It’s a long way from Salt Lake City

On a benignly warm and sunny February afternoon in Athens, writing about cold-weather sports somehow underscores the sheer diversity of the Olympic movement and the Games. On such a day, and in every sense, Athens is a long, long way from Salt Lake City. The host city for the current Winter Games may be Athens 2004’s predecessor, but in many respects – the sports on display, the weather and setting, the dominant countries, the prevailing ethos – these Games are worlds apart from the summer variety, which the good television coverage on ERT-1 and NET merely accentuates. Perhaps the contingent of 30 or so Athens 2004 people who tagged along will find enough catering, computing and transporting details to keep them occupied, while also learning better how to run an Olympics, even without the snow and ice. Innovating in wintertime When the modern Olympics were reborn in 1896, there were no Winter Games on the schedule, and ever since they were somewhat reluctantly added, 19 Olympiads ago, they have been an oddity – picturesque and exciting, but an oddity nonetheless – on the Olympics calendar. The oldest Olympic cold-weather sport, figure skating, was actually included in the 1908 (Summer) Games in London, and the winter sports lobby long seesawed on the question of holding a wintertime competition. Then, in 1924, an «International Winter Sports Week» was held in Chamonix, France to complement that year’s Paris Summer Games, whose success convinced the International Olympic Committee – who, as ever, recognized a good thing when they saw one – to sanction the quadrennial winter events officially. However, old habits die hard; decades would elapse before they deigned to allow the Winter Olympic flame to originate from Olympia. The Winter Games kicked off the Olympic year until they were switched, 70 years on, to alternate years. They had grown too big and successful in their own right. From an original five sports and 14 events, growth was progressive but not exponential; Lillehammer, Norway in 1994 had 10 sports, though the Nagano, Japan, 1998 Games opened up to the younger generation with snowboarding and moguling, added more women’s events (luge, ice hockey), and boasted 14 sports and 68 events. The winter showing has long been regarded as a smaller, more intimate Games, with Lillehammer’s non-glitzy, small-townish 1994 version often upheld as the model. Yet, while they are considered more human in scale, they are as artificial as the summer track and field events are natural. This month’s athletic heroes are gliding, schussing and scraping their way to victory in space-age suits in frigid conditions, not running and jumping in shorts and T-shirts. The Winter Games have sometimes been labeled elitist and Eurocentric. Some sports are more recreational than sporty, like curling and ice dancing. And their practitioners are hardly paragons of amateurism; it was a Winter athlete, Austrian skier Karl Schranz, who was controversially barred from the 1972 Games at Sapporo, Japan, because of «professionalism.» And the sight of skiers doffing their skis or showing their undersides (of the skis, that is) to the cameras in an obvious commercial thrust remains unseemly. The Winter Games may be thrilling, but their well-oiled (and, in some cases, well-doped) participants and backers are not innocents at play. Small countries standing tall There are some interesting dynamics that aren’t present in the Summer Games, where the big countries rake in the medals. The dominant countries include Austria, Norway, and Finland, each with less than 10 million inhabitants. These smaller nations also boast national winter sports federations that are supportive to the point of being patronizing; rebels aren’t looked kindly upon, and some, like the great 1980s skier Marc Girardelli, have picked up stakes and skied for other lands (He won numerous medals for tiny, non-mountainous Luxembourg). The downhill race – arguably the most exciting (and dangerous) single event in either season’s Games: Remember Hermann Maier’s crashing spectacularly out of the Nagano downhill in 1998? – last Sunday was won not by Austria’s Stephan Eberharter, the pre-race favorite and ultimately bronze medal-winner, but by his teammate, Fritz Stobl, with a Norwegian, Lasse Kjus, placing second. The women’s downhill similarly produced a memorable upset, with Carole Montillet winning an emotional victory in honor of her recently deceased teammate, Regine Cavagnoud, who died in a horrific ski accident last fall. And what are the Olympics without controversy? The results of the pairs figure-skating finals proved highly unpopular as yet another Russian pair, Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, outpointed the crowd favorites and reigning world champions, Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, who had to settle for second after alleged pressure on the judges. Russia’s continuing dominance of the event approximates the Americans’ lock on the basketball gold, but it will be a long while before another pair as utterly captivating as Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov, 1994 winners, emerges. Small-country team dynamics create a competitive spirit as intense among themselves as that with other teams, especially if they combine with host-country pressures – both of which Greece will have to contend with psychologically, come 2004. Who (among those of us old enough to remember) could forget Franz Klammer’s breakneck run at Innsbruck, Austria in 1976, meeting the intense expectations for the pre-race, home-country favorite; or the improbable 1980 victory by Leonhard Stock, who barely made the Austrian team at all; or the 1988 men’s downhill at Calgary, when Peter Muller, skiing first, set a fast time, then saw it go unchallenged until his Swiss teammate and rival, Pirmin Zurbriggen, skiing close to last, pushed him into silver medal position? Yet collaboration and team unity can also be important hallmarks of the smaller contingents. Greece in the middle The psychology of small-team/home-team dynamics is one thing that Greece’s Olympics effort could well learn from, as national pressures to excel will reach a fever pitch in the runup to August 2004. Greece’s presence, thus far, at Salt Lake has been less than scintillating. Its biggest splash (so far) has been not from one of the seven athletes on hand (two being self-financed and living abroad), but from its most famous living composer, Mikis Theodorakis. He railed against the Games organizers and ERT television for not mentioning his name when playing his composition, the «Canto Olympico,» for some unspecified but allegedly underhanded reasons. Chips on shoulders do not necessarily diminish as fame grows, alas, even for the great ones. And Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos, possibly jet-lagged, lit into the IOC for allegedly bullying Greece over building new roads and the like. He may have a good point, but didn’t exactly choose the best moment to make his views known. Despite the ill-tempered image such incidents may have reinforced, Greece is not only aware of, but suddenly involved in, the Winter Games, drawing a rare wintertime spotlight. And for all the sun-washed afternoons in February, it remains a mountainous country in a rugged region. The nearby (former) Yugoslavia hosted the 1984 Winter Games (in Sarajevo) and the 20th Winter Games in 2006 will be in next-door Italy (in Turin). Greece’s modest ski resorts may still, one day, produce an Olympics-caliber athlete. They haven’t as yet; but at least the country is waking up, a little, to the unique experience of the Winter Games. And that’s a start. Athens police yesterday arrested two Greek women who allegedly profited by forcing into prostitution at least six Eastern European women in rented flats in the seaside location of Voula. Eleni Michailou, 59, and Evangelia Panourgia, 51, allegedly sold the services of two Moldovians, three Russians and an Albanian woman in exchange for 60 euros a visit – half of which would go to Michailou.

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