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  • Wednesday, February 4, 1998

    The very happy Olympics

    By STEVE SIMMONS -- In Nagano
    NAGANO --  The young man at the airport, holding the "Canada" sign was smiling and bowing, smiling and bowing, almost blushing with pride.
     "Good luck," he said as we pulled in for the Winter Olympic Games.
      "Good luck to Cah-nah-dah.''
     He said it slowly and deliberately. As though he had been practising. He spoke the same words over and over again, the only words of English he apparently knew.
     It didn't matter to him that we weren't athletes. It didn't matter to him that he couldn't understand us. It only mattered that we had arrived in Japan.
     Welcome to the Winter Games of the 18th Olympiad - the Very Happy Olympics.
     First impression of Nagano after one night and one day: This place is thrilled to welcome the world.
     Second impression: This isn't Atlanta.
     Every Olympic Games has its own feel, its own texture, its own legacy. From Lake Placid, we remember a Miracle On Ice and traffic jams beyond our comprehension. From Calgary, even a decade later, it is still the spirit I remember best, the love affair between a city, a country and a sporting event. From Albertville, it was the ambivalence of the Frenchmen, the 60-man bobsled rides through the mountainous roads, the constant smoke and the lack of care. From Lillehammer, it was the contrast in temperatures, the frigid outdoors and the warmest people I have ever come across - an Olympic Games that will be difficult to beat.
     And now here it is Nagano's turn, in a city that looks all too familiar to us. A city that is hardly picturesque. The drive from the airport could be a cold drive through Western Ohio. Over there is a 7-Eleven and another 7-Eleven and a convenience store that looks like a 7-Eleven. In the downtown, where Olympic banners hang everywhere, there is a banner tribute to the late Harland Sanders, he of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame. Upon first glance, it appears as though there are two kinds of food in Nagano, fast and faster. Only the signs happen to be in another language.
     But in the background, behind the busy streets and those terminal Olympic sponsor signs, are the Japanese Alps, not exactly ready for a place on your favorite post-card, but enough to a picture to a place in need on one.
     But the truth is, if the scenery doesn't please you, those working on the organizing committee will apologize for it. I have been here for less than 24 hours and I have been apologized to 25 times already and so far nobody has done anything wrong.
     Apparently, they taught two words of English to every volunteer here: I'm sorry.
     Somewhere in the next 20 days, they will legitimately need those words. Every Olympics does. But as for now, everything appears smooth, in working order, ready to begin. You can feel that about an Olympics Games if you've been to enough of them. This one instantly feels right, even if it doesn't look right.
     In Atlanta, on the first day, the shuttle from the airport terminal to our dormitory housing got lost twice and almost broke down before arriving. Two days later, the Games began amidst great chaos.
     Here, none of that feels wrong. If the first thing you are taken by are the smiles and politeness of the people, the first real shock of Nagano is the weather. Where, for example, is the snow? There is a little on the ground, mostly patches in places that somehow aren't exposed to the sun, but ostensibly there isn't any snow. And that, by itself, is a startling contrast to the past two Winter Olympics. In Albertville, you couldn't avoid the snow. It was everywhere. In Norway, if the snow didn't get you, the cold would. Here, there is little snow, little cold, little to feel like the Winter Olympics.
     Except the people keep reminding you and thanking you and saying they're sorry, sometimes all at the same time.
     The Canadian team officially will begin with the opening ceremonies - Elvis Stojko deserves to carry the Canadian flag - and by the first day a little-known athlete named Mark Fawcett from East Riverside in New Brunswick may wind up as Canada's first medallist here, in snowboarding of all things. An event called giant slalom.
     And as the man at the airport said: "Good luck Cah-na-da."
     Enjoy the Very Happy Olympics.

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