Stars provide brilliance to Winter Games Athletes aim upward amid majestic Alps


ALBERTVILLE, France -- Now, it's Dan Jansen's Olympics. And Bonnie Blair's.

Now, the stage belongs to a charismatic skier from Italy, an ebullient figure skater from Japan and a veteran cross country skier from Siberia.

After 11 years of planning, six years of building, and four years of traumatic political change, the world's best skiers, skaters and sliders will assemble today for the 16th Olympic Winter Games.

Framed by mountains, and transformed by the fall of a wall -- and an empire -- these Games already possess a place in history.

In today's opening ceremonies, German athletes -- once separated by the Berlin Wall -- will march as one.

Former Soviets will march as many, some parading proudly behind the flags of the newly freed Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, others walking with a Unified Team represented by a five-ringed Olympic flag.

There will be one team from Yugoslavia. Another from Slovenia. And yet another from Croatia.

The 181-athlete delegation from the United States will be led by 36-year-old Bill Koch, of Underwood, Wash., a cross country skier who won an Olympic silver medal in 1976, retired in 1986 and un-retired in 1991.

An 18-year-old figure skater named Surya Bonaly, who was born on the island of Reunion and adopted by French parents, will take an oath on behalf of the 2,200 athletes from 65 nations.

And as a ball of fire streaks across the falling nighttime sky and lights the Olympic flame, 16 days of glory -- and worldwide television programming -- will begin.

Draped across 640 square miles in the Savoy region of the French Alps, the Games will spread like silk from the glamorous resorts of Val d'Isere, Courchevel and Meribel to the crossroads town of Albertville.

The Alps are both the beauty and the beast of the event, providing the backdrop and the sheer drops for the racers, while giving the organizers the logistical nightmare of trying to transport thousands across roads built for livestock.

"We have not been able to eradicate the mountains," said Michel Barnier, the co-president of the local organizing committee, who, with French ski champion Jean-Claude Killy, dreamed up the idea for bringing the Olympics here.

Twenty-four years ago in nearby Grenoble, Mr. Killy emerged as an Olympic and worldwide star by winning three gold medals.

Thirteen years later, Mr. Killy and Mr. Barnier, a rising provincial politician, sat in a cafe over a bottle of wine and discussed bringing the Games to the Savoy.

They did it for the roads and the trains, using new construction to bring the isolated Savoy closer to Paris, closer to the rest of Europe.

"It is an absolutely beautiful feeling to be an Olympian and then have these Games," Mr. Killy said. "I think it is a privilege for someone like me."

This time, others are poised for triumphs and stardom.

There is Mr. Jansen, a speed skater from West Allis, Wis., whose sister died on the eve of his Olympic races four years ago. He fell and wept in one race. And then, he fell again.

There is Ms. Blair, a returning speed skating gold medalist whose training was once sponsored by her local police department in Champaign, Ill. Once, her fiercest rivals were East Germans. Now, she races alone as the best women's sprinter in the world.

Alberto Tomba, a two-time skiing gold medalist from Italy, is back, ready to conquer mountains, if not all of France.

Midori Ito, a triple-jumping wonder from Japan, will face Americans Kristi Yamaguchi, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan the most glamorous event of the Games, ladies' figure skating.

Elena Vialbe, of Siberia and the Unified Team, will attempt to cross country ski through woods and across hills for five gold medals.

In hockey, the Americans have assembled a team of career minor-leaguers, fading pros and kids out of college. Canada has a superstar named Eric Lindros. And the Unified Team is trying to create its own "miracle on ice," using fresh-faced kids desperate to play their way out of Moscow to the National Hockey League.

There will be women with skis and guns -- racing in the military-style event, the biathlon.

An elfin teen-age Finnish flier named Toni Nieminen will spread his skis like a V and soar off a ski jump, while a cherubic 23-year-old from Rochester, N.Y., named AJ Kitt will attempt to steel his nerves and emerge as the king of the mountain, the champion of the men's downhill.

The drama begins today. The roads are built. The venues are polished. The snow is shoveled.

.' The Games belong to the stars.

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