French are set for Olympics now they need some luck

February 06, 1992|By Jere Longman | Jere Longman,Knight-Ridder News Service

MERIBEL, France -- Thirteen venues spread across 640 square miles are ready. More than 2,000 athletes representing 64 countries are ready. Eight thousand volunteers are ready. Fifteen hundred shuttle drivers who are staying in a Savoy prison are ready.

Organizers who spent $800 million are ready. Sixty miles of new roads are ready. An expected 700,000 spectators and 2 billion worldwide television viewers are ready. Chefs who who will cook 2 million meals and serve up 26 tons of cheese are ready. Seven thousand gendarmes and soldiers with sidearms and rifles are ready. Two hundred Alpine rescue troops with seal skins on their skis are ready.

The Winter Olympics open in two days.

The only thing that could decide not to be ready is the weather. Soldiers and ski instructors cleared the downhill course of the foot of snow that wrecked it Tuesday, and practice runs were scheduled to begin today. Snowplows cleared the narrow mountain roads, and no new snow fell. So the weather is ready. For now.

"People did their best; now maybe they need a little luck, too," said Michel Raffy, a hotelier in Meribel, the venue for hockey and women's Alpine skiing. "If it snows for 16 days, it might be a disaster. But what can we do? Get plastic slopes and have the Olympics in Miami?"

After a whirlwind tour of the Alps, checking on roads and preparations, here are some postcards from the Olympic Games that seemed. . . ready:

* Hockey player Moe Mantha won the first Ugly American award last night when he shoved a French player in the handshake line after a 6-3 exhibition victory by Team USA in Geneva. Mantha said the player had spat on him. He didn't see anyone spit on vTC him. He didn't feel anyone spit on him. He heard a rumor that somebody had spat on him.

* Raffy the hotelier has spent $2 million on the four-star Hotel Mont Vallons in Meribel, adding 24 rooms for the Olympics and the exposure the Olympics will bring. He is 47 and slightly rumpled and, like his hotel, carries the casual air of the skiing rich.

The Mont Vallons will be full of Americans for the Games, the chiefs of corporations who sponsor the Olympics, the heads of Nike and Coca-Cola. There is a room ready for Lee Iacocca if he comes. This is the high season, and a suite with a fireplace goes for $550 a night.

* Not every resort hotel is booked to capacity. More than 700 room reservations have been canceled. The flaccid U.S. economy has forced some corporations and news organizations to cut back. Some people are scared off by exorbitant ticket prices. Others stay away in fear of blizzards and 25-mile traffic jams.

* About 730,000 of 800,000 available tickets to the Games have been sold. Twenty-five events are sold out, including the opening ceremonies, most figure-skating events and 15 hockey games. Tickets for the opening ceremonies were snapped up for $300 apiece. Tickets for premier events, such as the hockey finals, cost nearly $200.

"Some people are afraid to come," Raffy said. "The Olympics are more or less for TV. They don't want people. They need rooms and places for the Olympic family. The less people, the better to manage."

* A new saliva test will be used to make sure that women competing in the Games are not actually men. Some French doctors protested, saying the sex tests were an invasion of privacy, not to mention inaccurate.

* French workers don't complain when they're upset. They strike.

Dancers walked out of rehearsals for the opening ceremonies, protesting substandard housing conditions. Taxi drivers blocked the highway out of Albertville, demanding unrestricted access to the Olympic venues.

Both strikes were settled, but Jean-Marie Choffel, director of tourism in Meribel, thought the taxi drivers were being greedy.

"We have a saying in France -- they want the butter and the money for the butter," Choffel said. "And maybe the milkman's daughter, too."

* Unlike the United States, where blimps would be flying and television helicopters would be dueling for airspace, the French are hyping the Olympics only with discreet banners at each venue.

"I hope you will feel the Olympics on the smiles of people more than with lights and Olympic rings on the sides of mountains," said Jean-Marc Eysseric, a spokesman for the French organizing committee.

* The Soviet Union has changed, but its athletes will wear the same old uniforms. One hundred forty-one athletes from the republics of Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Uzbekistan will compete as something called the Unified Team and will march under the five-ringed Olympic flag. But their uniforms will bear the familiar CCCP logo.

"When we ordered our uniforms, the USSR still existed," said Boris Bistrov, head of the Unified Team delegation.

* In a country where smoking is second only to soccer as the national sport, these are to be a tobacco-free Olympics. Sort of. No smoking will be allowed at any venues, goes the official doublespeak, except at those venues where smoking is allowed.

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