Winter Olympics are just the right size for enjoyment

February 10, 1994|By Phil Jackman

Tell you what's great about spectating, reporting, competing or just checking results and maintaining an interest in the Winter Olympics: Size.

It's pretty easy to keep track of, no doubt because the Games of Ice and Snow really have no place to expand unless they can come up with a scoring system for snowball-throwing, windshield-scraping and snowman-making.

Now the Summer Olympics, that's an out-of-control mess: a couple of dozen sports containing a couple hundred separate events, plus trials and heats, spread out over an area approximately the size of the Northwest Territory.

This doesn't take into account a half-dozen team-sport tournaments for both men and women, plus the stuff they're sneaking in all the time. Don't be surprised if choral singing returns as a medal sport one of these quadrennials.

As glorious as the 1984 Games in Los Angeles were, here it is only 10 years later and the thing that's clearest in memory are the bus rides to and from event venues sometimes as distant as 80 miles.

See, the buses were school buses, and they were for kids no larger than 50 or 60 pounds and 4 feet tall. A normal day of viewing meant as many as four round trips and six to eight hours of bouncing, figuring attendance at events in the morning, afternoon and evening plus the ride from home-away-from-home accommodations to the communications center.

Seoul and Barcelona were much more compact, but then taxicabs figured into the mix and 90 percent of the drivers in South Korea and Spain should not have advanced beyond the learner's permit.

This is by no means a complaint, understand, because you go to the Olympics and that's what you're supposed to live, breathe, eat and emit for 16 days: citius, altius, fortius, all for the honor of Zeus (or an endorsement contract).

As opposed to the big cities and land mass required to house all this activity, the Winter Games could pretty much fit into a medium-sized amusement park. All except for those people with barely discernible pulse rates who strap on skis and go cross country the distance from City Hall to the other side of the Bay Bridge just for kicks.

While town life can be very pleasant, generally, places like Lillehammer, Norway, aren't loaded down with hotels, so accommodations are sometimes a problem.

In Calgary six years ago, members of the Fourth Estate were billeted out on the plains of Alberta and pre-fab units that were to be sold as chicken coops as soon as the crowd left. The cubicle I drew was 6 feet by 12 feet, which was great: Try being a slob in such a restricted space.

The arrangement for food was a bit unusual, too -- about a mile walk across a frozen-mud field through the 5 a.m. darkness with a quick burst required to cross a high-speed highway to a well-disguised cafeteria on a college campus. It made dropping a few pounds easy if not certain.

Once clear of Stalag 17 no later than 30 minutes before first light and back in civilization, however, fans and the working class had it made.

Figure skating and hockey were conducted in two arenas, one of them huge, side by side and linked by a walkway. Speed skating was conducted two ground transportation stops away. Once again, the traveler was not required to go outside, although this wasn't a factor since the temperature got to 60 degrees a couple of days in western Canada.

The bobsled, luge and ski jumping were all confined in a neat little circle right off a four-lane highway just 15 minutes from time. The Alpine and Nordic skiing events, set in the breathtaking scenery of the Canadian Rockies, were all together with great access.

While the Summer Games attempt to jam at least a month's activity into basically two weeks, their winter counterparts stretch no more than a week's events into twice that amount of time. The beauty is there's no rushing off to another event because, chances are, there's nothing else until the ladies short program back at the Saddledome in five hours.

Of course, there can be times when one has too much time to savor and appreciate things witnessed. For instance, one day a couple of Olympics ago, all that was scheduled during the daylight hours was bobsled practice. The No. 3 side pusher of the Swiss sled looked at the people hanging on his every word and said the gathering was larger than the population of his hometown.

Think "Miracle on Ice," Franz Klammer, Rosi Mittermaier, Eric Heiden and Dorothy Hamill over the next two weeks if prime time TVing slows a bit . . . and be thankful the networks aren't pressed into trying to cover a hundred things simultaneously.

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