Planning Not All Downhill for '98 Winter Olympics: Snow, Upset Skiers Threaten No-Show
Witter, Willis, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
NAGANO, Japan - Olympic figure skaters have threatened not to skate, skiers not to ski and hockey players not to play. Even the sky threatens not to snow.
Preparations for the Winter Games, to be held in Nagano Feb. 7 through 22, have sparked battles over money, complaints over inadequate facilities and, most recently, the length of the men's downhill ski course.
Each year, a half-million recreational skiers begin their runs from the peak of Mount Karamatsu and pass through a 400-foot vertical stretch of national park that remains off limits to Olympic athletes.
The International Ski Federation (FIS) wants the zone added to the men's downhill, claiming a shorter course isn't up to Olympic standards.
The dispute between the FIS and local officials, who are under pressure from environmental groups to use a lower start, has simmered for more than four years. At times it grew so acrimonious that FIS officials threatened to pull skiing out of the Winter Games entirely.
Earlier disputes, since resolved, drew similar warnings of a boycott from figure skaters and National Hockey League players, who will compete in the Olympics for the first time.
If that weren't enough, the worst "El Nino" weather pattern in at least 15 years threatens to rob the Games of its most precious commodity - snow.
Some 4,000 athletes and officials from 83 nations will compete in the century's last Winter Olympics before a global television audience in the billions.
The Games' 68 events are spread over a 40-mile radius around Nagano City, an electronics manufacturing center of 360,000 that sits in a bowl-shaped valley of towering peaks.
Four-term Nagano Mayor Tasuku Tsukada said he has no doubt that the Games will match those held four years ago in Lillehammer. The frosty Norwegian village hosted what International Olympic President Juan Antonio Samaranch called "the best Winter Games in Olympic history."
Japan has spent a staggering $12 billion on facilities, new roads and expressways and a high-speed bullet train to link the mountain province to Tokyo, some 120 miles away.
"Everything is on schedule," the mayor said in a recent interview, except the men's downhill. He predicted that a last-minute compromise would raise the event's starting point, though not all the way to the top of the mountain. …