EVEN before they begin a 16-day run in the French Alps on Saturday, a sense of history gently cloaks the XVIth Olympic Winter Games.
As the first "new world order" Olympics, they offer a peek into athletic life without the medal-gobbling superpowers of the Soviet Union and East Germany. The former USSR, in fact, will field four teams: Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, and something called the Unified Team, a coalition of Russia and four other republics, which will march under the Olympic flag.
These Games also mark the end of an Olympic era, since summer and winter Olympics will no longer be held in the same year. The next winter-sports summit will occur in 1994 in Lillehammer, Norway, a shift that will allow a less burdensome alternation of winter and summer spectacles.
In name, at least, the host to a record 64 competing countries is Albertville (pronounced "al-bare-veel"). In fact, the Olympics will be scattered around 600 square miles of the Savoie region, a decentralization that has some observers wary. Only the opening and closing ceremonies, figure skating, and speed skating will be held in Albertville (pop. 20,000), with many of the other competitions held in mountain towns that are not easily accessible.
As co-president of the local organizing committee, Olympic great Jean-Claude Killy will assume much of the responsibility for these Games. He was the point man in bringing them to the Savoie, where he learned to ski. His fame was cemented when he won three gold medals at the second French-hosted Winter Olympics in Grenoble in 1968. (Chamonix ushered in the first winter Games in 1924.)
Among the leading French gold-medal contenders are a pair of ice dancers, siblings Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay, and a moguls skier, Edgard Grospiron. Their events fit well in the refrigerated curio cabinet that is the Winter Olympics. Team and head-to-head competitions are scarce. Novelty and breathtaking speed are not. Skiers as 100-m.p.h. bullets
The Games already have speed skating (with top speeds of over 30 m.p.h.), as well as downhill skiing, bobsled, and luge, where the speed readings hover in the 70-to-90 m.p.h. range.
This year, the ante has been further raised with the addition of speed skiing, in which competitors impersonate bullets whizzing through a 100-meter speed trap at well over 100 m.p.h.
Curling, that odd-looking cousin of lawn bowling that uses brooms and curling stones on ice, assumes its place at the opposite end of the thrills spectrum. Like speed skiing, though, it only enjoys "demonstration" status.
Olympic organizers receive huge sums for television rights (reportedly $500 million of an $800 million budget in Albertville's case), so there's an implicit mandate for the Olympics to be good television. Roller Derby on ice
This may have contributed to making moguls skiing and short-track speed skating full-fledged medal events. The latter entry, with packs of skaters bumping around tight corners, bears a faint resemblance to Roller Derby, which should lend it a certain viewer appeal.
Of its own accord, figure skating has dropped compulsory figures, the dullest, though most fundamental, aspect of the sport. This doesn't disappoint CBS, which plans to make figure skating the centerpiece of its 116 hours of TV coverage. (See related story on facing page.) Without the compulsories, skaters have been able to dispense with practicing exacting loops and concentrate on more entertaining elements like jumps.
In perhaps the most glamorous of all Olympic events, the women's skating competition, Midori Ito of Japan and Tonya Harding of the United States are the jump masters. By landing their triples cleanly, they could strike gold, but Kristi Yamaguchi, the reigning world and US champion, and American Nancy Kerrigan, who reminds some of Germany's Katarina Witt, hope to win the day with their classical packaging of grace and athleticism.
Among the men, "quad"-capable Canadian Kurt Browning leads the field. He reportedly will receive nearly $750,000 from Coca-Cola of Canada if he brings home a gold.
Cash performance incentives are nothing new to the Olympics; a number of such arrangements came to light during the 1988 summer Games in Seoul. The United States is not averse to dangling monetary carrots: Any American cross-country skier who wins a gold medal, either in '92 or '94, can collect $100,000 from US Skiing, the sport's national governing body. (None is expected even to come close.) Interesting subplots abound
Professionalization is widespread in the Olympics these days. In theory, the trend should enhance both American and Canadian hockey chances, since National Hockey League players are eligible to compete. In reality, NHL players are not about to leave their pro clubs in midseason. But by the same token, the NHL migration of European and East-bloc athletes is expected to dilute other national teams as well.
The Olympics tend to reflect what is happening in the world at large. And given recent political events, the Albertville Games won't lack for interesting subplots: What rivalries might emerge within the dismantled Soviet camp, as Baltic and Russian athletes compete on separate teams? Will the fusion of West and East Germany go smoothly? Will the acceptance of provisional teams from Slovenia and Croatia exacerbate the civil strife in Yugoslavia?
For the time being, the known future is 16 days set against a stunning Alps backdrop. The world press has flocked to the Savoie's doorstep, eager to exalt the latest superstars of snow and ice. They will also seek out the unexpected (remember the 1980 US hockey miracle?) and the intriguing (the Jamaican bobsled team and British ski jumper Eddie "the Eagle" Edwards in '88).
A globe-girdling audience rubs its mittened paws in anticipation.