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Letting Loose in Nagano

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 17, 1998; Page E1

NAGANO — Black-tie tobogganing is not an Olympic sport, but it's a hell of a good time.

So give Deborah Hayden and her 40 friends high marks for style and technical merit in one of the most important, but unofficial, Olympic events: partying. Hayden's crowd, mainly ex-pat bankers, traders, diplomats and journalists who live in Japan, boarded a train in Tokyo last weekend for the four-hour trip to Hakuba, site of many of the skiing events.

They brought their own champagne, glasses, cheese, fruit and cigars and took over most of one car of the train. They were so raucous and flagrantly Gatsbyian that one Japanese man, sitting at the back of the car, summoned the nerve to ask to join the party because, he said, "I feel like I'm watching Hollywood."

In Hakuba, the group changed into tuxedos and little black cocktail dresses for more champagne and hors d'oeuvres in a room at the Hakuba Highland Hotel, which commands a lovely view of the valley. Drinks gave way to a buffet dinner of sushi, mussels, lamb and hearty Australian wine. One partygoer pooped out and fell asleep on a lobby couch, where a kind staff member covered his tuxedoed body with a blanket. But before it was over, a bunch of Hayden's gang were on toboggans on the ski slopes at 4 a.m., setting records of one sort or another.

"It was a tad cold, but they seemed to manage," Hayden said.

The Olympics are not merely a sports event, they are also one of the world's great movable parties. Every couple of years, the elite of the international sporting world and a certain stratum of society gather at some fabulous location to rub up against each other and enjoy the electricity they produce. Over drinks and good food, they remind each other of the last time they met, spinning tales of post-midnight paella in Barcelona, the lodges of Lillehammer and starlight in Albertville that was bright enough to read by.

These people are well off enough to travel to the Alps and the Orient, Norway and Greece, and game enough to trek up a mountainside to catch a glimpse of whichever Austrian stud happens to be the world's best skier at the moment.

And they know how to party.

In the ballroom of Nagano's Saihokukan Hotel one night last week, the creme de la creme of the Nordic world — hosted by Norway, Finland, Sweden and Denmark — gathered for a banquet fit for a Viking. Thin-sliced blood-red beef was piled high on a foot-high rack of standing ribs; there was a Swiss cheese the size of a puppy. Fresh tempura and sushi were served at side tables. A piano played softly in the background while waiters in white suits worked the crowd with trays of wine and whiskey.

The ambassadors to Japan from Finland, Sweden and Denmark wore large red roses on their lapels. Almost everyone else wore matching blazers with breast patches identifying their national Olympic committees. The Finns, Austrians and Norwegians wore conservative navy blue, the Swedes wore Century 21 gold, and the Bulgarians wore a funky Black Watch plaid.

Masato Mizuno, president of the Mizuno sporting goods corporation, whose company spent $16 million to be an official Olympic sponsor, said social gatherings are an important part of the Games.

"To make world peace, we must know each other," Mizuno said. "We have to talk and be bridges between countries."

The star bridge at this event, introduced by an emcee and escorted into the room like a U.S. president at a State of the Union address, was Crown Prince Haakon Magnus of Norway. The athletic and fresh-faced prince, 34, sipped a Coke as he mingled with the crowd, watched closely by a Norwegian military man in a Dudley Do-Right olive-drab uniform with a wide leather belt.

No Olympics would be complete without royalty. At least a dozen kings, queens, grand dukes, princes and princesses are attending the Games, along with Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan and innumerable other members of the imperial family. European royals here include Princess Anne of Great Britain, Prince Albert of Monaco, Grand Duke Jean of Luxembourg and royals from Sweden, Liechtenstein, Spain, Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands.

Tipper Gore is also coming, if that counts.

The International Olympic Committee counts on the patronage of these folks; nine of them are IOC members. IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch, a former fascist politician under the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco and a man who considers himself as royal as any prince, has hand-picked many IOC members with bloodlines in mind.

But that doesn't mean all these folks are a royal pain in the Alps — just look at Prince Albert, the heir to the Monegasque throne. Albert's full title is His Serene Highness Prince Albert Alexandre Louis Pierre, Prince Hereditaire de Monaco, Marquis de Baux. But he still seems like a regular guy from Philly. That's exactly what his mother, the late Princess Grace, had in mind when she sent him to American schools and summer camps, where, Albert admits, some of his fellow campers called him "Garbage Gut" because of his hefty appetite.

"I think most of [the royals] are just here to enjoy the Games," said Albert, who is captain of his principality's four-man bobsled team.

For those without royal blood or imperial purses, there's always the Eric Plan.

Eric Forseter, 22, from Rockville, is spending a year bumming around Australia as he prepares for law school next year. He bought a cheap plane ticket from Sydney to Tokyo plus a Japanese rail pass, and made his way to Nagano with about $400 in his pocket.

Forseter found lodging at a hostel, where he spends about $30 a night to sleep on a tatami mat on the floor in a room with 10 strangers. He had to go out and buy a towel, and he's living on orange juice and croissants from the convenience store. He said his accommodations are relatively spacious, though, compared with the 15 or 20 George Washington University students crammed into another room.

On his first day in town, Forseter met another young man who had bummed two tickets to the high-profile Canada-Sweden men's hockey game from one of the players. They sat in great seats right behind the goal, then moved to seats directly behind the team benches. They collected a couple of stray pucks and even a broken stick from the Swedish team.

That night they rolled into the Pink Elephant bar and had beers with NHL stars Brett Hull and Jeremy Roenick, who play for the U.S. team. The next day, Forseter begged tickets for the Finland-Russia hockey game. Scalpers wanted more than $400, but a nice man invited Forseter to sit with him for free. Turns out the man is the father of NHL star Teemu Selanne, who plays for Finland. Forseter sat at center ice and chatted with Pat LaFontaine of the U.S. men's hockey team and the parents of NHL'ers Pavel Bure and Chris Chelios, who were sitting nearby.

Sunday night, with somebody's extra ticket, Forseter saw figure skating, one of the Games' premier events, for $4 — the cost of a shuttle bus. In total, Forseter figures he's spent about $300 and had about $3,000 worth of fun.

"I'm on a roll," he said.

Some people here have been complaining about the lack of great party spots in Nagano and Hakuba. Neither place is a hotbed of nightspots in non-Olympic times, so much of the merrymaking is imported.

Many of the major Winter Games countries have their own "houses," places built with timber and materials imported from their homelands, where they promote their athletes and companies and party, party, party.

Casa Italia in Hakuba may be the world's only Italian restaurant with a bamboo garden in the entryway. Antonio Modini has been running Italy houses at every Winter Olympics since Lake Placid in 1980. For Hakuba, he leased a Japanese restaurant, which is now fully stocked with pasta, wine, cheese and other fresh Italian produce.

While black stockings and espresso are the motif at Casa Italia, it's oom-pah and big mugs of beer over at Austria House. Skiers and former skiers and assorted hangers-on surf the Internet on a computer in the corner, or just bounce along with the guys in leather pants playing tuba and accordion.

For some people, the Olympics are just too much work to think about partying. The French journalists here would probably be great partyers if they weren't so busy writing. At lunch the other day in the Main Press Center cafeteria, six of them sat down to a uniquely French meal: Big Macs and Chicken McNuggets, plus two big loaves of French bread and two bottles of Bouquet d'Amour, the official red wine of the Olympics, bottled by Kirin, the Japanese brewery.

When one of the Frenchman saw a group of Americans laughing at his lunch, he shrugged with that world-weary expression that his country has refined into an art form. "We are French," he explained, with just a tad of Special Sauce at the corner of his mouth.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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