They came to Hokkaido for the XI Winter Olympiad, to an alien island the size of South Carolina where the dancing crane migrates in from Siberia for the winter and smiling people decorate their snowy streets with bouquets of fresh flowers frozen into blocks of clear ice. There were 1,128 athletes from 35 countries assembled for the first Winter Games ever to be held in Asia, and they came wearing rich sealskin uniforms from East Germany and swirling red gaucho capes from Argentina and leather hats from Sears Roebuck.
They had no idea what to expect of Hokkaido and Hokkaido was not certain what to expect of them. But soon after the Games began in Sapporo, the chill, snowbanked capital of the island, it was clear that the liaison between northern Japan and the Winter Olympics was a thing born of charm and good fortune, a union made at "the horizon of the rainbow," as the lyrics of one official Olympic hymn said. Perhaps that song, a sweet and moving melody titled The Ballad of Rainbow and Snow, best symbolized the mood. It was sung by massed choirs and played by cabaret pianists and danced to by go-go girls. It was rendered in every style from Mozart to. Motown to the Muzak piped down into subway platforms and through department store aisles. The song hung like sunlight over the city all week.
Not everything came up rainbows, of course. Sapporo, with a population of 1.03 million, was the largest metropolis ever to host the Winter Games, and though every lamppost, taxicab and curbside rubbish container glimmered with some kind of bright pennant or decal that cried yokoso (welcome), the size of the city all but swallowed up the Olympics.
And there was a depressing list of casualties among Alpine skiers. Fran�oise Macchi, France's finest coming into the Games, smashed her knee, and West Germany's Christian Neureuther, a slalom favorite, sliced his hands putting them through a glass door. Then the promising American downhiller, Eric Poulsen, took a bad spill in practice and broke a wrist and battered a knee. There was also that uninjured casualty, the ageless Austrian Alpinist, Karl Schranz, who was a favorite to win his first Olympic gold medal after 18 seasons of world-class competition.
In an arrogant performance touched with cruelty, Avery Brundage and the International Olympic Committee kept their polite but desperately anxious Japanese hosts dangling for more than a week—along with dozens of uncertain Alpine skiers—while they harrumphed over the issue of which racers might be disqualified for commercialism. Ultimately Schranz alone was sacrificed for all of the others.
The sourness was deep for a time, but at last the days of sweetness came with the opening ceremonies beneath radiant skies in the glistening oval of Makomanai Stadium. The Emperor of Japan looked on with inscrutable bemusement as the fashion parade of Olympic teams marched past. Mostly it was colorful, and even chic, but Brundage looked as if he had been clothed by Army-Navy surplus in his black parka, dark gray ski pants with baggy knees and low boots with tan socks worn outside his pants.
The ceremony itself was breathtaking, a combination of beauty and precision, and a sigh like a gentle gust of wind rose from the 53,924 in the stadium as the torchbearer appeared on the glassy oval. As the Olympic caldron was lighted, the stadium thundered its cheers. Moments later the ice was alive with hundreds of Japanese children, skating unsteadily, carrying gaudy balloons which they released into the sky like specks of colored sugar candy.
The next day, in the same stadium, Sapporo began draping gold around the neck of its special hero. Every Olympiad produces one. In 1968 it was the Gallic gallant, Jean-Claude Killy. At Sapporo it was the Dutchman Ard Schenk, the tallest windmill out of a flat and flowery land. The morning sky was the color of pewter and a thick, fluffy snow was falling when the men's 5,000-meter speed skating event began. The luck of the draw put Schenk, the world's finest skater, on the course first, when the snow was the heaviest. Schenk is 27 and the holder of six world records. He is also strong and handsome, with chiseled features and intense light blue eyes, a striking latter-day vision of Hans Brinker.
Schenk was not pleased at starting so early in the 5,000 because he would have no other times to pace himself against. But he charged away with powerful strokes, flinging his arms in mighty arcs. The snow was blinding by then, but there was no wind. Ghostly in the stands, a cluster of Dutch imports chanted, "Heya! Heya! Ard Schenk!" The big Dutchman came driving home in 7 minutes 23.61 seconds, 11.61 seconds slower than his own world record—and nobody congratulated him because nobody knew how the weather would affect the others.
For more than three hours Schenk waited. In the last pair was his teammate and one of his greatest rivals, the powerful Kees Verkerk. By the time Verkerk raced, the snow had stopped but the wind was up and Verkerk could manage only 7:39.10. First gold for Schenk. When he appeared with the medal dangling around his neck, someone asked if he was disappointed at failing to break the Olympic mark. Schenk looked surprised and then grinned widely. "I don't even know what the Olympic record is," he said. "All that is important is this gold medal. Breaking records is not important at all."