Snow-of all things-puts chill on Games

February 05, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Correspondent

SAINTE FOY, France -- Claude Regis stood in the middle of the road next to his crumpled Audi station wagon yesterday. He just had lost a game of automotive pingpong with a snowplow.

Blood dripped from his nose. Snow caked his camel's-hair sports coat and Izod shirt.

"It's going to be terrible if it's like this," said Regis, who was traveling from his hotel in Val d'Isere.

Say goodbye to Spring Break at the Winter Olympics. Four days before the opening ceremonies, the sun-drenched Savoie region suddenly was caked with a blizzard that left up to a foot of snow in the mountains and turned downtown Albertville into the slush capital of Europe.

They may play the Games on ice and snow, but the last thing a made- for-television Olympics needs is a blizzard.

A dome would do just fine.

Soldiers and ski school instructors armed with shovels and brooms were dispatched to the men's downhill run in Val d'Isere. Like Shirpas, they climbed the Bellavarde course and tried to remove the snow that was pouring at the rate of an inch an hour.

In Albertville, practice at the speed-skating oval was canceled when a steady rain turned the track into a pool.

Speed swimming, anyone?

Leave it to the bobsledders and lugers to rejoice on a dismal day. Their refrigerated track in La Plagne, which sits in the sun, usually has the consistency of a syrupy daiquiri. Suddenly, the track was like a Popsicle.

"Do you build a swimming pool in the shadow?" said Josef Spieler, the Austrian-born Maytag repairman of the bob-luge circuit.

Spieler may need some shovels today, though. Three feet of snow was expected to blanket the track overnight.

Even the French prime minister, Edith Cresson, was a no-show. The weather kept her from attending an International Olympic Committee session.

The only good news was the storm -- the first to hit the region since Dec. 23 -- came before, and not during, the Games. Had the blizzard hit Sunday, the day of the men's downhill, there would have been a nine-hour conga line of cars snaking through the mountains.

"There is a saying -- schedule a downhill, and it will snow," said Doug Lewis, a former U.S. ski team member.

Truth is, downhillers hate snow. Give them ice, shove them down a mountain with the vertical drop of the New York World Trade Center and watch them smile.

"Friday night, this whole town will heat up -- there is so much stress," Lewis said.

But, yesterday, Val d'Isere, like nearly every other town in the region, was shut down. It's a scenario that is likely to be repeated at least once more this month.

At the Winter Games, Willard Scott would be a gold medalist. This isn't a sporting event, it's a 24-hour weather channel.

In 1984, the Games of Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, were postponed for five days.

Too much snow.

Four years later in Calgary, Alberta, sunshine turned the Olympics to mush. A bobsled race was canceled by a dust storm. A fan wore a Hawaiian shirt to the last day of the skiing competition.

At these Games, spread across 640 square miles, snow could produce chaos. Most of the roads aren't big enough to accommodate two cows, let alone two cars. Signs warn drivers to watch for ice -- and avalanches.

Last month, Jacques Laborde -- and his 24-room Val d'Isere hotel -- miraculously survived an avalanche. Meanwhile, next door, a chalet was buried.

"The newspapers said we were swallowed in snow," he said. "But, as you can see, we are not swallowed."

Apparently, Laborde was ignoring the 20-foot snow drift that surrounded the Le Chamoid D'Or.

But you couldn't miss the newest Olympic event: Alpine-style fender-benders. Apologizing for the tardiness of a shuttle bus, a volunteer explained to the passengers: "The car, it fell off the mountain."

Oh.

There was even a rumor that the snowplow drivers had gone out on strike, joining area cab drivers and disgruntled Olympic dancers on the picket lines.

But don't tell that to Regis, the hotelier from Val d'Isere with the bloody nose, the damp sports coat and the suddenly inflated insurance policy. He was last seen standing by his battered car on a lonely Alpine road screaming . . .

. . . at a snowplow.

"People who are supposed to clear the road," he said, "are blocking the road."

Welcome to winter.

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