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The Games of Oz

The Winter Olympics have a fairy-tale aura

Though I have been covering the Winter Olympics since the 1972 Games, I have never felt as if they were connected to the real world. They always seemed to have taken place in a chilled, charmed kingdom somewhere over an Arctic rainbow. A locale remoter than Tibet, as unreal as Oz.

Even when I'm at a Winter Olympics—showing my press credential every 30 seconds, sipping aquavit or slivovitz or schnapps to keep warm at a ski-race finish line, taking notes as a translator struggles to tell reporters precisely how a Finnish ski jumper felt when he first realized he had won a gold medal—even then, or perhaps especially then, these Games have seemed to be going on in another galaxy. I have had this impression whether the Olympics were held in the metropolitan environs of Sapporo (pop. 1,045,000 at the time of the '72 Games), the Tyrolean terrain of Innsbruck (pop. 115,197), the Socialist city of Sarajevo (pop. 448,500) or the hardy hamlet of Lake Placid (pop. 2,490).

Part of this sense of otherworldliness comes from the fact that the Winter Games really are held in remote and unreal locations—cold, mountainous places with bad roads and bad weather. This is the alien environment that led Red Smith to take one look at Lake Placid in 1980 and dub it the Forbidden City, U.S.A.

The Winter Olympics also seem unreal to me because of the bizarre assortment of athletes who participate in them: ethereal Tinker Bells who dance across the ice without seeming to touch it; swashbuckling Peer Gynts who plunge down mountainsides on enchanted slats prepared by Merlins in the night; soaring Peter Pans who bound off ledges and fly through the winter sky; dour Nordic gods with baby-blue eyes and ever-lengthening icicles in their beards who charge across snowy fields as if chased by werewolves; scar-faced trolls who ride steel chariots down twisted paths of ice, rumbling like mountain thunder as they go....

But I think that a bigger reason for my feeling as I do about the Winter Games is that they have been so completely untouched by politics over the years. No boycotts, no terrorist threats, no angry protests. It's almost as if the cold war shuts down in cold weather. In Richard III, Shakespeare called it "the winter of our discontent." but in the Olympics it's summer that breeds bad vibes. Look back over 20 years. Mexico City 1968: Hundreds of rioting students were killed before the Games started, followed by black-power protests during the competition. Munich 1972: Palestinian terrorists were responsible for the deaths of 11 Israeli athletes. Montreal 1976: More than two dozen nations walked out to protest South Africa's apartheid policies. Moscow 1980: The U.S. and some three dozen other nations boycotted because of Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. Los Angeles 1984: The U.S.S.R. and a dozen other countries stayed home in retaliation for the U.S. boycott of '80.

The Winter Olympics are to the Summer as bedtime is to bedlam. Why is this? Well, the Winter Games are very small, almost cozy by comparison with their summer counterparts. Most serious winter competitors come from a handful of highly developed, lily-white countries, many of which are no-clout bystanders in global politics. Except for a few novelty entrants—a bobsledder from Jamaica or a skier from Egypt—the Third World is nowhere to be seen. Indeed, much of the earth's population, living in snowless lands, isn't represented. Since the first Winter Olympics, in 1924, 1,389 medals have been awarded and less than 1% have gone to non-Caucasian athletes, as near as I can figure. Cold war pragmatists are not about to waste a big-ticket bargaining chip like an Olympic boycott on such an operation.

Casting around in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations for some smart quote to underpin this essay, I came across the words of Plutarch, who spoke of "a certain city [where] the cold was so intense that words were congealed as soon as spoken, but that after some time they thawed and became audible; so that the words spoken in winter were articulated next summer." Maybe that's what has happened: The anger and the invective have been there at the Winter Olympics, but they have been frozen in silence until the Summer Games, when they melt and turn into tidal waves of boycotts and bad feeling.

Whatever the reasons, the Winter Games remain unreal, untroubled. It suits me just fine.