Suddenly this weekend, on wings of a frigid north wind, the Winter Olympics roared into Calgary, Alberta, which has been building, preparing and preening seven years for the moment.
And Calgary was ready.
"The city is gorgeous," said Terry Bullick, spokesperson for the Olympic organizing committee. "All the streets are decorated with pageantry images, we finally have a nice coat of snow, all the roads into town are lined with flags and so is the new Olympic Plaza across from City Hall, where the medals will be awarded. People who know the city and people seeing it for the first time are all saying the same thing. They're just overwhelmed."
Those, anyway, with the heart to take the tour. On Saturday, the world, from China to tiny Gabon in West Africa, will tune into opening day of these 15th Winter Olympics. But for now, Calgary, on the eve of its international debut, is buttoning up to conserve body heat.
Last week, at a rehearsal for opening ceremonies in which local citizens played the parts of the athletes, one participant succumbed to hypothermia and was carted off to the hospital and hundreds more were left shivering after three hours in the elements. That's because it was 20 degrees below zero Celsius, uncommonly cold for these parts, and the mercury hasn't come up much since.
So as athletes from 57 nations, 17 more than ever participated in a winter Olympics before, began descending on the city of 640,000 this weekend, the streets were festive but uncrowded. "Anyone with any sense stayed inside," said Geoff Mason, producer of ABC-TV's scheduled 94 1/2-hour Winter Olympics tour de force, which will consume the network's prime time in the United States every day for two weeks and three weekends.
Said Mason, poetically: "We've got the cold, we've got the snow; the mountains are packed and we're ready to go."
Mason was upbeat, even though he conceded ABC will take a bitter bath on this venture, having paid $309 million for U.S. television rights, more than triple the $91.5 million it paid for the 1984 Games in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia.
"We're going to lose a lot of money on this show," said Mason, "much as we'd like that fact to have changed. It's not for lack of success selling ads. It's just the economics of the arrangement. We paid too much." The good news, said Mason, who a year ago was producing ESPN's smashingly successful America's Cup coverage, is that ABC "hasn't backed off a bit in its commitment to do the job right."
Television, after all, is how most of the world will experience these Games. Bullick said with the recent sale of TV rights to China, the projected world audience for opening ceremonies is now estimated at around 2 1/2 billion, the biggest TV crowd for any event ever.
But no one is planning coverage like ABC's, which will run from 8 p.m. to midnight every weekday, with a half-hour out for the news, and from as early as 11 a.m. to midnight on weekends.
This marks the first time the Winter Games have been extended to cover three weekends, a change directly aimed at increasing the TV value. Now, the question for Americans is whether they can extend their interest that long, given the spottiness of U.S. medal chances.
Mason is hoping for a little early success to heighten interest. The U.S. hockey team, highly rated in the medal quest, goes against Austria on opening night Saturday, then on Sunday evening the men's 500-meter speed skating event features the top two U.S. competitors, Nicky Thometz and Dan Jansen, at their best distance. "We could get lucky with a gold," said Mason. "That would be a good hit."
But sustaining interest will be a task, particularly with the U.S. fielding what is widely regarded as its weakest team in years in the glamor sport, downhill skiing. The heroes of 1984, gold medalists Bill Johnson and slalom double-winners Phil and Steve Mahre, are gone, and 1984 women's gold medalist Debbie Armstrong has fallen from grace. Top U.S. competitors these days are names only skiing aficionados would recognize: Pam Fletcher for the women, Felix McGrath for the men. And their medal chances are not strong.
The U.S. team does have the goods this time in figure skating, which will feature a women's showdown between graceful East German diva Katarina Witt and spunky, ebullient American Debi Thomas, plus a confrontation among men's gold medal favorites Brian Boitano of the United States, Brian Orser of Canada and Soviet Alexander Fadeev. That should make good theater.
And the U.S. speed skaters are expecting their best medal performance since 1980, when Superman flew down in the shape of Eric Heiden and won all five men's gold medals, setting one world and five Olympic records in the process. This time, Thometz and Jansen are hoping to pick up two or three medals between them, and women's champion Bonnie Blair is the gold-medal favorite at 500 meters and a strong medal contender at 1,000 and 1,500 meters.
As for events in which U.S. hopes are dimmer, ABC will have to hope for international thrills and spills in ski jumping, bull's-eyes in the biathlon and riotous, record-setting runs in the luge and bobsled, where at least the late addition of Chicago Bears wide receiver Willie Gault will provide marquee value. When the going slows, they can fill in with tidbits from the demonstration sports: hot-dog freestyle skiing, arcane curling, rough-and-tumble, pack-style speed skating and skiing for the disabled.
If all else fails, the network still will not stoop to covering the Miss Nude Olympics competition, originally scheduled at the Banana Maxx Dining Lounge. The Miss Nude Olympics is no more, mercifully, after a confrontation with Olympic organizers over the use of the word, which is trademarked. It has been renamed the "Nude Miss O-Word" competition, which lacks something.
Ah, well, at least it will be indoors.