If experience is the great teacher, the world is illiterate when it comes to the Winter Olympics. How many people, after all, have ever roared down a bobsled run, sailed off a ski jump, or laced on a pair of 17-inch speed skating blades. Very, very few, to be sure.
The Winter Games tend to be shrouded in mystery and misunderstanding. Perhaps the most basic misconception about these curious competitions is that they are as old as their summer counterparts, usually referred to simply as the Olympics.
In fact, there originally was only a single Olympics, not two seasonal ones, when Pierre de Coubertin helped to revive the idea of a world athletic event in 1896. Modeled after the ancient Greek games, the modern Olympics (first staged at Athens in April of that year) did not initially include winter sports.
Figure skating was introduced in 1908, but then dropped until 1920, when it and ice hockey were included on the program. Four years later, at Chamonix, France, the first separate Winter Olympics were held, with medals awarded in Nordic skiing, figure skating, bobsled, and hockey. Alpine skiing didn't make its Olympic debut until 1936. This history explains why only sports practiced on snow and ice are part of the ''Olympic Winter Games'' while basketball, wrestling, and gymnastics, among other indoor activities usually associated with the winter season, remain on the summer program.
With the worldwide interest and TV coverage they now command, it is easy to forget that as recently as 1972 the future of the Winter Games seemed very much in doubt. Many influential people including the late International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage, felt that the games had ''served their purpose'' of building up interest in winter sports and that it was time to discontinue them. But current IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch, in his opening address here, made it clear that the committee is on the opposite track now.
''Contrary to the idea which was widely spread a few years ago, the Winter Games are not about to be discontinued,'' he said. ''The IOC intends to make them more brilliant and more important.''
To better appreciate and understand the Winter Olympics, meanwhile, the fog may need to be lifted or the record set straight in several other areas.
False notion: 70 and 90-meter ski jumps are designated that way because of the height of the ramps.
Not really. The measurements refer to the relative distance of the jumps off these separate structures. The two jumps at the Igman plateau here in Sarajevo actually have vertical drops of 432 and 630 feet. The difference is that off the smaller of these the competitors are started at a point that will yield an average jump of 70 meters. Off the larger jump, the ramp or in-run is of sufficient length to permit a jump in the neighborhood of 90 meters.
False notion: the US hockey team beat the Russians to win the the 1980 gold medal.
Partly true. The victory over the Soviets in the next-to-last game put the Americans in command, but they still had to beat Finland two days later, a fact that is sometimes forgotten. The hockey competition entails a series of games, beginning with a round robin that determines which teams advance into the medal round. In 1980 the United States was 6-0-1 overall, tying Sweden in the opener.
False notion: it takes a genius to ski through the confusing maze of gates in the slalom event.
Not exactly, although the impression is understandable. Telephoto camera lenses makes gates appear to be right on top of one another. They really are more spaced out than they seem. Then, too, a pattern of attack is followed by the skier, who alternately negotiates gates with red flags and those with blue, cutting between the two poles that make up each gate. Bendable plastic poles encourage skiers to knock down the inside pole as they make a bee-line down the mountain.
False notion: the Soviet Union has dominated the Winter Olympics.
This is true enough if you count one specific period, from their entry into the competition in 1956 through the present. They didn't win the most medals last time, though; that honor went to the East Germans with 23. And in the overall standings Norway still leads with 152 total medals, followed by the USSR with 140, and the United States with 106, and then Austria, Finland, Sweden, and East Germany, in that order.
False notion: duplicate medals are never awarded in Olympic competition.
Wrong. In 1968, three American speed skaters - Diane Holum, Jennifer Fish, and Mary Meyers - finished with identical times in the 500 meters. Each received a silver, second-place medal. Duplicate golds, incidentally, probably should have been awarded in 1980 to Finnish cross-country skier Juha Mieto, who finished one hundredth of a second behind Swedish winner Thomas Wassberg in the 15-kilometers or 9.3-Mile race.
False notion: one fall in the free skating program and a competitor can generally forget about winning a medal.
Not necessarily. If a skater catches a blade, goes down, and pops right up with little loss of continuity, the scoring deduction is fairly minimal. Depending on the level of competition, a singles skater may overcome such a slip , especially if it occurs attempting a spectacular move. The task is more difficult, though, for pairs and ice dancing couples, since two people normally can't regroup as quickly as one.