CALGARY, FEB. 12 -- The Games begin at last on Saturday, but if it's thrills and snowy spills you seek, there's another day to wait.
The competitive highlight of the first weekend of the XV Winter Olympics should be the men's downhill ski race, the scarifying, full-tilt boogie down Mount Allan that is the featured attraction of Sunday's TV coverage.
It ought to be worth the wait. "It's very dangerous up there," said scarred, hairy-chested Swiss veteran Peter Mueller after a trial run. "The ski tips come up, you can't keep them down, and you can't get a line."
Practically every downhiller here shares Mueller's concern about the first 200 meters of the course, where the vertical drop is more than 70 meters and it looks for all the world like an old-fashioned leap off a cliff, complicated by gusty winds of the sort that at 90 mph forced a temporary shutdown of training today.
Austrian Leonhard Stock took a fall at the top during an earlier trial run and actually seemed to pick up speed as he tumbled downhill, flailing away. When he finally hit a restraining fence it was with such force that he was tossed back onto the course airborne, trampoline style.
In the face of all this, one skier was grinning: Pirmin Zurbriggen, the Swiss downhill technician who had the best times and the least trouble in training and who seems a shoo-in for a medal because of his surgical way of carving down the steep and perilous opening stretch.
Close behind Zurbriggen should be Luxembourg's Marc Girardelli and Canada's Rob Boyd, but the top of the course is probably too tricky for gliders like Mueller and Italy's Michael Mair to do well.
Before we get to the mountains, however, we must pass through Calgary on opening day, where all the action after opening ceremonies will be on hockey rinks.
The U.S. team opens with a made-for-television match against weak Austria. Initial pairings had the Americans facing rough-and-ready Czechoslovakia in round one, but ABC-TV, fearing a rout might turn off viewers, strong-armed a switch to an easier first opponent, according to U.S. Olympic sources. ABC has denied having a role in the switch.
Still, the result is no foregone conclusion. The U.S. team has bigger, stronger and faster skaters, but the Austrians will slow the game and could cause problems.
A U.S. loss would be a devastating blow, akin to the Americans' first-round loss to Canada in 1984 in Sarajevo, which all but guaranteed no advance to the medal round. The U.S. team has a rough week ahead, with matches against the Czechs on Monday and the Soviets on Wednesday.
Of the other two Saturday games, Czechoslovakia versus West Germany should offer some insight into the strength of the German squad, which is expected to battle the United States for a medal-round spot, and Norway versus the Soviets is the ice version of Bambi meets Godzilla.
On Sunday the schedule diversifies, with luge, ski jumping, more hockey, the men's downhill, speed skating, women's cross country skiing and pairs figure skating.
For American viewers, the best hope for a medal pops up in the evening at the 500-meter men's speed skating, with world-record holder Nicky Thometz of Minnetonka, Minn., and his longtime training partner Dan Jansen of West Allis, Wis., leading the field.
Thometz was the Americans' best hope until he came down with flu, then a blood ailment in December that put him in the hospital. He missed most of the Olympic trials and has been struggling to regain form.
Jansen is at the top of his game, having won the 500 meters at the World Sprints Championships last weekend.
Their strongest rivals should be Soviet Sergei Fokichev, Japan's Akira Kuroiwa and South Korean Bae Kitae.
Much will depend on the luck of the draw. At 500 meters, whoever gets to skate the last turn into the homestretch from the outside lane will have an advantage.
Calgary's indoor track is so fast, holding a line is hard at top speed in the turns. The skater who draws "last-inner" has an even tougher job, sprinting for the finish from the inside lane with less room than his opponent to work in.
Figure skating opens Sunday with the short program for pairs.
Soviet pairs have won 20 of the last 23 world championships in this discipline, and their hold seems likely to continue here under defending world champions Sergei Grinkov and Ekaterina Gordeeva and defending silver medalists Elena Valova and Oleg Vasiliev.
Grinkov and Gordeeva, at 5-foot-11 and 4-11, are the Mutt and Jeff of pairs competition, and Grinkov's body tosses of his tiny partner often leave audiences aghast.
But the Americans have a strong medal chance with world bronze medalists Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard, whose repertoire includes the remarkable "swoop" maneuver in which Oppegard drops his partner from full height, catching her just short of a face-first collision with the ice.
Unfortunately the short program, at 2 minutes 15 seconds, includes less drama than the 4 1/2-minute long programs Tuesday.
Elsewhere on the widening scene Sunday, 70-meter ski jumping begins; women cross country skiers tackle the 10-kilometer course; hockey continues with Sweden vs. France, Poland vs. Canada and Switzerland vs. Finland in the other round-robin group, and the first stage of the round robin in the inscrutable demonstration sport of curling opens.