East Meets Best

BRUCE WALLACE February 9 1998

East Meets Best

BRUCE WALLACE February 9 1998

East Meets Best


Sleepy Nagano is set to host the world top athletes




The panoramic view of Nagano is hardly a breath-taker. Visitors will not be rifling a thesaurus to find new ways to gush over this midsize industrial city of 360,000, where neon lights and electrical cables wage a grotesque war for dominance of the skyline, and the surrounding mountains often disappear behind the haze from smouldering backyard incinerators. The superlatives can be stashed away, to be put to better use once the acrobats of Winter Olympic sports descend on Nagano this week for their quadrennial display of heart, skill, courage and, yes sadly, the occasional show of petulance. But Nagano seen from a distance, it must be said right off, is not for postcards.

Ah, but to be up close. Nagano may not be made for wide shots, but close-ups uncover the charming touches that the sporting demimonde demands from places that aspire to be Olympic hosts. Up a cobbled footpath from Nagano’s glass and concrete downtown, the magnificent sixth-century Zenkoji Temple crowns the city, offering both salvation to Buddhists who make the pilgrimage and the dollop of exoticism that foreign visitors seem to require of Japan. The smattering of traditional Japanese houses and temples, so gentle on the eye amid the crush of video-screen billboards and flashy European-name boutiques, are reminders that Nagano was until recently a market town for the surrounding farms. If the architecture fails to convey that impression, the local delicacies will—everything from apples nearly the size of curling rocks, to buckwheat noodles called soba, and basashi—distressingly tasty slivers of raw horse meat.

But Nagano’s best asset may be the endearing eagerness to please of its easy-smiling people. Nagano’s organizing committee constantly instructs its volunteers that Westerners like to be smiled at, so visitors this February are likely to get the full beam—even as they are being told they just missed the last bus. With the Games approaching, Nagano’s emotional state is best summed up by the Japanese phrase waku-waku —excitement tempered by nervousness, and uncertainty about what all that scrutiny will bring. The people are aware their city lacks the sophistication of a metropolis like Tokyo, but appear determined to sprinkle their Games with the same magic dust that turned tiny Lillehammer, Norway, into such an enchanting place four years ago. Nagano knows it will never be quaint. It will settle for creating a mood.

And there lies the seductive secret of the Winter Games. Unlike the larger Summer Olympics, which need a megacity to accommodate the sheer volume of events, the Winter Games can still be held along the back roads, as long as there is a mountain within reach and enough ice-making skill in the labor force to maintain a rink. From Nagano’s remoteness springs its appeal: the Olympic city is now just 90 minutes away from Tokyo on the newly built shinkansen or bullet-train line, but decades away in attitude. “Sure, getting the Olympics means some of the old Nagano has disappeared, but you don’t have to go far to find temples, old houses and rice paddies,” says 43-year-old local resident Zenichi Oshimi from his office at the base of the freestyle skiing venue he manages. Nagano has kept a balance between new and old, he insists. “The shinkansen means people from Tokyo can now visit Nagano easily,” Oshimi intones. “It is also good they can go back the same day.”

Nagano’s hospitality may have time limits, but that shouldn’t worry the 153 Canadian athletes who make up the country’s largest contingent ever for a Winter Olympics. Sixteen days should be plenty of time, they hope, to load up on more precious metal than any Canadian team before them. Not only does the country continue to produce contenders in the traditional sports, but Winter Olympic organizers keep adding new events at which Canada excels. In 1992, it was shorttrack speed skating and freestyle skiing’s mogul event. Freestyle aerials were added at Lillehammer, while in Nagano curling and women’s hockey should boost the Canadian tally.

It is easy to visualize Canadian fans already ticking off the expected medals: there is Elvis Stojko for starters, speed skaters Catriona LeMay Doan and Jeremy Wotherspoon, the men and women curlers for sure, a couple more—barring spills—on the short track, the bobsledders, maybe even a surprise on the slopes. And, of course, nothing less than gold for the two hockey teams, one case where Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s adage that it’s important to beat the Americans at any cost really means something. ‘Well, you know, we’re not allowed to predict, it’s sort of company policy,” says a coy Carol Anne Letheren, president of the Canadian Olympic Association, when asked if Canada will exceed the record 13-medal count in Lillehammer. “And it’s not a policy I adhere to,” she says. “It will definitely be our best Winter Games ever.” And if everything comes together, she adds, “it could be phenomenal.”

If that happens (and especially if the men’s hockey team beats all comers at Canada’s game), the name Nagano might someday ring of Canadian sporting glory. Its ice and snow could become like the

A workaday city reveals its charms to visitors who take time to look closely

Soviet end of Moscow’s Luzhniki Palace, where Paul Henderson slipped home the puck for the goal in 1972, or the finish line of the 100-m dash in Seoul—no, make that Atlanta. This unremarkable Japanese city, hosting the southernmost Winter Olympics ever, where time differences mean the games, races and runs will happen when most Canadians should be sleeping, may become the place where Canadians finally show the world the upside of living in a refrigerator for half the year.

To the virginal eye, so much of Japan appears to pop right out of The Jetsons: sleek bullet trains, vending machines dispensing hot soup on street corners, recordings of chirping birds piped into public washrooms, and about as much green space as the surface of a Saturn moon. It is a surprise then to discover that even among the fairly well-to-do of Nagano—those same wealthy Japanese whose government holds so much Canadian government debt—space heaters still warm

houses, and many homes lack Western-style flush toilets. “This was a very typical old town and nobody cared about having boutiques or the shinkansen or wider streets,” says Soichiro (Sol) Yoshida, 52, the Nagano-born, Americaneducated businessman who led the crusade to bring the Games to his home town.

So how is it that the consciously hip followers of winter sports, this Gore-Tex and Lycra crowd, will descend on a city that even the Japanese find a bit backward? Guidebooks describe Nagano as “the centre of Japan” or the

“Roof of Japan” because of its elevation. But geography isn’t everything. “It is often said by the people of Tokyo that, although Nagano is in the centre, it is really, really out there,” says Tohru Hata, 66, a Buddhist monk, English teacher and ski instructor living in the satellite village of Matsushiro, smugly pleased that Nagano is about to enjoy a moment as the centre of the world, let alone Japan. He sits under piles of blankets for warmth at a low table in his graceful home, drinking green tea, nibbling at chestnuts and extolling the virtues of the improvements that the Olympics have brought to Nagano. “This was always the last place in Japan for everything to catch on,” he says. “We want g to become part of the modern Japan.” d This was not Nagano’s first quixotic 3 bid for an Olympics. It was among the I Japanese cities competing for the 1940 I and 1972 Winter Games, both of which 5 went to Sapporo. The Second World War cancelled the 1940 Games, of course, and also left Nagano with an unsettling legacy. By 1944, with the likelihood of an Allied invasion of Japan growing, the government decided to withdraw from Tokyo with the imperial family for a last stand in the mountains just outside Nagano. Construction of a mammoth tunnel network was well under way when the Japanese surrendered a year later, by which time at least 300 of the 6,000 Korean slave laborers brought over to build this underground Alamo had

died in cave-ins or from brutal working conditions.

The incomplete tunnel is still there. And 50 years after the war, a plaque finally went up to commemorate the Korean deaths—though not everyone in Nagano approves of the apology inscribed on it “It was not a terrible, purposeful torture,” says Hata, who can see the mountain that would have housed the emperor’s family from where he sits. He calls the apology an “overreaction.” What would have been the emperor’s underground castle now houses sensors to detect the seismic tremors that still rattle the region. (Nagano sits on some dangerous ground: the region also has four active volcanoes, one of which last erupted in 1990.)

With Sapporo’s 1972 Games the only other Winter Olympics ever held in Asia, there was an unspoken consensus within the IOC that 1998 was high time to venture across the international dateline again. That effectively ruled out early favorite Salt Lake City (the American city will host the 2002 Games), and from then on, Sol Yoshida bluntly argues, it was his cajoling that secured the Games for Nagano. “Nagano needed someone with a real personality to do the selling job,” he says in his rapid-fire salesman’s pitch, recounting how he travelled the world and ingratiated himself with the International Olympic Committee family. IOC members privately agree that Yoshida and his engaging Minnesota-born, Yokohama-raised wife, Carol, were effective lobbyists with the organization’s heavily Western membership. ‘With the IOC, human relations is the key,” says Yoshida with a laugh. “My friends at the IOC say, We didn’t vote to give the Games to Nagano. We gave them to Sol.’ ” But if Yoshida showed what Western-style lobbying could do by winning the Games, the vaunted Japanese bureaucracy has taken control of Olympic planning since— with mixed reviews. Observers worry that the methodical Japanese style of decision-making is not suited to managing the sudden, acute problems that can paralyze an Olympics—things like Atlanta’s traffic snarls or pipe bombing of Centennial Olympic Park. Over at the freestyle skiing venue, manager Oshimi’s business card even includes the title: Problem Solver. “The Japanese don’t solve problems quickly—boom,” he acknowledges, his mood serious. “We like to involve everybody and come to a consensus so when the problem is solved, it is solved for good. Problems are like a tree in the road. My job is to move everybody around and under and through the roots.”

Two problems have already emerged. There was a nasty tussle over where to locate the start of the downhill course after the international ski federation called the original run too easy. It urged organizers to put the starting line at a higher elevation or else it would run the race somewhere else—like in Europe. But pushing the start higher meant intruding on a protected national park. Nagano organizers had pledged to make their Games environmentally friendly. But after rolling over like puppies for massive developments like the new bullet-train line, which blasted through precious farmland on its way up from Tokyo, they drew their “green line” at the downhill. The skiers finally prevailed, but feelings on both sides were bruised.

The other dispute arose over Big Hat, the hockey rink built to be the great convention centre it will become after the Games are over. The IOC wanted a 10,000-seat arena for one of the marquee moments of the ’98 Games, but the original Nagano design offered about half that. “I know people are saying the rink’s too small,” says Fumia-

ki Maruyama, the assistant manager of the venue planning section. “But let me be very clear about this: the IOC told us to think about our city’s needs first. And Nagano can’t support anything bigger.”

The IOC disagrees, of course. ‘We weren’t asking for the Saddledome, just a reasonably sized rink,” says one official. More places have since been crammed into the original design, but still the best hockey tournament ever held will be seen by just over 10,000 lucky souls, and many of the choicest seats are reserved for dignitaries. Small crowds are not all that will take players back to their minor hockey days. Two showerheads per dressing room will drastically increase the time it takes to change from sweat-soaked hockey gear into Armani. And the rubber mats laid loosely over the concrete walkways to protect skate blades will alarm coaches with visions of a Gretzky catching a blade in the gaps and twisting a knee. Hockey and its peccadillos remain a foreign concept in the land of sumo and baseball. Only recently did arena staff quit ask-

ing visiting players to put on slippers as they enter the rink. And the dressing room urinals, set higher to accommodate the needs of tall Western hockey players standing in skates, produce titters from the Japanese visitors sneaking peaks on pre-Olympic tours.

But the other sites are spectacular, and venue manager Maruyama, an architect by profession, is justifiably proud of Nagano’s creations. He spreads his own photos of the facilities on a table to show off the features: the crossing steel girders in the Big Hat symbolizing hockey’s reliance on “strength,” and the pretty woodwork that circles White Ring to mark the beauty of the figure skating that will be held there. The venues were named by junior high-school students and they reflect the hipness of the English language in Japan: Aqua Wing for the retractable-roofed building where women’s hockey will be played, Spiral for the bobsled run (in which two sections of the track run uphill, following the contour of the mountain, one case where organizers stuck to the green Games theme), and the spectacular M-Wave for speed skating, whose interior roof

Nagano’s Games will showcase a blend of old and new

is made from Nagano’s Sinshu larch, the same wood used in the famous Zenkoji Temple. ‘We chose the wood because we wanted a symbolic link between Nagano’s new Olympic buildings and the city’s past,” says Maruyama.

That theme may just work. From the moment that a group of sumo wrestlers waddle into the opening ceremonies to symbolically purify the Olympic rings, the Nagano Games will showcase a blend of old and new, mixing the traditional with the cutting edge in sports. Strobefast, TV-driven events like snowboarding and aerials will share a stage with the biathlon, whose skiing-and-shooting skills herald from Europe before the wars. Curling, a sport with a long and proud history, will finally get recognition in the global village. The hockey tournament should, for the first time, truly be of Olympian stature. And it will all play out against the backdrop of those great Nagano smiles, enough to bewitch athletes and spectators alike, enough perhaps, to turn an otherwise ordinary city into a magical state of mind. □