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MIKE DOWNEY

WINTER OLYMPICS : There Isn't Whole Lot to Be Watching in a Winter Warmerland

February 22, 1988|MIKE DOWNEY

CALGARY, Canada — The Winter Olympics would be a wonderful thing, if only somebody moved it to, say, spring. That way, the skiing and ski jumping could go off on schedule, the speed skating could go back to being outdoors, and maybe the figure skating could be held on some frozen pond somewhere, favoring Holland team captain Hans Brinker.

The only thing anybody would have to make sure of is to choose the right site. All we need is a place where the March climate is consistent, somewhere where the weather never does anything wacky from one hour to the next. Since Maui, Hawaii, is probably out of the question, and since the North Pole has constructed a sleigh run but not a bobsleigh run, we remain open to suggestions.

Calgary, though, is not the place.

These warm, sociable, hospitable, adorable, thirsty and crazy Canucks have not been remiss about one single thing at the XV Winter Olympics, but the poor dears can do nothing about western Canada's weather. And the weather, we regret to say, is steadily becoming the most exasperating aspect of the Games, to the point that if this bobsled event is ever going to come off, the International Olympic Committee might be forced to freeze the water slide at Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's Heritage USA, then move the competition there.

Calgary is a fun city, with townspeople who toast marshmallows in the Olympic flame, and a happy-go-lucky mayor who stands up in a crowded restaurant and sings Mac Davis' "Oh, Lord, It's Hard to Be Humble." Calgarians have a lot to be cocky about, because their facilities are beautiful, their Opening Ceremony was a rootin', tootin' hoedown, and their ability to have a good time after-hours rates somewhere between Spuds McKenzie and Caligula.

Their weather, however, is some kind of awful. You know those "Canadian cold fronts" that characters such as Willard Scott and Fritz Coleman are always yakking about? Well, evidently, while the United States is getting its cold fronts from Canada, Canada is getting them from the Arctic Circle or someplace. One day, this cow town is warm as Yuma, Ariz.; next day, it's cold as a witch's udder.

About a week ago, our earlobes had icicles, but on Saturday, they had record highs here. The temperature hit 64 degrees, Fahrenheit. (Good old Fahrenheit. How we miss it up here.) By Sunday, then, it was cold and windy again, and the forecast for today was for minus-something, with partly cloudy skies and a continued chance for double pneumonia throughout the evening.

Within the past week, events postponed because of weather conditions have included the women's luge, both of the downhill skiing events, 90-meter ski jumping, team ski jumping and Sunday's bobsled run. The wind has been so wicked that one day on the ski slopes, a Swiss woman got blown halfway to Saskatoon. Great Britain's marginally skilled Eddie (the Eagle) Edwards might not be welcomed back to the ski jumping because officials are worried that the weather is windier than he is.

The other day, when men were walking around Mt. Allan bare-chested, and women were walking the downtown streets in outfits that would make a female figure skater feel overdressed, we were reminded what Calgarians went through a couple of weeks before the Games began, when they looked toward the heavens and prayed for snow.

Iain Baxter, 51, an instructor at the Alberta College of Art, got a bright idea. He decided to stage a "snow dance" in Olympic Plaza, and, for luck, he called up 440 people listed in the Calgary phone book, all of whom were named "White," "Winter" or "Snow," and invited them to attend the dance. Most of them did, and together they unleashed helium balloons, as a gentle reminder to the gods to send down some flakes. (They did not, alas, invite anybody named Downey.)

At Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, four years ago, virtually the same thing happened. No snow showed up, and civic officials were nervous. So, they gathered together a congregation of local clergymen of all faiths, and asked them to pray in Serbo-Croatian for some sneg. That afternoon, a snowfall came that would have impressed Sgt. Preston of the Yukon. The day was saved.

Of course, the snow eventually got so heavy, and the winds so powerful, that the Alpine downhill ski race had to be called off three times before Wild Bill Johnson could win it.

The Olympics have often had such trouble. At Innsbruck, Austria, in 1964, the wind whipped so ferociously that it blew away the tent in which the figure skating was being held, thereby creating a 1968 market for a place with a roof. At Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1932, bad weather pushed the bobsled finals beyond the Closing Ceremony, and at Grenoble, France, in 1968, the threat of a sudden thaw forced officials to hold the finals in pitch blackness, between 4 and 5 a.m.

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