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Picture this: Games in the perfect setting


ALBERTVILLE, France -- Close your eyes and remember the prettiest ski vacation you ever took. If you've never taken one, close your eyes and remember the prettiest ski vacation you ever saw on a bad television movie starring Loni Anderson in a white alpaca sweater.

There. You're getting the (snow) drift of these drop-dead fetching Olympics of the Alps, which come disguised as a blond joke in which the blonde laughs last: They're expensive and exasperating, but the face -- and oh, what a face -- renders everything else meaningless.

Oh, what a face. Yesterday was a perfect pearl. Peaks in every direction, rising on steep shoulders to an indigo sky. Ski jumps, sled runs and hockey rinks planted on slopes among clusters of hotels and chalets. A two-foot layer of snow as white as the queen's linen. Air as clean and cold as a piece of ice in your cheek. A perfect place for ridiculously rich people to come and break their ankles on vacation.

These are the Winter Olympics as intended, as sketched in the mind, dropped among the plumes from apres ski fireplaces and tall pines that appear sprinkled with confectioner's sugar, connected by one-lane roads that wind back and forth along the inclines like typewriter carriages gone mad.

This is right. Four years ago in skyscrapered Calgary, fans took the subway to the opening ceremonies and fought rush-hour traffic to see speed skating in a squat gray building. It was warm enough to wear shorts. The bobsled run got coated with dust. The mood resembled an NCAA subregional in Indianapolis, not the Winter Olympics. It was wrong.

This is right. This is taking a ski lift to the bottom of the downhill course, halfway up a 10,000-foot peak. This is speed skating in the clear outdoor chill, mountains in the distance. This is hockey in a tiny rink disguised as a wood chalet, at the foot of a ski run. This is the serenity of seeing not a single soul from the top of the ski jump ramp -- except the 30,000 peering up at you from the dot of a grandstand far below.

This is a postcard from winter's heaven, landscape as art, nature as homecoming queen -- and it's a good thing, because there is plenty about these Games that is a pain in the fuchsia ski-bibbed rear. The price is high, mes amis.

For starters, it's a logistical absurdity, spread over 640 square miles and three mountain faces. It takes a good four hours of bus rides to get from the men's downhill at Val d'Isere to cross country skiing in Les Saisies. The unofficial song of these Games? "Sur le route encore, frere Jacques." On the road again, Jack.

And what roads. Lacking a little item known as guardrails, the little sweethearts turn into miles of dead man's curves at the first snowflake. When five inches fell the other day, one bus driver refused to go up the mountain from the press center at the bottom. Something about a car sliding off the road up above. ("Is OK, no one die, now we coffee," an official said.) Just remember: A little snow turns this sucker into one big demolition derby.

Driving will be an excellent adventure even in perfect weather, though. Athletes, fans and journalists are in hotels spread across the mountain, and there are no shortcuts. Woe unto those situated poorly. A reporter from Toronto arrived yesterday to discover he was assigned a room in Val d'Isere, at the top of the mountain, guaranteeing him six hours on buses every day. "At least it's pretty," he said. Blonde laughs last.

Of course, you could escape the travel and traffic by skiing from event to event. It's possible in several circumstances, although the route includes black diamond slopes, the steepest. Here is the only reasonable response to the obvious question:

"What kind of skier do you need to be to do this?"


These entanglements could have been avoided had organizers limited the Games to two or three sites. But every resort and wannabe wanted in once the Games were awarded and the state and national governments started handing out money for roads and buildings. Thirteen villages wound up with a cut, some raising a substantial debt.

One, Brides-les-Baines, reinvented itself with $100 million in improvements aimed at cornering a larger share of the tourist business. But now it's a town of 600 holding a debt of $14 million -- would you want your money sitting in the bank from which they borrowed?

But, hey, the place looks terrific now. The whole mountain looks terrific. It's almost as if someone from the Disney studios drew this up, the lines so clean, the scenes so perfect. (And no trash!) This is right. This is the blueprint brought to life. Power powder stacks. Twin Peaks everywhere. Hot chocolate on the hands in little paper cups. As they say on the slopes: Let's get cold!

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