Testing Olympic Dreams on Ice And Snow ... Among the Palm Trees

Scott Koons had spent years imagining the day he would qualify for the United States Olympic speed-skating team. He'd envisioned pumping his fists in the air on the victory lap. He'd anticipated the ecstatic reactions of his parents and the front-page stories back home in Cleveland.

But he never thought about the sportswear.

Within hours of making the team last month, Mr. Koons found himself struggling to carry a duffel bag packed with Olympic gear. He understood the parka, the warm-up jackets, the gloves, the racing suits, and the bathrobe, but he began to wonder if he really needed an Olympic hair dryer.

Then it hit him.

The difference between Scott Koons the Olympic hopeful and Scott Koons the Olympian was the weight of that bag. The pressure it exerted on his shoulder was the tangible mass of a dream achieved.

"I knew right then," Koons says, "that my life will never be the same."

Tonight (actually Saturday in Japan), the world's attention will descend through the skies of Asia, toward the center of Japan, between the frosted mountain peaks and apple orchards of the Nagano Prefecture, to the opening ceremonies of the 18th Olympic Winter Games.

This 16-day spectacle will leave its own signature. It will be the last Winter Olympics of this millennium. It will host more athletes from more countries competing in more sports than ever before at a winter Games. It will be the first Winter Olympics site to feature palm trees.

But like all Olympics, this will be a place where the world's greatest athletes vie for a shot at immortality. For Koons and every other person playing a role, Nagano will forever be the place where their dreams, once broad and abstract, take on the tactile dimensions of an overstuffed bag, a racing bib, an Olympic uniform, or a gold medal.

"Everything is going according to plan," says International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch. "We are sure that the winter Games will be a big success."

Although Nagano's citizens have volunteered by the thousands to assist with logistics, organizers are already bracing for difficulty. Warm winds from the Japan Sea, known locally as "snow eaters," could threaten to disrupt some outdoor events. The city's narrow streets have already posed transportation problems. Hakuba Village, home of the ski-jumping and alpine-skiing events, is a 25-mile drive from Nagano.

Even if everything goes according to plan, Nagano must struggle to emerge from the shadow of the 1994 Games in Lillehammer, Norway, where the concentration of venues, well-rounded competition, and idyllic weather led many observers to declare them the best winter Games in history. Nagano's organizers have worked to downplay expectations, announcing their intent to host a "simple" competition.

Debut of three sports

In addition to the traditional Olympic contests, snowboarding, curling, and women's hockey have been added to the program. Snowboarding, with its Generation-X reputation and close relationship to skateboarding, is expected to lure a younger audience. (But not everyone is excited about its debut. Terje Haakonsen, the world champion from Norway, says he is boycotting the winter Games because of its rules and formality.)

"If people say the Olympics isn't all about ratings, they're lying," says American snowboarder Todd Richards. "A lot of young people don't think it's cool to watch the Olympics. Snowboarding is a younger sport, and adding it is a way to tap that demographic."

Perhaps the most exciting development in Nagano is the participation of professional hockey players. In an unprecedented move, the National Hockey League (NHL) will interrupt its season during the Olympics to allow its star players to compete for their home countries. In the words of players and NHL officials, it will be "the greatest hockey tournament in history."

For the Olympic movement itself, Nagano comes at a time when dollar signs seem to have replaced the five interlocking rings as the Olympic symbol. CBS paid $375 million for the US television broadcast rights alone, and contracts with other nations netted an additional $138 million. Corporate sponsors will pitch in $212 million.

Although the onslaught of corporate money has helped save the Games, organizers in Nagano have labored to avoid the jumble of billboards and merchandise peddlers that gave Atlanta a decidedly commercial flavor two summers ago.

For the millions who will watch these Games in person and on TV, commercial considerations take a back seat to what really counts: the sports competition.

How the competition stacks up

Athletes with the best chances for multiple medals at Nagano include Austrian alpine skier Hermann Maier and Norwegian cross-country skier Bjorn Daehlie. Japanese fans will pin their medal hopes on ski jumping, where crowds of 50,000 are expected. Germans should dominate the bobsled and luge competitions, while the US women stand a chance to sweep the medals in singles figure skating.

Aside from figure skaters Michelle Kwan, Tara Lipinski, and Todd Eldredge, the US is most likely to win medals in men's and women's hockey, freestyle skiing, and snowboarding. Speed skater Christine Witty is among the world's best, and two US doubles teams have legitimate medal hopes in men's luge. Alpine skiers Tommy Moe and Picabo Street have been struggling since medaling at Lillehammer, and Street will try to rebound from a nasty spill in Sweden last week.

As the opening ceremonies begin tonight, the sense of excitement in Nagano will be palpable. For first-time Olympians like Koons, the simple act of marching into the Olympic Stadium may be reward enough for years of practice. For veterans and former medalists like Street, satisfaction can only come from a perch on the medal platform.

But the Olympics, and the glory they can bring, are not the sole province of athletes. Motoichi Godo is a silver-haired farmer who works as a lay assistant to the Buddhist monks at the Zenko-ji temple. During a prayer ritual for the Games, Mr. Godo will ring the temple's seven-foot bronze bell. It will be a tiring job and a loud one, but he won't mind.

As a kamikaze pilot in the Japanese Imperial Navy during World War II, Godo awoke each morning faced with the possibility of his own death. He owes his life to the Japanese surrender and the horrific end of the world's deadliest war. It's a part of his past he seldom talks about but has never forgotten.

For Godo, the Nagano Olympics, like the coarse weight of that bell's rope in his hands, is a tangible reminder that the past is behind him now. That the years have answered his tallest prayer.

"None of this," he says, "would be possible without peace."

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