare from the lightly regarded French squad to post a 3-2 victory—thanks to the spectacular play of goalie Sean Burke.

A few hours later, French President Francois Mitterrand declared the Games open after a ceremony that exceeded even the usual Olympic standards of flashy showmanship. Above a makeshift stadium on the out skirts of Albertville, eight stunt Dianes diDDed and rolled over-

It also provided moving signs of the enormous political changes that have produced a new world order in Olympic sports since the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary. Teams from the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—officially recognized only last week by the International Olympic Committee during a pre-Games session in the Olympic resort of Courchevel—proudly paraded their national

head trailing multicolored smoke. Sixty-four performers on roller blades-one for each team participating in the Games-trailed team flags. Each team was led into the arena by a young woman attired in a transparent neck-toknee plastic bubble filled with artificial snow flakes. Canada's 117 athletes, outfitted in un usual white-and-purple outfits instead of the country's traditional red-and-white sporting colors, marched behind a Maple Leaf flag borne by 29-year-old Sylvie Daigle of Sherbrooke, Que., a short-track speed skater who is one of Canada's top medal hopes. Later, the Canadian contingent started an impromptu wave that eventually swept the 34,000 spectators-and brought even the normally reserved Mitter rand to his feet.

banners. Competitors from the onetime Yugoslav republics of Croatia and Slovenia also made their Olympic debut. And athletes who once marched behind the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union paraded in Albertville behind the five-ringed Olympic flag as the Unified Team of the former Soviet republics of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. And there were the oddities that traditionally add spice to the Winter Games: the Jamaican bobsled team that became a sliding legend in Calgary, along with two skiers from steamy Senegal and one from Swaziland. “When you’re on the ice, it’s like any other competition,” said Olympic veteran Brasseur. “But outside, with all the people and all the flags, you know you’re part of something very, very big.”

For others, the Olympic experience seemed a bit overwhelming. The young pairs figure skating team of Kris Wirtz and Sherry Ball qualified for Canada’s Olympic team only in mid-January at the national championships, but they appeared to be making up in enthusiasm what they lack in experience. “We weren’t

even expecting to be here,” said Ball, a 90-lb. skater, who at 16 is the youngest member of the Canadian team (she turns 17 on Feb. 15, during the Games). “We were heading for 1994 or even 1998.” Wirtz, a 22-year-old from Marathon, Ont., could hardly contain his excitement after a practice session at the Ice Hall left him drenched in sweat and glowing with enthusiasm: “I’m just like, ‘Wow, here we are at the Olympic Games.’ It’s a dream.”

Others had different reasons to celebrate. Nikolay Koter litzov left his native Bulgaria two years ago—after the country’s democratic revolution—and moved to Canada. A former coach of Bulgaria’s national biathlon team, Koter litzov persuaded Canada’s Olympic biathlon team to hire him as its coach in May. Last week, he found himself in Albertville in charge of a team with a hot medal prospect in the sport that combines cross-country skiing with marksmanship: Myriam Bédard, a 22-year-old from Neufchâtel, Que. She is the secondranked woman biathlete in the world—the highest ranking ever achieved by a North

American in a sport traditionally dominated by Europeans. “I left my home with nothing, and now here I am at the Olympics,” Koterlitzov said in his heavily accented English. “It’s like a fairy tale complete with the happy ending.” For some athletes, Albertville will almost certainly mark another kind of ending—to their quest for Olympic honors. Sylvie Daigle, the speed skater who carried the Canadian flag at the opening ceremony, is competing in her fourth Winter Games and made it clear that Albertville would be her last. Daigle was accepted into the University of Montreal’s medical school last fall, but postponed starting her studies to train for the Olympics. “I didn’t want to miss the Games and then go 40 or 50 years wondering how I would have done,” she explained last week. “But I can’t compete and go to school as well. So it’s now or never.” Even athletes who may hope to take part in another Winter Games could share that sense of urgency that makes the Olympics something special.

ANDREW PHILLIPS in Albertville