Tass and son of gravy: just routine Olympic day Language barrier does strange things

February 16, 1992|By Tom Powers | Tom Powers,Knight-Ridder News Service

LA LECHERE, France -- His overcoat was draped over his shoulders as he leaned against the wall outside of the Tass News Agency headquarters and had a smoke. We knew that he was some sort of bigwig in charge of the Tass contingent covering the Winter Olympics.

I asked him: Do you speak English?

"Of course," he said suavely, blowing smoke rings into the air.

I'd like to talk to you about Tass' coverage of the Games.

"Of course," he said, then took another drag.

What would be a good time for me to come by tomorrow?

"Of course," he said.

No, no, I mean what time?

"Of course."

Hmmmm. Wasn't your mother an informant for the CIA?

"Of course," he stated emphatically one last time as I walked away.

*

7:30 a.m. -- It's biathlon day! Well, it was either that or watching the Liberace look-alike contest down at the figure skating rink. Guaranteed that one of the male figure skaters is going to perform with a candelabra on his head before this is over. Who dresses these people?

So I boarded a bus for Les Saisies, where the women's 3 x 7.5. biathlon relay will take place. No one else on the bus speaks English. And I haven't been able to pick up much of any other language, although I am beginning to speak English with an accent.

I pull the headphones over my ears and scrunch down. The bus driver still is looking at me and laughing. Later, I found out why.

You are supposed to confirm the destination of your bus before boarding. This bus is going to Les Saisies. That is pronounced "Le Se-say." My French pronunciation isn't so good. I asked the driver if we were going to "Le So-say." Come to find out, I had asked him if he was "the son of gravy."

This could be a long day.

I'm already having problems with the chambermaids. You're supposed to tip them about $20 a week or else they do little things to make life miserable.

But it's tough to tip a person you can't find. I tried leaving some money in an envelope but she didn't take it. Then two days ago there were no towels left in my room. Yesterday there were no towels and no pillow cases on the pillows. I'm afraid when I get back this evening my room will be on fire.

9:45 a.m. -- It is amazing. Each venue is more beautiful than the next. At the ski resort of Les Saisies, the horizon is dominated by the majestic Mont Blanc. It is breathtaking.

So was the walk from the bus stop to the biathlon course. The air is very thin, and as I bite into another chocolate croissant halfway up the trail, I make a mental note to drop 20 pounds when I get back to the States.

There are thousands of spectators on hand for the relay. The French are shaking cowbells up in the stands. The Norwegians are singing. The Germans are smoking.

Most Americans come to see the biathlon so they can make fun of it. But I'm really curious. I always thought the biathlon was like trying to hunt on skis with a snootful. You ski, fall down, shoot, then get up and ski some more.

We have a woman from St. Paul, Minn., in the race. Mary Ostergren was born and raised there. Now she splits time between St. Paul and Vermont. I'm hoping when it is all over, she will explain to me what happened.

11:24.07 a.m. -- The race is over for everyone except the Americans and Hungarians, who are expected to cross the finish line any day now.

11:45 a.m. -- This place still is rocking. The French team won! The fans are refusing to leave without another glimpse of the trio of Corinne Niogret, Veronique Claudel and Anne Briand.

What made it even more exciting was that the French trio completed the total of 22.5 kilometers in 1 hour, 15 minutes, 55.6 seconds, less than 30 seconds ahead of the German team.

The French have been excellent hosts. But you have to understand that, under normal non-Olympic circumstances, they hate everybody. Especially the Germans. In fact, the only thing I have learned to say in French is: "Good day, I am not a German."

That's important because to the French people, the German and English languages sound very much alike.

"Like barking dogs," one of the venue hostesses told me with a shy giggle. "Arf, arf."

I briefly considered asking her to scratch me behind the ears.

Noon -- The three members of the American relay team are standing together and I'm not sure which is the one from St. Paul. Then one of them wrinkles her face and says: "It stinks! Who's smoking around here?"

Spoken like a true Minnesotan. I knew that had to be Mary. She and her teammates had had a rough day, finishing 15th out of the 16 teams. Their time was 1:24:36.9.

"All of us are capable of doing much better," she said. "When we got off to a bad start like that, we were playing catch-up all day. It was a learning experience. This takes time. Two years ago, who'd have thought the French would win?"

Perhaps two years from now, they'll be saying the same thing about the Americans. These women have worked very hard at this, and I hope they are still at it when success finally comes to the United States.

"Say hello to everyone in St. Paul for me," Mary said.

5 p.m. -- The chambermaid was standing right there in the hall near my door, no doubt getting ready to torch the place. I couldn't wait to hand her a fistful of dough and get some pillow cases. Things are looking up.

On the way to the press room, I stopped at the newsstand and bought a London newspaper that claims to have discovered Elvis alive and well and living in Newcastle. With his mother, no less! She's got to be at least 108.

Well, if Elvis has turned up, my laundry can't be far behind.

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