Originally created 02/08/98

Nagano more than merely an Alpine resort



NAGANO, Japan -- Boot camp has begun.

For the next 15 days there will hardly be time to take a deep breath as I plunge from snowboarding to skating to bobsled to hockey. And I love it.

The lull before an Olympics starts is filled with press conference, practice sessions, interviews with athletes and coaches, all the while trying to figure out what is going to be the story most people want to read about. And every time there are surprises, underdogs who come out of nowhere to win medals or upset favorites.

The pre-Games busy work makes everyone itchy for the competition to begin. The athletes have honed their skills to razor sharpness and can't wait to test themselves. They're wary, not wanting to say anything that could give an opponent a weapon to use against them.

You can see the competitive fire burning in their eyes, but it's not like afterwards when you see the exultation or the agony. Afterwards, they let it all out, expose their humanity.

That's what makes the Olympics so special for me, the humanity, the vulnerability of these athletes who are the best in the world. In their unguarded moments after their quest is done they let us see that they are much like you and me, with just a little more focus, a little more dedication to a goal.

They're not pampered millionaire professionals worried only about their next contract. They compete because they love their sports and want to constantly test themselves.

As I look around the press center at the hundreds of writers going through the agony of creation, I'm struck by how this looks like some level of Dante's Inferno.

Some writers just stare at their computers. Others get up and walk around. Still others talk non-stop while their neighbors frantically write and rewrite. Some just concentrate until you can almost see the drops of blood fall from their foreheads.

Then I realize one of the real attractions of the Olympics for me. It is about the only time I can focus in on one thing. No distractions. No other priorities pulling me away. No wasting time worrying about things I can't control. Just Olympics 24 hours a day.

It's a great feeling to be able to devote all your energies and attention to something without feeling guilty about other things you should be doing.

I hope you'll follow along with me as we explore these Olympics together, looking for the defining moments, the memories that will stick with us through the years.

So far my guess is that my fond memories will not be of the city of Nagano. It won't be like Lillehammer. This is not some fairy tale village tucked away in a remote corner of Scandinavia. This is a working-class city, with 370,000 people hustling and bustling their way through each day.

As we ride the buses every day we pass 7-11s, Big Spots, KFC, Denny's, a Big Fin Garage and many used-car lots. There are working-class apartments where people hang their wash out to dry on their balcony, even if the temperature is near freezing.

You probably won't see these views on television, but this is no ski resort town. It's not an Aspen or some cozy hideaway in the French Alps. This is a real life town in the Japanese Alps.

Instead of cute boutiques there are businesses of all kinds, and schools and supermarkets. There are lots of traffic lights and traffic. It looks like the kind of city that would be busy even if it weren't hosting an Olympics.

When I arrived after taking the bullet train from Tokyo confusion reigned as I have come to expect at the Olympics. No signs to tell you where to get your accreditation validated. Lots of volunteers meeting the VIPs, but the rest of us have to find our own way. Finally at the bus stop it's impossible to find out when the bus will arrive for the media village where I'm staying.

No one speaks much English, and I speak even less Japanese so it is a struggle to find out anything. One helpful woman walks me over to a bus stop and I think she says wait here for 20 minutes. Ten minutes later an elderly woman rushes over and tells me to hurry back to where I had been because the bus is about to leave. Then when we get there it turns out the first woman was right after all.

As in Atlanta the buses are a big problem. As I approach a media bus stop looking for the scheduled bus I am used to hearing, "Sorry, the shuttle bus has been delayed." And after opening ceremonies they were nowhere to be found.

It's true our Japanese hosts are very polite, but it's difficult to be patient when you're freezing outside looking for a bus that may or may not show up within the hour. And it's hard to explain to the boss back home that I missed the story because the bus didn't come. I wasn't sent here to make excuses about the transportation.

The venues are spectacular. In keeping with Japanese philosophy, they are pleasing not only to the eye, but all the other senses as well. Even the Main Press Center, with its gaggle of grumbling gadflies, is a pleasant place to spend hours before and after events.

The press conference rooms are full of gorgeous wood beams and paneling that look like they came from the United Nations or the boardroom of a major corporation.

Everyone raves about the beautiful hockey and ice skating arenas. And the mountain venues are breathtaking. Especially Iizuna Kogen, where the snow monkeys frolic in their own hot springs.

But down in Nagano city the snow melts, leaving bare, brown earth which freezes over at night. The buses that do come slow almost to a halt in the heavy traffic. Many days the food in the press center or the media housing is awful, making me yearn for the reindeer meat and salmon of Norway or the salad bar and cafeteria of the Atlanta press center.

The magic here will have to come from the competitors, not the surroundings. The athletes won't disappoint. They're anxious to begin. And so am I.