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US team represents many parts of country; winds disrupt schedule

By Ross AtkinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 22, 1988



Calgary, Alberta

The United States team for these Olympic Winter Games is more geographically diverse than some might imagine. Its athletes and coaches come from 32 states. New York, which is home to the Lake Placid winter training center, is the biggest producer of team members, with 27. But Texas, Florida, Oklahoma, and Ohio are also represented on the roster, and figure skaters from two other unlikely states accounted for the first American medal of the Games, a bronze in the pairs competition. Jill Watson is a native of Bloomington, Ind., and Peter Oppegard, of Knoxville, Tenn. They were delighted with their finish, since two Soviet couples were virtually a lock for the gold and silver, which they won.

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Not that it would have changed the final result, but Watson and Oppegard were distracted enough in mid-routine to eliminate an electrifying move from their long program. After having his concentration broken when someone retrieved a camera bag from the ice, Oppegard decided against doing the throw at the end of a press lift. It was to have been a breathtaking free-fall type of showstopper.

``We could have asked for a restart, but we were already into our program, and starting again with the same intensity would have been hard,'' Watson said.

Olympic clock-watching

Sophisticated timing is of paramount importance at the Winter Games, where head-to-head racing is rare. Who better, therefore, to handle the assignment than a Swiss watchmaker, or more accurately, a whole company of them. Swiss Timing is the official timekeeper here, as it has been at a number of summer and Winter Olympics.

Not content to let Swiss skiers corner all the attention, the firm distributed a 73-page, multi-language promotional packet. It details how the elaborate timing system works, from photo-finish cameras to infrared barriers to photoelectric cells.

Speed skating is the only Winter Games sport which even gives the appearance of head-to-head duels, but even here it is individual times that determine placement. In bobsled, luge, and all ski races, the competitors start separately, and are pitted totally against the clock.

The interest in these events would be greatly diminished for TV viewers if in-progress and intermediate times could not be superimposed on the screen.

For some events, ultrafine timing is more exacting than it needs to be. Given the external variables that exist in skiing, such as temperature, winds, and so forth, it would be unfair to cut things too finely. The same holds true in the summer Olympics, where swimming lane lengths can vary ever so slightly.

Of course, in the luge the speed of the sleds makes those tiny fractions of a second mean more. Therefore, Olympic officials rely on all the precision timing technology avaible to them to sort out the finishers.

To see how this helps, consider the women's luge results. Only 0.132 of a second separated East German teammates Steffi Walter and Ute Oberhoffner, who won the gold and silver medals - and this was after four runs each.

Even sixth-place finisher Bonny Warner of Mount Baldy, Calif., felt she was infinitesimally close to the winner. ``I was only two eye blinks away from being the champion,'' she said after the best-ever Olympic finish in the sport by an American.

Briefly speaking

Warm chinook winds were supposed to be a major cause of concern for Calgary's Olympic organizers. As it turned out, the force of the winds, not their temperature has been the biggest problem. Hurricane-like gusts at the top of the mountain forced several postponements in the Alpine events, practically blowing the first starter in the women's downhill right off the course. The ski jumping schedule has been disrupted, too, but the real tip-off may be that even the luge competition - an event less susceptible to such influences - had to be shut down one day.

Jean-Claude Killy, a triple gold medal winner in 1968, may have been a terrific skier, but he didn't spawn a wave of French successors. Indeed, when Franck Piccard won the downhill bronze here it ended a long men's Alpine medal drought for France dating to Killy's brilliant effort.