Albertville countdown: 90 days, Olympic worry Money, traffic, weather are issues


ALBERTVILLE, France -- Ninety days to go . . .

Armando Cintron of the South Bronx and Puerto Rico is dressed in boots, jeans and an overcoat, preparing to ride his second-hand luge down a sheet of ice carved into the side of the mountain.

"A year ago, I never even heard of this sport," he says. "What would I need a sled for in the South Bronx?"

Ninety days to go . . .

Workmen construct bleacher seats on the bottom of the men's downhill in Val d'Isere. A fog bank hangs over the start house and obscures a course that plummets 3,000 feet and sweeps through two miles of the most rugged terrain in the French Alps.

"It's like looking through a bottle of milk," former Olympian Andy Mill says.

Ninety days to go . . .

Construction cranes cast shadows in the valleys of the Savoie TTC region. Dump trucks clog two-lane roads that thread through the mountains. A ladder sits on the ice of the darkened hockey arena.

"The biggest worry?" says French Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy. "The cost and the weather. Or maybe it's the other way around -- the weather and the cost."

Ninety days to go until the 16th Olympic Winter Games come to Albertville and the surrounding Alpine villages Feb. 8-23. Two thousand athletes representing more than 60 countries will compete for 57 gold medals.

These are the disposable Games, housed in an array of temporary facilities, linked by roads that stretch to 13 venues across 640 square miles.

"The French love sportsmen, but they do not love sports," said Killy, a co-chairman of the local organizing committee.

Killy promises the Games will succeed. Six hundred thousand tickets are sold. Another 200,000 are available. Hotel rooms are scarce, yet some still can be reserved for between $150 and $300 a night.

"Historically, at every Olympics, the last-minute spectator can get a room and get a ticket," Killy said.

But these Games are already shaping up as a logistical nightmare. They will be the prettiest Olympics in years -- if you can get there.

Players and coaches are griping about playing hockey at an arena perched in the mountains of Meribel. When the Games end, 3,000 of the 5,000 seats will be stripped from the arena, and a pool and health club will be constructed in their place.

A test event in the men's downhill at Val d'Isere was postponed last winter. The reason? Too much snow.

World champion Carl-Uwe Jens of Germany refused to race in a World Cup speed-skating event last February when sand popped through the thin ice on the 400-meter track. An icemeister was imported from Germany to improve the surface.

Construction supports at the ski jump needed to be shored up when puddles formed at the base and dirt turned into quicksand. Before the jump sank, organizers had to cough up $80 million.

Environmentalists went ballistic when they discovered ammonia was needed to refrigerate the bobsled and luge run. Tests were conducted. Refinements were made. Add another $100 million to the Olympic tab, as the budget spiraled 25 percent above the original $500 million estimate.

And still organizers may be forced to make difficult decisions. Anyone for night-time luge? Morning sun often melts the ice at the bob-luge run in La Plagne, and awnings over the track make for rotten television.

"The weather has been bad," said Gaby Fourmigue, a driver of a four-man French bobsled. "Too warm. And the refrigeration hasn't worked well."

Then, there are the roads. Improved? Yes. Uncluttered? No. A new highway out of Albertville opened last week. Tunnels were even dug under the roadway to permit frogs to cross without being crushed by the vehicles. But cows still can wander on to the mountain routes, and the road to Val d'Isere twists through a series of tunnels that are sure to create gridlock when 20,000 spectators converge for the men's alpine events.

"You can't see it all, get to all the events," Killy said. "I'd advise everyone to pick their spots. Travel to one location, and you'll be satisfied."

Killy the sportsman, who won all three alpine gold medals at the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, France, has turned into Killy the politician. Ever since the Games were awarded to the Savoie in October 1986, Killy and the co-president of the local organizing committee, Michel Barnier, have perfected the art of the deal.

Ten towns will share in the Olympic riches. The Games could have spread even farther across the region, but Killy temporarily resigned to protest a power grab by local communities.

"The Games are too spread out even now," he said. "It could have been worse. When we were going for the Games, people would have been satisfied if they were in four towns. But, after we got them, everyone wanted the Games."

Surprisingly, though, these Games don't appear to be built to last. The figure skating arena in Albertville has all the charm of a Wal-Mart. Organizers can't wait to dig up the speed-skating track to put in a soccer field and running track. And the temporary Olympic flame will burn in a 30,000-seat stadium in Albertville. When the Games end, the stadium will be torn down.

"We have few worries," said Michael Raffy, who manages a hotel in Meribel. "If we are good, it is fantastic for us. If we are bad, it is a disaster."

' Ninety days to go . . .

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