The First Post-Cold War Olympiad

February 08, 1992

Two great teams that dominated postwar Winter Games no longer exist. Replacing the Soviet behemoth in Albertville today will be the United Team (or Unified, depending on your translator, or EUN, the French acronym), of Russians and others marching behind the Olympic flag to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." This team symbolizes the Olympic ideal: competing for the sport itself and the athlete's achievement with no hint of chauvinism.

If only this could last! But it won't. By the Summer Games in Barcelona, all will be straightened out. They will have the national flags and anthems required. Already, the Baltic republics have teams. Fortunately, their nationalism is leavened by common sense. As The Sun's Bill Glauber reported, ice dancers Vanagas and Dobiazko will compete. He is Lithuanian. She is Russian. But they are a duo. And they represent Lithuania. If the Lithuanians get a medal from this, they can thank the young woman from Moscow.

East Germany, the greatest medal machine for its size of all time, vanished. American bobsledders used its abandoned training camp. Gone are the battalions of physicians, druggists, masseurs, coaches and spies who kept East Germans in trim. There is a single German team, encompassing the West German downhill skiers and East German sledders. Watch out for these formidable Germans. They will never be this good again, without the statist mechanisms of the Communist past.

Yugoslavia still fields a team. But its former stars, the Alpine skiers, now ski for Slovenia. The United States, so humiliated by socialist victories it got up national teams with similar support, might have been embarrassed with too many medals after the socialist dynasties disbanded. Not to worry. The U.S. is awesome in women's figure skating and in speed skating, its traditional strengths, but apparently no better across the board than ever.

This is the first made-for-television Olympiad, at 13 sites over 600 square miles of the Savoy Alps. There is no room for the people who would come, so only 800,000 tickets were sold, against 2 million at Calgary in 1988. The recent trend to self-supporting, commercial Olympics is reversed. This is in France, the last Socialist power of Europe. French governments at all levels paid for the enormous investment and expect no profit. If they break even, thank CBS, which paid $243 million for the television rights in the U.S.

For the next 16 days, some 1,700 of the world's most obsessed snow bunnies will attack the sides of Alpine mountains and sheets of frozen water in every way imaginable and a few, such as freestyle mogul skiing, that aren't. The losers soon will get a second crack because all this will happen again in only two years, as the Olympics begin in 1994 to stagger the Winter and Summer Games at two-year intervals. Meanwhile, may the best athletes -- from anywhere -- win.

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