• U.S.

1992 Winter Olympics: Even In Alberto-Ville, Everyman Lives

9 minute read
Pico Iyer/Val D.Isere

Michael Teruel slips into view with a tiny Canon Sure Shot in his hands. He stops three young Moroccan skiers, waving flags, and asks if they’ll pose for a picture with him. Athletes are role models, he tells a passerby, and should speak out more about the environment, the nuclear threat, the depletion of our energy sources. Last night, he goes on excitedly, he not only went to an ice- hockey game but even got two pretty Swiss girls to autograph his ticket! Teruel, a Philippine-American, seems like any other voluble, idealistic 22- year-old student with braces on his teeth and a hundred dreams at home. He is also the entire Philippine Olympics team in the 1992 Winter Games.

Teruel, of course, is as integral a part of the Olympics as his hero and the hero of the Albertville Games, Alberto Tomba. But no one asks the student from New York State what he ate for breakfast, and the difference between 71st and 72nd does not register on many TV screens. Teruel is, in his way, an embodiment of the little man’s Games. The little man reads his results not in the newspapers but in other people’s eyes, and he hears applause mostly when alone.

Like many of the people in the little man’s Games, Teruel is as much a fan as a participant, enjoying a front-seat view of the lions of a sport he took up 20 years ago. One day, he says happily, he found himself at breakfast next to downhill champion Patrick Ortlieb. Downhill combined winner Josef Polig shared an elevator with him the day before the Italian won his gold. Teruel dreams of meeting Jean-Claude Killy or even just wearing clothes from the “Killy Sport” store in Val d’Isere.

But his ultimate role model, both on and off the slopes, is Tomba. “He’s so energizing,” says the Philippine team. “Every time he races, I know he’s going to win or fall. Romantic to the end!” At one point, Teruel pointed out to Tomba that they were wearing the same kind of gloves, and Tomba offered to trade. But the banter never got to barter, and Teruel did not obtain a relic from his hero. “I think he didn’t know what to make of me,” Teruel says cheerfully.

All the world knows what to make of Tomba, not least because Tomba has told us what he makes of Tomba. He came to “Alberto-ville,” he expounded, on a training program even more attractive than Jane Fonda’s (pasta and sleep and plenty of female company); he predicted success, and for a while he transcended his predictions. By the time he accelerated through the final five gates of his second run in the giant slalom to ease past archrival Marc Girardelli and became the first Olympian skier to defend a championship, Tomba had left his signature in capital letters on the Games. Afterward, unshaven, in a baseball cap, with balloons around his neck, making comments about his prowess that his interpreter decided not to translate, “La Bomba” all but ensured a transition from the small screen to the big.

Yet even the Italian matinee idol could not, in the slalom, eclipse the reigning country of the Games, Norway. The Norwegians, who won not a single gold in 1988 at Calgary, raced away with nine this time. At snowbound events, scores of Norwegians sang, waved flags and formed rings around their winners, while King Harald V looked on from the stands. Norwegians in the Olympic Village dined on smoked salmon and fullkornbroed from home, slept on wooden laths and consulted oracular weather forecasters in Oslo for amazingly accurate predictions of snow. They also seemed entirely human. When CBS tried to find some way to dramatize three-gold winner Vegard Ulvang, it dubbed him “the Terminator.” Then the champion obligingly stood before the cameras and intoned, “Hasta la vista, baby!”

In the aesthetic section of the Games, the lingering memory will be that of Kristi Yamaguchi’s iron-tipped delicacy as she sang without words across the ice. Meanwhile, her main rival, Midori Ito, followed the long line of favorites whose dreams of gold were defeated by expectation. Ito eventually won a silver, though three-time world champion figure skater Kurt Browning came away without any medal. Franz Heinzer and other skiing top guns were confounded by the course at Val d’Isere, and American speed skater Dan Jansen’s shoulders were too frail for the weight of a country’s hopes.

But while half the world was following the sometime tragedy of Ito, the operatic comedy of Tomba and the pastoral romance of the Norwegians, there were a hundred other stories in the Games, most of them like that of Teruel. In his event, the giant slalom, there were skiers from India, Swaziland and Costa Rica; from Bolivia, Brazil and Lebanon; three Taiwanese who had practiced on grass and one of three Moroccans with the name of Brahim. In all, skiers from 47 countries, many of which never see snow, came down. Runners-up in the event outnumbered medalists 132 to 3.

The great pleasure of the Games is that mortals and immortals converge here — Tomba and Teruel stand in the same frame. Yamaguchi, in between talking of her prom and her sister’s high school football games, confessed her excitement when she saw football superstar Herschel Walker in the village. The Irish bobsled team — the first squad from Ireland ever in the Winter Games — talked about the thrill of running in the same line as the champions 31 places ahead of them. The Olympics lifts all even as it levels all.

For athletes such as Teruel, however, the road to the Games is lined not with waving flags but with warning signs. “When I said I wanted to go to the Games, the dean at my school suggested I see a psychiatrist,” he says. “My father said I was a Don Quixote.” Winners, he finds, get to play by different rules. “Tomba’s a bad boy,” he says wistfully, “but no one’s going to tell him to give up skiing and get a real job.”

Like many of the athletes from the smaller countries, Teruel is painfully aware that his Olympic dream might be an easy target for journalist jokes and nationalist resentments. Born to Filipino parents in Buffalo, New York, he visited the Philippines only once in his first 20 years, does not really speak Tagalog and freely admits, “If I had grown up in the Philippines, I probably wouldn’t be here.” At first, he says, “I felt a little bit guilty, like I was a fraud.” He was embarrassed that a rich doctor’s son from New York State should be representing a country where more than 30 million live in poverty. “Here we are,” he says, “feasting in a Club Med, and there are millions of people starving.”

But competing in the Olympics, for Teruel, is a chance to combat the apathy he sees all around him and to make his small voice heard above the fray. “You can’t have a fair society,” he says, “but what else have you got to go for? The people who really could do something don’t feel like they can. And the people who are really dangerous do everything.”

Two days later, exactly 100 places behind Tomba, Teruel takes off. As he glides down the course, the announcer welcomes “our first Philippinian ((sic)) racer” and changes his name to something unintelligible. Thousands of Italians waved flags for Tomba; when Teruel completes his run, he looks around for cheers and finds none. One French volunteer gives him a thumbs-up sign and two others clap. Spectators in the stands by now are as rare as daisies in the snow. The photographers have gone off for lunch, and the TV crews are preparing their Tomba stories. Still, the man now in 85th place hopes there will be more watchers for his second run, if only to see Tomba come out to collect a bouquet. If Alberto wins today,” he offers gamely, “I win too.” Besides, he has had a chance to see his hero in action. “The legend really fits,” he says, after sideslipping down the slope. “Tomba’s almost spiritual, he’s so relaxed.”

As Teruel begins his second run with the sun setting fast behind the mountains, the public-address system, which had been shouting “Absolutely superb! Incredible!” as other skiers took the slope, simply announces, “Michael Teruel, from Buffalo, in the Philippines.” But Teruel, who finishes 71st — 36 places higher than where he started — is exultant. “I can’t wait to go back to see the dean,” he says. His friends won’t see him on TV, he says, but he feels something has been achieved. Moreover, he adamantly opposes any official ruling that would limit the number of competitors and so put a curb on the little man’s Games. Then the Philippine Olympic Committee (“my mom and dad”) comes up to present him with two bags of M&M’s.

A little later, at a Tomba press conference, the second — and most successful — Filipino athlete in Winter Games history giggles with unstoppable delight at everything the champion says. Teruel is thinking now, he says, of trying for the Summer Games. “I know it’s unrealistic,” he adds with a sheepish smile, “but when something’s unrealistic, I really go for it.”

Teruel sounds almost like another young dreamer from abroad who came here 200 years ago. When William Wordsworth first visited France, the high point of his trip, he hoped, would be walking across the Alps. But one day a peasant informed him the climax was behind him; he had already crossed them. Stunned, the young poet considered himself lost. Then, rallying, he recalled that his true destiny lay with “hope that can never die/ Effort and expectation and desire/ and something evermore about to be.” That is the kind of pep talk Teruel, if not Tomba, is giving himself even now.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com