When the weather is hot enough to turn car seats into upholstered griddles, winter sports may seem strangely out of season. To spectators at the annual US Olympic Festivals, however, rink events have provided an escape from the heat in places like Houston; Baton Rouge, La.; and now here in central North Carolina. At the same time, ticketholders get a good look at many of the athletes who will form the nucleus of the US Winter Olympic contingents in ice hockey, figure skating, and short-track (or indoor) speedskating. The latter has been added as a demonstration sport at next February's Winter Games in Calgary.
All the ice events this time have been held in the Greensboro Coliseum, where a record festival figure-skating crowd of 12,672 turned out to see one session.
Because skaters were grouped into teams and no individual scores were awarded, it had the feel of an exhibition.
But if the atmosphere was more relaxed, it didn't keep some big names from falling. Jill Trenary and Caryn Kadavy took spills in the women's singles, where Rory Flack, a little-known 18-year-old, brought down the house. She was as big a hit as singer Roberta Flack, a second cousin and native North Carolinian featured in the festival's opening ceremony.
Though only a 12th-place finisher in this year's nationals, Rory has been improving rapidly under current coach John Nicks, who lists former world champions Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner among his star pupils. Rory, a Black Achievement and Strive for Excellence award winner in San Diego, unquestionably executes the best split jumps in women's skating, and she has the same kind of performing flair as world silver medalist Debi Thomas, who skipped the festival.
Brian Boitano, owner of the men's world silver, was here and again attempted to land history's first quadruple jump. He fell, as he had at the worlds, but will continue trying, since he is intrigued by the challenge presented by what he perceives to be the next frontier in figure skating.
``I think the men's event is a now a lot more athletic than it was even at Sarajevo in 1984,'' he said. ``I've been working on the quad off an on since 1982. I looked ahead and said to win the Olympics in 1988 I might need to have a quadruple, and there's no way you debut a jump like that the year of the Olympics.''
Perhaps the fiercest competition of the festival is shaping up in hockey, since this is basically where the 1988 Olympic team will be chosen. National coach Dave Peterson needs to pare a field of 80 candidates down to the 30 or so who will be invited to the Olympic training camp.
A lot of dreams ride on the evaluations he and his staff make, since many players here have vivid memories of the 1980 ``Miracle on Ice'' at Lake Placid.
The '84 team, which had to cope with heightened expectations, finished a disappointing seventh. Only two members of that team, Scott Fusco and Corey Millen, are here, which means that Peterson is basically starting from scratch.
And he's doing so without leaving the door open to make any last-minute additions of National Hockey League players or top minor league prospects, all of whom are now eligible for the Olympics.
Peterson only wants players on the team who are willing to devote the next six months of their lives to the Olympic effort. And he seems confident that the results will be acceptable.
``That doesn't mean I'm promising anything,'' he says. But he believes many of the candidates are seasoned enough to deal with the rigors of the 65-game pre-Olympic schedule followed by the games.
``We have players ... who have beaten the Russians head-to-head in junior competition,'' he says. ``We have players who have played on a junior medal-winning team ... who've had success in the world tournament. So we have more players who are less in awe of international competition than I think we once had.''
And if there's one person unawed by the task ahead it's Peterson, who has retired as a business teacher and hockey coach after 27 years at Southwest High in Minneapolis.
Having long been involved in Minnesota's pressure-packed high school tournament, he knows what intensity is and how to handle it. ``If we don't finish with a medal, well, the world won't end for Dave Peterson,'' he says. ``I'm a retired schoolteacher now, and I'll be a retired schoolteacher after the Olympics. I'm not using this as a steppingstone, I'm not looking for a college or NHL job. And besides, my wife would like to see me more often.'' ESPN's telecasting wrinkles
ESPN, the cable sports network that enjoyed such success covering the America's Cup sai1ing last year, has introduced ``floating anchors'' here at the festival. That's the oxymoronic tag placed on Jim Kelly and Gayle Gardner, the capable on-air hosts of ESPN's 44-hour coverage package. In this case, they are floating from venue to venue, a departure from the usual practice at multi-sports telecasts of planting the hosts in a studio.
While Gardner and Kelly move around, executive producer Bill Fitts does not. In fact, Fitts calls the shots from ESPN's Bristol, Conn., headquarters. Signals arrive via satellite from Noruh Carolina and are integrated into a finished telecast in the blink of an eye. ESPN considers its coverage of the last three festivals a progressive step in the evolution of the network, which was launched 7 years ago and still is all sports 24 hours a day.
The festival telecast is a challenging logistical undertaking, given 34 sports and numerous competition sites. Whether the job ESPN has done could be a prelude to bigger things remains to be seen.
``A lot of industry experts are speculating that in 1992 you will see cable involved [in Olympic coverage] in some way, shape, or form,'' says Chris LaPlaca, ESPN's director of communications. What seems logical is that the major networks may begin farming out the minor sports to ESPN and other cable operations.