SI Vault
Jack Olsen
November 13, 1967
'We survived all the wars only to be destroyed by the Olympics,' says the citizen in the street in Grenoble. But, spurred to action by last winter's debacle and a wrathful voice from the top, the Olympic city has moved mountains and men to get ready for the Games
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November 13, 1967

A Shook-up Town's Great Shape-up

'We survived all the wars only to be destroyed by the Olympics,' says the citizen in the street in Grenoble. But, spurred to action by last winter's debacle and a wrathful voice from the top, the Olympic city has moved mountains and men to get ready for the Games

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The French authorities were especially galled by the fact that after the annoyed delegations had flounced off—"Tonight we sleep in friendly Switzerland," said the Austrian coach as a parting shot—the whole winter sports Establishment tended to side with them. Jean-Claude Killy, the top French skier, and Annie Famose, the slalom star, said publicly that they would have done exactly the same as the visitors, and the Napoleonic French coach, Honor� Bonnet, backed them up. The Italian coach said, "We have been ordered by our federation to race. We are obeying as we must. But it is possible that during the downhill our racers might stop halfway down the course to watch the others pass, because we feel ourselves allied with the Germans, the Austrians and the Swiss."

"What is so new about the Italians stopping halfway?" asked one Frenchman, but most remained steadfastly on the side of the affronted visitors. "It was simply because our own people believed what they read in the newspapers," said Dr. H�raud in the cool light of retrospect, "and the papers said that the French had been unfair to everybody but themselves. It was very comforting to certain teams to make the French appear as the villains. Even our own government believed the story for a while. I myself, every time I bumped into somebody in Paris, had to give a complete explanation. The Ministry of Youth and Sport finally sent a delegation to the downhill site at Chamrousse—I think they were encouraged a little by President de Gaulle—and they discovered quite quickly that the accommodations crisis was entirely artificial. But by then it was too late to undo the blow to our prestige."

At the Xth Winter Olympics next February, there will be no accommodations crisis, either real or fictional; there will be no repercussions about which team is staying in a three-star hotel and which team in hovels, or which team has one toilet for each 10 athletes and which team has deluxe bathrooms. All participants—athletes, coaches, ski-waxers, skate-sharpeners, water boys, timers, judges and other plenipotentiaries—will be housed in Olympic villages at Grenoble, Chamrousse and Autrans. The only exceptions will be a handful of bobsledders and tobogganists, less than 100 in all, who will have to make do in hotels at their own venues, miles from the major action. "We are taking no chances this time," said Dr. H�raud, a handsome, excitable man whose voice tends to go off in a squeak at the end of his sentences, like the baker talking to the gendarme in prewar French movies. "We are saying to each country in advance, 'Tell us how many you will be bringing and we will prepare exactly equal quarters for all. But if you bring extra people, as some of you did last year, they will be absolutely forbidden to live in Olympic villages!' We are setting aside three days in December for journalists of all countries to visit the athletes' accommodations; if they have any complaints, they can write them at that time. And on top of that, we are inviting an inspector from each country to look at the accommodations in advance. So where is the trouble going to come from this year?"

Well, some small criticism might be heard from students of esthetics. Chamrousse, the village where men's and women's Alpine events will take place, has been called the painted lady of French ski resorts. Until recently, it was a hodgepodge of A-frames and chalets and pop stands and ninth-class hotels, the whole devoid of form, having "a place in the world of skiing but peripherally rather than centrally," as the London Times put it. One American described the architecture and layout of Chamrousse as "half-Aspen." But the French have applied themselves to the problem, and the painted lady has been refurbished and face-lifted almost to the very edge of respectability. Two entirely separate road systems now link the village to Grenoble, 19 miles down the mountain, and traffic will flow in a continuous belt through the competition areas. Modern shopping centers have sprung up, with arcades to protect window-shoppers from the winter winds, and dozens of small and handsome lodges have been built. Clearly, Chamrousse intends to stay in business on a larger scale after the Olympic hubbub dies down.

As for the Alpine sites themselves, the French are fond of saying that they have moved mountains. Some 300,000 cubic meters of earth were shifted around on the slalom trails alone, and major improvements were made in the women's downhill, which ends smack in the center of Chamrousse. The men's downhill run may well take its place as one of the finest in the world, and the French are treating it like a Cecil B. de Mille production. Soldiers of the French army walk up and down the slopes, policing the area as though six feet of snow were not going to cover it all up anyway. From the first snowfall, around late November or early December, a contingent of men will be stationed on the course, their shovels at the ready, tamping the snow base into shape. By the time the first skier runs the course in February, the snow will have been hand-curried for two months.

All this superattention to detail on the men's downhill was the idea of Ski Expert Paul Briglia, a handsome, mustached sportsman who functions as the director of sport for the Winter Games. "Last time there were suggestions that we made the course so difficult that only the French could get down," Briglia said, chuckling. "But that is simply not true. It's just that last time the pre-Olympic events were handled by a small group of people with a limited budget and this time the Olympic events are being handled by France. Last time the course was not ready; we do not deny. Certain bumps were too sharp. Certain turns were not perfected. It was a difficult course, even for the French."

Last February, Britain's Jeremy Palmer-Tomkinson stood at the bottom of the men's downhill, brushing snow from his pants, and said, "What this course wants is a major bashing with shovels. It is terribly rutty and full of moguls. After all, there are other nations who want to race in addition to the five expert Alpine powers. The idea of the downhill is to get everyone down, not to kill them." Japan's Yoshiharu Fukuhara crossed the finish line on his backside. "I fell down and broke my skis and lost my glasses," he said. "The Japanese are not so good at downhill racing."

This year's visitors to the downhill course near Chamrousse have pronounced it just about perfect. Les bosses du coq (the bumps of the rooster), a series of humps that consistently troubled skiers last year, have been softened slightly, as have the Emile Allais bumps, two artificial cofferdams inserted just ahead of the finish line to make matters more interesting at the end and named after the Cardinal Richelieu of French skiing. "Last year the Allais bumps came to a sharp point, and we actually put two Japanese skiers into orbit," a construction foreman said at the site. "They appear over Chamrousse every morning at 2 o'clock, calling for an interpreter."

The course still begins with a chute that comes off the top of a shack installed for timers and skiers at the beginning of the run, 7,319 feet from the finish line, and runs down a very steep pitch for several hundred feet. The first serious problem for the skier comes at a sharp right turn at the end of this pitch. "If he makes that, at least he will live," said Briglia. "The maximum gradient is only 65%, and the average is only 29%, and the total vertical drop is a mere half mile. Who can complain? But while we have modified the course somewhat, we have still left the fast line for anyone who chooses to take it. In other words, the course has been made more forgiving, but for the superior skier it is even faster than it was last year, when Killy got down in two minutes and six seconds. We expect that mark to be broken."

The last great problem facing France's brain trust of Olympic planners was the bobsled run, an $800,000 headache that snakes down the shoulder of a mountain high in the Grandes Rousses in the popular resort town of Alpe d'Huez. There are certain Frenchmen who have been advised by their doctors never to think about the bobsled run at Alpe d'Huez, and certain competitors who can still show you their scars. "You can just imagine how we feel," said the easygoing Briglia. "We wanted to build the last word in bobsled runs, so we hired Italian Architect Luciano Galli to make the design. Not that there are many bobsled-course designers to choose from—a man would starve to death if that's all he did for a living—but Galli is the undisputed best of the best. He designed the course at Cervinia, and that is a very high recommendation. So he laid out our course at Alpe d'Huez, and it was a—what do you call it?—a lemon!"

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