BARDONECCHIA, ITALY — The question was fairly straightforward. To arrive in time for the noon start of the men's downhill, what was the best time to leave Turin? The official paused. "If you left at six o'clock, it wouldn't be too early."
It was a cautious prediction intended to take into consideration the confusion that reigns in the early days of any Olympics. But it underscored a frequent observation during the first days of these Games - that there are actually two Olympics happening this month, one in Turin and one in the Alps west of town.
There is not one athlete's village, but three, in Turin and the mountains. The spectators' guide to the Games also encourages fans from Turin to leave 5-1/2 hours before the start of the event.
As in Athens, where high-keyed journalists originally seemed to fear that the buses would be driven by orangutans and the venues made of papier-mâché, those dire estimates appear to be worst-case scenarios now. Yet there is the sense among athletes and spectators that wherever they are, they're missing half the show.
"Over the years, I've met and become friends with quite a few athletes from different sports," says Tony Benshoof, a luger who is staying in one of the mountain-area athlete's villages. "It's a little frustrating not being able to hang out with them."
Historically speaking, it's a trend that has been building since Albertville in 1992, when events were scattered throughout the French Alps - introducing the winter Games to the phenomenon of the traffic jam. Since then, the Winter Olympics have only grown, ensuring that quaint hamlets like Lake Placid, N.Y., would be overrun by the hordes of corporate sponsors and disgruntled pen-pushers.
So with few major cities situated a half-hour from Olympic-caliber ski slopes, the Winter Olympics have become correspondingly stretched. In 2010, the Games will be similarly split between stadium events in Vancouver and alpine events two hours away in Whistler.
Yet Turin has added the exclamation point. Its Alpine venues surely feel farther away than they actually are. Faced with ferrying thousands of spectators from place to place on mountain roads little wider than goat tracks, organizers have warned spectators to be patient. For San Sicario Fraiteve, site of Wednesday's women's downhill, the spectators' guide warns laconically: "The estimated exit time is up to three hours and thirty minutes."
Thankfully, entertainment is provided at the base.
Entertainment was not provided here at Bardonecchia after the men's halfpipe final Sunday. At least, not in the traditional sense. After the event, spectators had to wait as long as 1-1/2 hours on a narrow path beside a mountain stream to catch buses that would take them to the train station.
At last, some frustrated fans attempted to cut the line by scaling a steep hill and scrambling through the woods. Not surprisingly, they were pelted by snowballs from those either too orderly or too scared to clamber up the slope. Others took the spirit of Hannibal - who crossed the Alps near here in 218 BC to sack Rome - and attempted to ford the stream.
They were caught by police, who were not here in 218.
Yet amid the crowd's chorus of boos were some who took a more sanguine view. "I just looked at it as one of those things that happens anytime you hold a big event like this," says Dave Sweeney, who was among the squeezed. "[The workers] were very polite, and very apologetic."
The athletes agree that organizers have done all they can, and Benshoof says the transportation has been good. Yet it is still a two-hour drive - each way - to watch hockey or hang out with his non-luging friends. "It's pretty much just skiers and sliders up here," he laughs.
For some, the distance has the potential to diminish the Olympic experience. Mogul skier Jeremy Bloom dropped his spot on the University of Colorado football team so he could ski moguls and take in the Olympic atmosphere. "The experience and the camaraderie here, it's a really incredible feeling - especially in 2002 when there was one Olympic village," he said in a press conference last week.
Instead of the energy of the Salt Lake village, "it's a small-town feel," adds Benshoof. "It's a little weird."