Countdown to the Winter Games

Albertville, France, tests stadiums and widens roads to prepare for Olympics in February

IN less than three months, 35,000 people will pour into this sleepy town at the door to the Isere Valley for the opening ceremonies of the XVI Olympic Winter Games. Right now, construction workers are widening roads and raising grandstands, television technicians are installing satellite dishes and laying cables, and athletes are training at the sites for the Feb. 5 start.The blue-collar sub-prefecture of 18,000 has earned a windfall, with the French government spending close to $800 million to improve the highways leading into Albertville. Children chase each other across the soccer field by the new Olympic ice-skating rinks and the headquarters for the Games, in the heart of the secondary-school complex. Workers pick mushrooms at lunchtime before returning to erect the scaffolding that will be the stadium for the opening and closing ceremonies. Local politicians expect the outlay by national, departmental, and regional governments to increase tourism in the Tarentaise resorts long after the Games are over. Jean-Claude Killy, co-president of the French Olympic Organizing Committee (COJO) says "The biggest winner of these Games will be tourism." Meanwhile, COJO has a major task before it: getting 250,000 spectators to 57 events in 13 towns.

A battalion of buses Pascale Michellier of the tourist office in La Plagne explains: "In an effort to avoid bottlenecks and keep the traffic on the two-lane access roads moving freely from the valley up to the ski resorts, car access will be controlled for about two hours before and after each event." A battalion of 1,000 free buses will transport athletes, ticket-holders, VIPs, sponsors, security, and press to the sites from parking lots in the valley. More buses will move athletes and ticket holders from one site to anothe r and meet trains and planes. The best way for tourists and residents to get around during the Games is likely to be on skis, snowshoes, and ski lifts. Getting from site to site may be a major problem for spectators, and a heavy snowfall could still jam up newly widened roads. The snow-removal experts and traffic controllers hope that the traditional influx of families spending their winter holidays in the Savoy will not create the four-hour standstills experienced last year. Most of the Olympic runs and stadiums were completed before last winter so they could be tested in actual competition. Former Olympic champions have been involved in the design of the individual runs, and the technical expertise required of each par- ticipant is being stressed. The combined bobsled and luge run is the most costly new structure built for this Olympics. The difficulties presented by the terrain and new refrigeration technology made it a major undertaking for COJO, and a boon for the town of La Plagne. Construction of the track, situated in the north-facing area of La Roche, took more than two years and cost 213 million francs ($37 million). Designed by Bert Itastich, director of the International Luge Federation, it has 19 tight turns, and demands excellent techn ique from racers. The Olympic Committee set the standards for the Albertville ice-skating pavilion (Halle de Glace), with its excellent acoustics and seating for 9,000. A separate outdoor stadium ("the Oval") has been built for the speed-skating competition in Albertville, with 1,500 seats permanently installed under a crescent-shaped roof. An additional 10,000 temporary seats will be set up for the Games. Nicolas Deschamps, assistant COJO venue manager responsible for the Olympic Oval, has been preparing an emergency snow-clearance plan. "In addition," he says, "we will take advantage of the three months before the Games to test the icing process." Albertville's colossal temporary stadium for the opening and closing ceremonies will seat 35,000. Given the 180 hotel beds in the town, this will represent a major test of the shuttle-bus system and peripheral parking lots. Mr. Killy, the three-gold medal alpine winner in the Grenoble Olympics of 1968, designed the men's alpine run with Switzerland's Bernhard Russi, 1972 downhill Olympic Champion in Sapporo, Japan. The Bellevarde face in Killy's native Val d'Isere is 80 percent visible from the village. The mountain will be used for all the men's alpine events except the slalom, which will be held at Les Menuires, 53 miles away. The course at Les Menuires has been used by the French ski team for training since 1988. It is considered to be one of the best of its kind, well-constructed and highly technical, with its own ski-lift, high-performance video system, and timekeeping tower.

Lack of snow no problem Jean-Claude Fritsch, director of the men's alpine events, doesn't expect lack of snow to be a problem. Twenty-eight snowmaking machines will cover the Super G run in Val d'Isere, and another 28 will cover the entire men's slalom course in Les Menuires. "However," he notes, "in case of too much snow or bad weather in Val d'Isere, teams of 15 volunteers will be spread along the Bellevarde face to remove snow from difficult sections." The local volunteers are part of a 7,000-member force recruited from 12,0 00 French candidates, including former Olympic participants. Critical outdoor events, such as the men's alpine, ski-jumping and bobsled and luge events, have been scheduled early in the two weeks of the games to allow for postponement in case of serious wind or fog. Extensive weather forecasting installations will measure wind, barometric pressure, snow height, and temperature and feed a network of computers and satellites controlled from COJO headquarters here. Henri Blanc, venue manager coordinating the activities at Les Arcs, is especially concerned about the weather, since his events are scheduled at the end of the Games. "We prefer hard snow for the demonstration speed skiing events. Soft snow is more dangerous for the athletes." Fog or low visibility would cause them to cancel the day's runs. Nonetheless, according to Olympic rules, "we can designate a winner even if we can't ski all four days," says Mr. Blanc. The Courchevel double ski jump (90 and 120 meters - about 300 and 400 feet) in Le Praz was officially recognized in January 1981 and tested without snow in August 1991. (The jumps are covered with a special green plastic and ceramic tiles that permit their use year-round.) Jacques Burdin, venue manager of Courchevel, is training 200 volunteers for the Games. In a final pre-Olympic test, they will host the European Cup in Ski Jumping and Nordic Combined on Dec. 21-22.

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