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WINTER OLYMPICS : Men's Downhill Skiing : Winds Force Race to Be Postponed

February 15, 1988|BOB LOCHNER | Times Assistant Sports Editor

CALGARY, Canada — The downhill nightmare came true Sunday as 70-m.p.h. winds forced postponement of the premier Alpine skiing race of the Winter Olympics.

Ever since the men's course was carved out of the slopes of Mt. Allan, critics had contended that it should have been moved elsewhere. For one thing, the start at the top of the mountain was too exposed to the elements, they said.

On Sunday, at least, these doomsayers were right.

Organizers, under pressure from television to get the race off for weekend viewing, first delayed the men's downhill for one hour, then for another hour, before finally admitting that the scene at the summit resembled the North Pole in the midst of an Arctic storm.

They'll try again today, which luckily for ABC, happens to be a holiday in the United States. However, it's just another workday in Canada and Europe, where audiences presumably will be considerably reduced. Spectators were told they may use their tickets today--if the boss understands--or obtain a refund.

If the wind kicks up again today, they'll go as originally scheduled with the men's combined downhill, which is shorter than the regular downhill and has a lower, more-protected start. In that case, the regular downhill would be reset for Tuesday. In either event, the men's combined slalom will be held Wednesday, which had been an open date.

A suggestion that the regular downhill also use the lower start was rejected by Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, on grounds that it would not be a true test at the traditional length of two miles or more.

So, these Games are off to a start reminiscent of 1984, when the men's downhill was postponed four times because of stormy weather at Sarajevo, Yugoslavia.

Since it was obvious early that there might be a problem with the wind, the racers never had to venture out of the warm, cozy restaurant on the mountain.

"When we saw all the flags (on the gates) bending over almost all the way down to the snow, we knew it was pretty bad out there," said Felix Belczyk, one of three Canadians in the top-15 seeding. "No question, we agreed with the decision."

Asked if the delay might bother any of the skiers, Belczyk said: "It's better for us that it happened here rather than in Europe. We can go back now and relax in our own surroundings."

As for Pirmin Zurbriggen, the favorite in the race, Belczyk said: "He kept pretty much to himself in one corner of the restaurant with the rest of the Swiss team. He didn't seem to be disturbed, but that's just his personality."

Another Canadian, Rob Boyd, said: "It wouldn't have been either fair or safe to race in that wind. Sudden gusts could unbalance a racer, or they could give one a tail wind, then the next one a head wind."

The wind continued throughout the afternoon, also causing a training run for Thursday's women's downhill (on a different course) to be canceled. In addition, the temperatures seemed to be rising, which could soften the snow.

In a worst-case scenario, that would be Nightmare II come true.

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