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Testing Olympic Dreams on Ice And Snow ... Among the Palm Trees

By Sam WalkerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 6, 1998



BOSTON

Scott Koons had spent years imagining the day he would qualify for the United States Olympic speed-skating team. He'd envisioned pumping his fists in the air on the victory lap. He'd anticipated the ecstatic reactions of his parents and the front-page stories back home in Cleveland.

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But he never thought about the sportswear.

Within hours of making the team last month, Mr. Koons found himself struggling to carry a duffel bag packed with Olympic gear. He understood the parka, the warm-up jackets, the gloves, the racing suits, and the bathrobe, but he began to wonder if he really needed an Olympic hair dryer.

Then it hit him.

The difference between Scott Koons the Olympic hopeful and Scott Koons the Olympian was the weight of that bag. The pressure it exerted on his shoulder was the tangible mass of a dream achieved.

"I knew right then," Koons says, "that my life will never be the same."

Tonight (actually Saturday in Japan), the world's attention will descend through the skies of Asia, toward the center of Japan, between the frosted mountain peaks and apple orchards of the Nagano Prefecture, to the opening ceremonies of the 18th Olympic Winter Games.

This 16-day spectacle will leave its own signature. It will be the last Winter Olympics of this millennium. It will host more athletes from more countries competing in more sports than ever before at a winter Games. It will be the first Winter Olympics site to feature palm trees.

But like all Olympics, this will be a place where the world's greatest athletes vie for a shot at immortality. For Koons and every other person playing a role, Nagano will forever be the place where their dreams, once broad and abstract, take on the tactile dimensions of an overstuffed bag, a racing bib, an Olympic uniform, or a gold medal.

"Everything is going according to plan," says International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch. "We are sure that the winter Games will be a big success."

Although Nagano's citizens have volunteered by the thousands to assist with logistics, organizers are already bracing for difficulty. Warm winds from the Japan Sea, known locally as "snow eaters," could threaten to disrupt some outdoor events. The city's narrow streets have already posed transportation problems. Hakuba Village, home of the ski-jumping and alpine-skiing events, is a 25-mile drive from Nagano.

Even if everything goes according to plan, Nagano must struggle to emerge from the shadow of the 1994 Games in Lillehammer, Norway, where the concentration of venues, well-rounded competition, and idyllic weather led many observers to declare them the best winter Games in history. Nagano's organizers have worked to downplay expectations, announcing their intent to host a "simple" competition.

Debut of three sports

In addition to the traditional Olympic contests, snowboarding, curling, and women's hockey have been added to the program. Snowboarding, with its Generation-X reputation and close relationship to skateboarding, is expected to lure a younger audience. (But not everyone is excited about its debut. Terje Haakonsen, the world champion from Norway, says he is boycotting the winter Games because of its rules and formality.)