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AS SMOOTH AS SILK IN SAPPORO
William Johnson
February 22, 1971
The Japanese staged a full-scale dress rehearsal for the 1972 Winter Olympic Games last week and it came off as a colorful blend of clockwork precision and quite scrutable Oriental charm
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February 22, 1971

As Smooth As Silk In Sapporo

The Japanese staged a full-scale dress rehearsal for the 1972 Winter Olympic Games last week and it came off as a colorful blend of clockwork precision and quite scrutable Oriental charm

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Once upon a time on Hokkaido, the bleak and beautiful northern isle of Japan, there lived for one year an American botanist from Massachusetts. His name was William Smith Clark and his game was helping Japanese pioneer settlers of a wilderness village called Sapporo to organize an agricultural school. A fire-and-brimstone enthusiast, William Smith Clark not only put the farm school on its feet, he also converted most of the students to Christianity, taught everyone rudimentary English, designed new buildings for the school and once publicly smashed four dozen bottles of wine in a ditch in order to convince the natives they should sign a pledge of abstinence from alcohol.

After his busy year in Sapporo, Clark mounted his horse to leave and his loyal students and faculty sadly trailed him out of town on their own mounts. Suddenly Clark reined in his horse, turned and cried out to his distraught entourage: "Boys, be ambitious!" Then he wheeled and galloped off toward America.

Today, some 95 years later, those words are engraved in stone at the base of a statue of William Smith Clark at the University of Hokkaido in Sapporo. And it would seem they are carved even more deeply into the civic soul of the city. For Sapporo has grown from that primeval shanty settlement to a town a million strong. By day it is a throbbing, though infinitely mundane, metropolis that looks most of all like seven smoggy Fort Waynes laid end to end. By night the place turns on in a splattering cascade of Japanese neon and all-round Oriental candlepower that makes Times Square seem dull.

There is ambition, all right, in Sapporo. And next year at about this time the former leading frontier hamlet will host the Winter Olympic Games of 1972. Naturally, the question arises: can a drab young city in the cold wastes of northern Asia, 5,000 miles from any major winter sports center, under frequent threat of storms from Siberia and with low mountains and narrow roads, really carry off an Olympics in style? Naturally, the question cannot be properly answered yet, but last week, blessed by a stunning run of sunny days, the city hosted a pre-Olympic meet called Sapporo International Sports Week as a test of its facilities, its civic mettle and its essential hospitality. The results were encouraging—perhaps even inspiring.

As one official booklet of the Sapporo Olympic Organizing Committee said in the kind of gentle Japanese-English that is often more eloquent than good grammar: "There have been made preparations, both spiritual and material, in good earnest." In good earnest, indeed.

Never has an Olympic spectacular been so near its final form so soon with such an impressive assortment of man-made venues and God-given vistas. From the 90-meter Okurayama jump hill with its flowing landing ramp and 50,000-seat stadium to the Makomanai indoor skating rink with its dodecagon-capped roof and even to the checker-patterned designs in the ice walls of the bobsled run on Mount Teine, the Japanese have produced something approaching good art. An elegant elliptical stadium that surrounds the Makomanai speed-skating rink was the scene for last week's opening ceremonies (as it will be for the Olympics) and things proceeded with an almost mystical Japanese combination of pomp, clockwork and charm. To the sound of regal band music and a fine massed chorus of students, the crown prince and his princess arrived and soon the infield was covered with military ranks of athletes and officials—about 550 of the 800 assembled being proud, bright-eyed young Japanese athletes. As Japanese words of welcome were spoken, an instant English translation appeared in lights on the computerized Seiko timing board. And then, once the ritual had subsided, hundreds and hundreds of lovely doll-like Japanese children appeared, each carrying a bobbing bouquet of balloons. En masse, they skated unsteadily around and around the racing oval until, at last, they all permitted their balloons to escape slowly into the sky to become countless colored specks against the blue.

Perhaps beauty will be the byword of the Sapporo Games. The Alpine events are to be held on two mountains which, when it comes to sheer breathtaking natural majesty, present panoramas that seem to outdo every travel calendar ever made. On Mount Teine, which is called "The Roof of Sapporo" since it is on the outskirts of town, there are the slaloms and giant slaloms for both men and women, along with the bobsled and the 1,140-meter luge courses. On a clear day you can see eternity through snowy Japanese birches—to the street grids of Sapporo far below and on across the broad flats of the Ishikari plain to the icy waters of the Sea of Japan and beyond. At Mount Eniwa, in Lake Shikotsu National Park, the men's and women's downhill runs form a massive squiggly X across the mountain face, and from the top of the courses there is a vista of delicate black pines and deep blue Lake Shikotsu and mountains that seem to have risen straight from a Japanese silk print.

Yet once the first raptures over the landscapes had worn off last week, there were some rather sharp points of criticism concerning the Alpine courses. After inspecting the downhill runs, judges from the Fédération Internationale de Ski were appalled to find that neither had sufficient safety nets, hay bales and assorted tree-trunk pads to protect rocketing racers if they fell. They ruled that the top of the men's downhill was too steep and ordered the starting gate moved 150 meters lower. It was a bizarre racecourse even then. Although the top and the bottom seemed steep and classy enough, there were strange long flat sections in the middle—so flat that some of the lesser young Japanese racers (flocks of whom entered the competition) were forced to pole along to keep up momentum.

The FIS experts also agreed that although the slaloms and giant slaloms on Mount Teine were steeper than most World Cup courses (the men's slalom had an average pitch of 25.3 degrees), they felt the runs were too smooth and thus not challenging enough. The Japanese responded by sending up some Sno-Cats and a battalion or so of Japanese soldiers with shovels to build a few new bumps.

In no way has the Sapporo committee spared expense in installing facilities. The Mount Eniwa downhill courses cost more than $2 million, and the complex on Mount Teine came to more than $4 million. In all, the committee has budgeted no less than 6,384,838,000 yen (more than $17 million) for the '72 extravaganza. Beyond that, the treasuries of the Japanese national government, of the Hokkaido prefecture and of the city of Sapporo will contribute another 14,700,000,000 yen ($40 million) for airport improvements and freeway construction.

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