Ugly-duckling town in Alpine heaven COUNTDOWN TO ALBERTVILLE -- 1 DAY TO GO


ALBERTVILLE, France -- If you get past the speed-skating oval that doesn't freeze, the bobsled-luge track that blights a mountain like a rusted appliance, the roads that wind beyond nausea to the top of the world, the sex-test controversy, the condom giveaway, the taxi drivers' strike, the dancers' strike, the snowplow drivers' strike, the $300 tickets, the $8 set of paper napkins and the free "be-nice-to-foreigners" lessons, what you are left with is this:

They have brought the 16th Winter Olympics to Mayberry RFD.

Albertville, the crossroads of Europe. This is a city with 13 taxicabs, a six-block shopping district, a hypermarket, an 18th-century church, a strip of gas stations and one Michelin-rated two-star restaurant.

Tomorrow, 2,300 athletes from 64 nations will assemble for the opening ceremonies in a disposable stadium that sits on the edge of this town of 20,000 that lies in an Alpine valley. They will wait for a final runner to light a portable Olympic flame that looks like a satellite dish. Then they will quickly disperse to 12 other sites across 640 square miles of the most rugged and gorgeous terrain on the continent.

These are the Games of the Savoy region, an isolated patch of land that lies four hours by high-speed train from Paris, and juts up against Switzerland and Italy.

Organizers could have based this event in the trendy tourist haunts of Val d'Isere or Meribel. Instead, they cut political deals and soothed egos by placing it in an unpretentious, ugly-duckling town that happens to be surrounded by a slice of Alpine heaven.

"We are not like the Parisians, who know everything," said Philippe Million, owner and head chef of the Hotel Million, a 24-room inn with a two-star restaurant that has been operated by his family since 1770.

"This is a nice place to live," he said. "It's a nice location. Close to the mountains. Close to the lakes. Close to the resorts."

It's the town you pass through to get where you are going. The beauty, glamour and history are embedded in the mountains.

Holding the Olympics in the Savoy is like bringing baseball back to Cooperstown or football back to Canton. They began near here in Chamonix in 1924. Four decades later, they were plugged into the French city of Grenoble, and the world watched in 1968 as Peggy Fleming and Jean-Claude Killy became Olympic -- and television -- stars.

It doesn't feel like an Olympics yet. Not even with the downhill racers scorching the course in Val d'Isere or the hockey players practicing in a chalet-style rink in Meribel or the speed skaters and figure skaters cutting edges on ovals and rinks in Albertville.

"There is nothing to do, and everything to do," said Mr. Killy, co-president of the local Olympic organizing committee.

In America, they would be staging laser shows to hype the event. Here, one man in one truck goes around town putting up red-and-white banners on street posts.

"I hope you will feel the Olympics on the smiles of the people and not with lights or Olympic rings on the side of mountains," said Jean-Marc Eysseric, an Olympics spokesman.

You can see the Olympics in the numbers:

It's an $825 million ski and skate show bankrolled by television networks and multinational corporations. It's 60 miles of new roads brought to an area where cows often outnumber cars. It's 1,500 shuttle-bus drivers -- who are being housed in prisons. It's chefs preparing 2 million meals, using 26 tons of cheese.

To feel the Games, journey from Val d'Isere to Meribel, Courchevel to Tignes -- everything here is a journey -- admire the snow-capped mountain peaks while winding along 1 1/2 -lane roads with hairpin turns, no guardrails, and signs that warn of icy conditions and avalanches.

It's gorgeous. It's maddening.

Here are postcards from the Olympic edge:

* A man wearing a Philadelphia Eagles cap leads a taxi drivers' strike that backs up traffic for 6 miles.

* In a country where smoking is the second most popular pastime, organizers say this will be a tobacco-free Olympics. Except, of course, where smoking is allowed.

* The first Ugly American was crowned Wednesday night in Megeve, when Team USA hockey player Moe Mantha turned a friendly exhibition game against the French into a brawl. American Coach Dave Peterson responds: "Boys will be boys."

* These could be the most polite Winter Games on record. Honest. Must be the four years of Tourists 101 offered to the French people by their government.

"France had a reputation toward arrogance," Meribel's publicist-historian Jean-Marie Choffel said. "Part of that was true. But imagine if you come to the United States and went to New York first. You would be horrified. Yes?"

* The Ice-Meister is befuddled. Ernst Eidolth is walking along his Olympic speed-skating oval, stopping every few yards and sticking a thermometer into the ice. He is making the face of a cook who has burned the Thanksgiving turkey. His track is a pile of slush. Lousy refrigeration. Lousier geography.

"Half of the ice is in the shade," he says. "Half is in the sun."

* In one souvenir shop, the official 24-piece $64 Olympic silverware set is displayed next to gag gifts ranging from exploding sugar to plastic snot.

* Pity Marin Marcel. Each day, his wash flaps in the breeze 50 yards from the finish of the bobsled-luge run in La Plagne. Used to be, he had one of the prettiest back yards in the valley. Now, he wakes each day and looks out onto a monstrosity that snakes up the mountain. When visitors approach, Mr. Marcel scurries away and shouts, "I have nothing more to say."

But his house is for sale.

* The French have this thing about sex. Doctors and Nobel scientists complain about the new sex test to be given female athletes. Olympic organizers try to distribute 36,000 condoms to the "Olympic family," and then grow disenchanted when few are taken.

"If they have no time to use the condoms, then it is not my problem," says Dr. Patrick Sehamasesh, the chief medical officer.

* The official Olympic rip-off isn't the $465-a-night rooms in Courchevel or the $300 tickets for the opening ceremonies or the $200 tickets for the gold-medal hockey final.

It's a place.

Come to Brides-les-Bains, a tiny dot of a town with 612 residents, a refurbished casino, a main street and a 6-foot metal fence that slices the place in half.

That's right, in half.

The town went into debt $15 million to get a piece of the Games, and got stuck with an athletes' village and a security dragnet.

The residents stay on one side of the fence. The athletes stay on the other.

And the tourists stay away.

"No one can come here," said Fabienne Lethoillier, a shopkeeper. "The athletes are given free jackets and free clothing. They do not spend. It's a little bit like a prison."

.' Ah, but the land is beautiful.

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