Athletes and Hosts Bow to the Weather

By , Senior sports columnist for The Christian Science Monitor

It is snowing, as well it should in the winter in the mountains.

But the irony is that snow at the winter Olympics, which should get along like potatoes and gravy instead get along like Hatfield and McCoy.

On the first day of competition Sunday, one of the showpiece events, the men's downhill, was cancelled because of weather, which is to say snow and fog. They'll try again Wednesday. Other alpine events are suffering a similar fate as courses become buried under more than a foot of new snow. The men's combined slalom, women's super-G, and the women's snowboarding giant slalom are all being rescheduled.

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The only outdoor event to go off as planned Monday was the men's 30-kilometer cross-country race, won by Finland's Mika Myllylae.

The Japanese hosts are distraught about the untoward turn of events, neverminding that this kind of thing happens almost every winter Olympics.

As President Truman once said, if you can't stand the snow, then stay out of the Japanese Alps.

That the Japanese are so worked up over the weather speaks volumes. After all, the Japanese are worked up over everything. They want everything to be perfect except the US trade imbalance with them. They are laying it all on the line in the Nagano Olympics - their pride, their hopes, their dreams, their culture, their reputation, their sacred honor. Each individual seems to feel that how the world feels about Japan depends on him or her - personally. That's a big burden for one person, carrying a nation.

Sincere apologies

Few people care more than the Japanese about what outsiders think. So that's why if they can't do anything about the dratted snow after apologizing for it a few million times, then they can at least shovel it and plow it and make it go away in quick time. Even a unit of Japan's self-defense force, apparently held in reserve for such an occasion, has been called in to prepare the alpine courses by marching up and down the mountainside.

For the snow and other problems, the Japanese are sorry. They are so "sorry, sorry, sorry" when a waiting line is long and when the buses run late.

When a visitor cannot find a vacant locker in which to lock up possessions during his absence, a young Japanese woman presiding over the lockers clasps her hands and begs for forgiveness. She is genuinely stricken. All the gyrations and sorries don't overcome the fact that he still needs a locker. But what a splendid show of style and class and culture this woman displays.

It's simple: The Japanese are wonderful, accommodating people who hate to say no. Go to an information desk and there is not one person waiting to help but perhaps five or six or more.

In fact, they are so wonderful, so accommodating, so anxious to please, so self-deprecating, and so polite that it can make outsiders feel a trifle uneasy. By comparison, it's as if we are standing on their white carpet with muddy boots and belching at a formal dinner - and the Japanese are bowing and apologizing.

Perhaps a good part of the Japanese attitude still stems from that unfortunate dust-up 56 years ago at Pearl Harbor. They don't talk about it but every American they see is a walking reminder. Maybe, one more bow towards one more American finally will close the curtain on that horrific memory, for both peoples.

The Olympics have always been of huge import to the Japanese. The Tokyo Summer Olympics in 1964 were held by the Japanese in order to demonstrate to the world that they had risen from the ashes of war two decades previous and were now ready to take a seat at the table with the other world powers. Sapporo's winter Olympics in 1972 were a signal that the transformation from vanquished aggressor to respected political and economic power had come full circle.

Coming through in the clutch

And Nagano originally was to be a glorious and spectacular reaffirmation of Japan's hugely important place in the world, especially economically. Alas, economic woes arose. But they never threatened Japan's ability to hold the Olympics. If anything, the financial dog days give Japan the chance to show that even with the yen on the fritz, they can still put on a whopping show.

That they are.

They could not be more proud that their country is hosting these games. Nothing could be more endearing. Outside, an army of workers is shoveling, stopping to bow, getting out of the way for a passerby: "Sorry, sorry, sorry."

* Doug Looney's e-mail address is looneyd@csps.com

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