Olympic planning whitewashed as foot of snow falls in France

February 05, 1992|By Jere Longman | Jere Longman,Knight-Ridder News Service

VAL D'ISERE, France -- The worst thing that could happen to a Winter Olympics happened yesterday.

Winter.

More than a foot of snow fell in a blizzard in Val d'Isere, where the men's downhill is to be held Sunday. Snow is just what the French needed for scenery and the last thing they needed as they prepared to move 730,000 spectators to downhill races and bobsled runs spread over 13 venues connected by narrow mountain roads.

"It will be terrible if the weather is like this," Claude Regis said as he wiped a red trickle from his nose and inspected the damage to his Audi station wagon after its collision with a snowplow on the road down from Val d'Isere.

Travel was treacherous and slow all through the Alps yesterday. In the village of Doucy, an Olympic volunteer apologized for the tardiness of a shuttle bus, then explained breathlessly: "Accident. Car, it fall down the mountain."

Outside of La Plagne, a woman who did not give her name stopped at a store to buy new tires. Just last year, she said, she, too, had driven her car off the mountain. Rescuers had pulled her up with a rope, she said, but her car had remained stranded for three months.

Of course, in the Alps, weather changes continually. The Games don't open until Saturday. By then, all may be well. Or everything may go haywire.

A warm front is forecast for tomorrow. That could be a problem, too. Sunny, slushy conditions on the bobsled and luge run in La Plagne might force races to be held at dawn or after dark.

Night luge. What a concept.

But before the warm front arrives, more snow is expected. Forecasts said as much as 3 feet would fall overnight in La Plagne.

Where there was no snow yesterday, there was gazpacho weather. A cold soup. Miserable fog and dreary rain in the valleys. A steady downpour in Albertville turned the speedskating oval into a slip-'n'-slide -- and that may become an official Olympic event if the rain and snow persist.

Heavy, wet snow left the sinuous mountain roads slippery, clogged and littered with fender benders. Ninety soldiers, working in eight-hour shifts, shoveled snow from the downhill course in Val d'Isere so that practice runs could begin tomorrow. Four hundred Alpine soldiers and ski instructors were to be brought in to assist. As of now, the course is unusable and must be completely redone.

"We are a little unsettled," said Jean Claude Fritch, an Alpine skiing official.

Weekend skiers love powder. Downhillers want a course like an icy sidewalk. If you can fall and break your hip, that's just about right.

Only two skiers ventured onto the snowy, foggy course for practice runs yesterday. The others backed out. Visibility at the start house was reduced to 20 meters. When you are skiing at 70 miles an hour, it is a good idea to be able to see where you are going.

The men's downhill is scheduled for Sunday. The operative word here is "scheduled." The race has been penciled in for early in the Games because it gets postponed more often than Middle East peace talks. Snow caused a delay in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, in 1984, and tornadic winds forced a cancellation in Calgary, Al

berta, in 1988.

"There is a saying -- 'Schedule a downhill and it'll snow,' " said Doug Lewis, a U.S. Olympian in '84 and '88, who will test this Olympic downhill course as a forerunner.

One slight problem exists with the 1992 Olympic downhill course. It has never been used in competition. Too much snow. There was supposed to be a World Cup race in Val d'Isere last winter, but the downhillers gave up after three days of blizzards.

Two days before last Christmas, the downhill course was buried under an avalanche, which also engulfed the nearby hotel Chamois d'Or. More than a month later, a 20-foot drift of snow still hunkers on the front lawn. Owner Jacques Laborde dug himself out in time to fill the hotel for the Olympics.

"French television said one hotel in Val d'Isere was swallowed," Laborde said. "Here we are. As you can see, I was not swallowed."

La Plagne was the one Olympic venue where yesterday's blizzard did not present a problem. Snow, which can be removed, doesn't really trouble a bobsled and luge track. Sun does. It makes the bottom curves slushy enough to run a sled-dog race. One possible solution is to run the bobsled and luge before the sun comes up or after it goes down.

Who would put a bobsled run in the early-morning sun, anyway?

"Do you build a swimming pool in the shadows?" asked Josef Spiegler, the Austrian in charge of keeping the track refrigerated.

There was a report late yesterday that snowplow drivers had gone on strike. If so, the strike came too late for Claude Regis and his Audi station wagon.

"The people who are supposed to clear the road are blocking the road," said Regis, whose first Olympic experience left him with two damaged doors and a bloody nose.

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