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1992 Winter Olympics: Games Of Instants

6 minute read
Pico Iyer/Les Saisies

The Olympics are a celebration of instants: not just in the milliseconds ticking away on every scoreboard in the Savoie but in the larger way in which 15 years of determination can turn on a single moment. Look away from the slope for an instant, touch the side of the run for a second, and 10,000 hours of practice are gone. The athletes carry alarm clocks — or time bombs — in their heads and measure their lives in heartbeats (193 a minute for a biathlete). “Luge is all feeling,” explained Duncan Kennedy, an American luger who won by placing 10th (higher, at the time, than any U.S. luger in history). “You can have a ‘great run,’ but if you’re not feeling the track, you end up a second behind, and you don’t know where the time went.”

Time in that sense is the referee at every Olympic event, the ghost in the machine, as fickle a third party as in the Shakespeare sonnets. Biathletes begin their runs, like every amateur timing himself at home, the minute the second hand hits 00:00, and pay for missing shots with penitential 30-second loops; hockey players serve sentences for penalties that seem to last for years. Of course, this is true in every sport, or every life that knows a slip, a birth, a marriage, but in the Olympics an athlete comes into the spotlight for a second and then, in most cases, disappears into oblivion for four years. The first question asked of the first male gold medalist, Austrian downhiller Patrick Ortlieb, was whether he had thought, during his run, of his teammate Gernot Reinstadler, who died in a race last year. He couldn’t, the affable big man said simply, he couldn’t afford to think of accidents or of anything but the course. One moment of sentiment could mean a lifetime of regret.

Time plays strange tricks in the Winter Games. Ortlieb was the first one down the hill, whooshing through the course in 1:50:37; then, like the rest of us, he could do nothing but watch the scoreboard, as 55 other skiers, one by one, tried to eclipse his time. He had competed only against himself; the others were up against the clock. Athletes at their greatest can attain almost meditative states — the so-called zone — in which time slows down or seems suspended. We, however, bring them back to earth with our deadlines. Hardly had the majestic figure-skating pair Natalia Mishkutienok and Artur Dmitriev claimed their gold when they were being asked about the world championships in March, the next Olympics, the future of the Soviet Union. “Only 30 minutes, one hour, has passed, and already you are thinking about our great plans,” admonished their commanding coach, Tamara Moskvina. “As you understand, such great decisions cannot be made in such a short time.”

For the winners, the tyranny of time was partly reversed, and the payoff was a moment that seemed to last forever. “It’s wonderful that such an investment has a return all in one day,” said Georg Hackl, a silver medalist in 1988 claiming his gold in the luge. But even for champions, there are a hundred clocks working simultaneously, not all of them benign. Bonnie Blair, after winning a gold, coolly outlined the four-year plan that took her from the Calgary Games to Albertville and how “I took each year a little differently.” Not in the plan, however, was the death of her father two years ago, and when his name came up, the smilingly efficient woman suddenly choked over her words.

Time takes its toll on everyone in these Games, especially the ones in the stands: on the ubiquitous mothers recalling 5 a.m. drives to the rink and on the spectators who stop breathing while they wait for a figure skater to land. The fans of Franz Heinzer, the great favorite in the downhill, stomped, rang bells and waved heraldic banners when their Swiss hero hit the slopes; less than two minutes later, their hopes were dead. When AJ Kitt came down the course, eight Americans huddled round walkie-talkies and urged him on, “Go, go, be aggressive, be aggressive. That’s it, come on. Be aggressive!” He finished ninth. And when local favorite Fabrice Guy finally crossed the finish line for gold in Nordic combined, women wept.

The Winter Games are more informal and convivial than the Summer ones. At Les Saisies, a picturesque winterscape of red bridges in the snow, where the first women’s biathlon in Olympic history was being held, snowballing was actually the favorite event, and children bobsledded without benefit of sleds. Scores of jolly Norwegians sang folk songs around an accordion and swayed in place, beating time with the poles of enormous Norwegian flags. But even here clocks were ticking everywhere, and as the athletes set off on lonely 25- minute journeys, instants were getting ready to be replayed in the pause and rewind sections of the mind.

The television viewer cannot see so clearly the effect of the internal wake- up calls, the biological clocks, the steady tick, tock, tick. Ye Qiaobo, just after becoming the first Chinese athlete ever to win a Winter medal, in the women’s 500-m speed-skating event, got up on a podium a composed 27-year- old woman in a purple track suit who had been done out of her gold, she felt, by a competitor’s error. Would she protest? “Maybe I will try” — and the whole room held its breath — “to set my sights for the next Olympic Games, if possible.” Then, gallantry exhausted, she suddenly thought of all the years going by. Her first three years of training had been wiped out, she explained, when she was disqualified for doping just before Calgary. The next 15 months were lost in a suspension. “What can I say?” she asked, voice cracking. “What can I answer to my parents, my sisters, my best of friends?” Now she had seen another three years leave her 18 hundredths of a second short, and four days later she lost another gold to Blair by two hundredths of a second. “I spend so many times for skating,” she went on, tears streaming down her cheeks, “and I gave up so many hobbies for this.” Why should a medalist cry? “Because the Olympics are four years in time. And I am old.”

That same day, 38 miles away, in La Plagne, the Canadian luger Harington Telford was saying the same thing. “The past four years have been a struggle to get here,” he said, noting how his 19th-place finish in Calgary had become an 18th-place finish here. “I am 25 years old now, and I’ve really managed to make zero progress in the past four years.” A few feet away, Robert Pipkins, a 19-year-old American in the first flush of Olympic enthusiasm, his beaming parents waving a GO ROB. SLIDE IN PRIDE banner around him, looked over at the snowcaps, the blue skies and the pines, and said, after finishing 21st, that he hoped to compete in the next two — or even three — Olympics. Time arcs forward too.

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