Irony of These Games: Too Much of a Good Thing
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 10, 1998; Page A1
NAGANO, Feb. 10 (Tuesday) Storms that have dumped more than a foot of snow on Nagano in the last three days have illustrated the irony that nothing messes up a Winter Olympics faster than snow. For months, Naganoís nightmare was having to stage an Olympics without snow. Now it has a new demon to confront: too much snow. A storm delayed the womenís super giant slalom in Hakuba today, the third straight day a race has been postponed.
Heavy winter storms had earlier forced the postponement of the menís downhill and at least two other major events since the Games opened on Saturday, causing scheduling nightmares, epic traffic jams and sleepless nights for Olympic organizers.
The Japanese are out in force, trying to beat Mother Nature. Almost 1,000 volunteers and Japanese military troops worked throughout the night before the downhill to get the course in shape, and they were up before dawn today in an unsuccessful attempt to clear snow from the course where the womenís slalom competition would have taken place.
"We have too much snow," said Soichiro Yoshida, a local businessman who was one of the main forces behind bringing the Games to Nagano. "This is an El Nino year, and thatís why weíve been so concerned about having no snow. This is an irony, isnít it?"
Susumu Mizushina, weather forecaster at the Nagano Meteorological Observatory, said the snow will give way to sunshine later today, although the snow continued to fall through the morning. Some Alpine events menís combined slalom and womenís snowboarding did take place. But thereís more bad news out there. Another heavy winter storm is expected to set in by Thursday. Mizushina said he is predicting snowy weather for at least a week.
Olympic organizers have been meeting with the media each afternoon to reschedule the rescheduled schedules. They insisted that there is no thought being given to extending the Games past the planned Feb. 22 Closing Ceremonies. And they promise the events will be squeezed in somehow, but this area has a history of unpredictable weather and canceled events. World Cup downhill races on the Hakuba course last year and in 1996 had to be canceled because of weather. Nagano is the southernmost site ever chosen for a Winter Olympics itís on roughly the same latitude as Athens and its weather is notoriously unreliable.
This is by no means the first Olympics beset by weather problems: At the 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo, the first week of Alpine races was canceled because of a blizzard. Even more events have been added to the Olympic schedule since then, so it is harder now for organizers to reschedule events.
However, the major menís Alpine ski races were deliberately scheduled for early in the Games to give organizers more flexibility to handle weather postponements.
"We apologize to those who we have caused inconvenience," Olympic official Tsunekazu Takeda said on Monday. "We are all doing our best so that all of the events will take place."
Downhill racers hit speeds of 80 mph or more, so they need maximum visibility and a reliable course underfoot. In fog or snow, a big bump in the snow can look like a little bump which could be tragic for high-speed skiers. Itís lousy for the competition, too: Dumping a layer of thick, wet snow on a race course designed for speed is like holding a speedskating competition on grass.
But snow and fog made the courses useless despite the best efforts of the Japanese, and heavy winds shut the gondola that would have carried the snowboarders to the starting line. Frustration for cold spectators and athletes itching to compete was made worse by occasional bursts of bright sunshine and blue skies that broke through the woolly clouds, then disappeared just as quickly.
Leslie Feeney came all the way from Hong Kong to Hakuba to see the Olympic menís downhill ski race on Sunday. She and a friend got up early, walked from their hotel to a shuttle bus, rode a gondola up the mountain and huffed and puffed the last 20 minutes up a steep ski slope to their vantage point next to the course.
"We got ourselves up there, really close, we were sweating and I thought my friend was going to have a heart attack," said Feeney, an American who designs handbags. "We were psyched. They were ready to go and then a minute before the start, this cloud rolls in and boom itís canceled."
A sudden snowstorm wiped out the downhill race, leaving Feeney and her friends standing in the driving snow, robbed of seeing one of the premier events of the Games. Twenty-thousand more cold, soggy spectators around the finish line, some of whom had lined up well before dawn, were also disappointed, then everybody fought a horrendous, blizzard-choked traffic jam to pass through the narrow streets of Hakuba.
The fickle weather also has posed sticky questions about tickets and refunds. Tickets to the downhill were officially $25 to stand and $67 for a grandstand seat, so the 20,000 tickets sold brought in at least $500,000. But many people sitting in the stands paid scalpers $300 or more for their seats, so total revenue from downhill tickets was probably much higher. Olympic organizers wonít release exact figures.
Takafumi Hara, who is in charge of tickets for the Nagano Organizing Committee, said all tickets for postponed events would be honored at the new times. He said no one had asked for a refund yet, but that they would be given. Many people who canít make the rescheduled times seem to be willing to eat the cost of their ticket. Feeney said she paid about $25 for her downhill ticket and wonít be asking for her money back.
But she and many others who came to the downhill Sunday wonít be able to make the rescheduled competition Wednesday, during the middle of the work week. Sundayís crowd included many Americans who live in Japan. Many of them hired tour buses equipped with bars, video and karaoke machines to make the trip to Hakuba. Some, including a vocal contingent hollering for U.S. downhill skier Tommy Moe, who won a gold medal at the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, said they would come back. Others will be stuck in their offices working, as will many others in the mainly Japanese crowd.
For Feeney, who almost missed her flight home to Hong Kong because of the storm, the trip to the Olympics was still worth it. She said she and her friends had fun drinking Japanese sake on the mountain, tying to stay warm for two foggy, snowy hours before the race was officially postponed.
"I didnít care; I loved it," Feeney said. "It just goes with the package."
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