Winter Olympic Stories From Nagano (1998)

The Big Fence I’m trying to get Jake Burton to hop the fence, and he seems willing. But it’s dumping snow at the bottom of the Olympic Giant Slalom course on Mt. Yakebitai, and no one is quite sure what the man in the gray volunteer’s uniform will do when we leap over the wall to take a “quick” photo.It seems a larger metaphor for the whole Olympic thing. I half-ask myself, “What happens when we jump over the big wall?” The race is long over, the families gone home. The podium gathers snow like the flat plywood it is. Further down the mountain, athletes climb on a bus, its wipers smacking back and forth against the storm-smacking a little too loudly for the losers, no doubt. My subject edges toward the fence, still determined, but looking a little timid. Jake Burton pauses briefly and asks me, “Would you do this?” I want to say that we’ve all jumped this barrier in our own little way, but I don’t-they’re wasted words at this point.

Jake positions himself next to the wall and readies to jump it. The gray uniform moves over like a dark grouping of snowflakes, his face suddenly in front of us. He crosses his wrists into an “X”; we’ve seen this gesture before, it means: “Stop whatever you are doing.” We stop. We’re guests. The shot is simple enough:Jake Burton, alone in a large stadium that’s totally empty, already forgotten. The snow blinds any Olympic flame that may be lit in his eyes. The large video screen in the background shoots electronic dots out to no one. It would say it all, but the shot never happens. Jake’s cell phone rings, and he’s off to answer it. I’m lefthuddled in the storm with the last few spectators as a group of snowcats swims like metallic stingrays in thesandy snow at the bottom of the race course.

Ross: Part One

The last photo I take, an hour or so before Jake and I are shut out by the man in gray is of Canadian Ross Rebagliati on the small podium at the base of the race course. He hangs ten off the podium in his hard boots and then jumps off of the edge. He’s happy. He should be-moments earlier he won the gold medal, finishing two-hundredths of a second faster than Italy’s Thomas Pruegger in the inaugural Olympic Men’s Giant Slalom. Now Ross emerges from a small room adjacent to the base of the race course; he’s completed the obligatory peeing-in-a-cup and is off to Nagano for the formal medal ceremony and the most intense two weeks of his life-two weeks that begin inthe start house on Mt. Yakebitai and end on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Her Crash Will Not Be Televised The Olympics are about the big moments. The ones you see on CBS, NBC, ESPN, or CNN.But one of the most powerful moments in Olympic snowboarding is not seen by most: the story of France’s Isabelle Blanc in the Women’s Olympic Giant Slalom. Blanc is hauling ass, straight up. She’s riding so much faster than any of us will ever ride that the only way to describe her speed is to link it to her anatomy in someway. She’s hauling fingers, hauling legs, hauling elbows, hauling hair, no … hauling ass! She’s speeding toward a medal and a moment most of us will never experience. But she wrecks on the second-to-last gate.It’s the kind of canned drama they love to serve up in newsrooms. I can see the menu at the Main Press Center in Nagano now. First course-“Snowboarder Goes Fast.” Second course-“Snowboarder Crashes.”And for dessert-“Snowboarder Loses Medal.” The world media would eat it up, if it wasn’t so full of Ross’ story. Blanc’s drama differs from Ross’. There’s no phoenix-like ascension from the icy rut on the second-to-last gate.

That fate is saved for another rider. Blanc cries when she blows out, as any of us would.

But it’s not her crying that affects me so much, it’s that we are so detached from her. The fences, the maze of gates, the bar-coded press passes-none allow us to comfort her. At one point she steps close enough to one of the fences for me to see the subtle difference between the rain and her tears. But the moment is cut short;these are t Olympics Games, and we must celebrate victory and defeat from a distance-through the line of security guards, under the giant screen projecting her loss above the race site. French teammate Karine Ruby feels Isabelle’s pain. Isabelle and Karine are friends, and if anyone can feel it, it’s Karine. But Karine is also a competitor, one of the fiercest in the world. She enters the second-to-last gate-the one that chewed up not only Isabelle Blanc, but several of the world’s best racers-at speed. She flies through the air, only a sliver of her nose in contact with the snow. Plunging forward down the fall-line, her edge engages, and Karine Ruby powers through to the gold. For every loss there is a counter gain, as Heidi Renoth from Germany knows too well; Isabelle’s misfortunes left Renoth with the second-fastest time.

“I didn’t see her fall, and I felt sad because I thought that the silver had slipped away from me,” says Renoth. “It would have been fair for her tow in the silver, but later I heard someone applaud around me. My good luck was her bad luck.”

Bronze-medalist Brigitte Koeck doesn’t address the fall, knowing fate is with her as she holds onto third place. “I am very happy about this medal,” she says. “It is fantastic.” These small words are the distance between the podium and a place in crowd at the medal ceremony in Nagano. Perhaps that’s why Koeck and Renoth seem so gracious-they know it’s a distance that can be measured by a few simple words, or even just one gate. Monkeys “Do not ever look a jigokudani monkey in the face,” the sign at the entrance reads. It seems odd advice considering that jigokudani monkeys are everywhere surrounding us, and they’re staring straight at us. U.S. pipe-riders Shannon Dunn and Michele Taggart do their best to avoid looking into the monkeys’ faces. Mark Gallup takes a few photos, presumably on auto-focus, so as not to fix his eyes on the monkeys, either. The sign doesn’t explain what will happen if you look a monkey in the face, but the threat is to be taken seriously, if only because it’s written in slashing red letters like some blood-thirsty monkeys had scrawled the warning themselves. Michele and Shannon made the twenty-minute hike down to the monkey park, where a bunch of primates lounge around in the natural hot springs. Their only request? That you please don’t look. In a strange way, it’s an uncanny parallel to snowboarding in the Olympics. Now, I’m not saying that snowboarders are monkeys, but bear with me: We’ve both gathered in a nice place-they in a natural-spring hot tub, us in one of the best pipes in the world.

Snowboarding is here for all the world to see, but we don’t want them to look too closely. We don’t want everyone to like snowboarding so much that they actually go out and try it, making it less cool than it is. Maybe the reason you can’t look the monkeys in the face is because you may suddenly figure out that your life would be better if you were a monkey in a hot tub in Japan. The hot tub would get too full. And as everyone knows, the only thing worse than a crowded pipe is a crowded hot tub. Shannon can’t stop laughing at the monkeys in the steaming pool. It’s her ability to laugh that carries her all the way through to the pipe finals and a bronze medal. No matter how serious the competition gets, how hard the rain falls, or who she might be trailing in points, Shannon just laughs. Michele studies the monkeys with humor as well, but it’s clear that the competition is on her mind. It has been a long day of practice, and she feels the pressure to deliver a medal for the U.S. team. Considered a favorite tow in, it proves to be a heavy weight for her to carry through the course of the contest. She has the perfect run, blowing away all Olympic competitors-the only problem is it happens a week after the Olympics. During the contest she struggles to stay in the top sixteen, and finally she doesn’t. German Nicola Thost and Norway’s Stine Brun Kjeldaas skip the whole monkey-park business and get down to ripping the Olympic pipe in a big way. Stine snatches first place from Nicola in the semis, but Thost gets it right back in the finals when it counts, winning the first gold medal. Upon receiving it, Nicola comments, “It’s nice and heavy.”

The Kid, the Horn, and the Catwalk

It begins with a horn. Not the bellowing sound of one, but the swinging of one and near decapitation of Daniel Franck by one. Olympic Men’s Halfpipe Champion Gian Simmen can’t hold the horn steady, which seems to bother nobody. Even Norway’s silver-medalist Franck shrugs off the large, bell-shaped horn crashing down on his head. Bronze-medalist Ross Powers from the U.S. is unaffected by the horn incident. Daniel removes his Norwegian Olympic team hat from his head and tosses it into the air. With that motion he confirms his place in Olympic lore as the only silver medalist in history with leopard-skin hair. Snowboarding gets another first. Nobody knows the kid with the horn. He looks like a typical Swiss snowboarder in many ways-shaved head, big smile. He’s obviously blown away by what’s happening. Twenty-year-old Gian Simmen has become the unsuspecting trailblazer in what one supposes will be a long line of Olympic champion pipe riders. His plan is to carry the Alphorn down the skinny catwalk rising just above the crowd, climb the podium with it, and receive his gold medal. But he can’t-the horn is too heavy and too long. So he drops it and throws his Swiss team uniform into cruise control, casually striding toward the podium. He appears to be a good-natured kid, smiling, shaking hands,and laughing his way down the catwalk. A large Swiss delegation in the crowd screams in complete adoration for a snowboarder they didn’t even know existed on Wednesday. But this is Thursday, the best Thursday in all of Gian Simmen’s life. The chaotic and brightly lit halfpipe medal ceremony is in the center of Nagano town. It’s a chance for the honored athletes to show the Japanese locals and international fans alike who they really are. The catwalk is just low enough that the athletes can reach down and shake hands with a few of the boisterous fans. Each medal ceremony is allotted a 30-minute time slot, with a total of three sports per night. We stand with hundreds of other locals and fans through the ceremony and take in the entirety of the day-one of big beginnings and poignant endings. On a large video screen behind the catwalk, reruns of Gian Simmen’s winning pipe runs are broadcast to the packed house. It’s clear that his first run is the clincher.

Daniel and Ross’ runs follow, and for a brief moment you begin to understand why the Olympic process takes five years to organize. Who videotaped the contest? Who plugs in the video screen? Did they need a voltage adapter? Is the viewing distance for the audience correct? Is the color good? Is the right person on the screen as each medalist walks down the catwalk? These questions were asked somewhere along the line,and answered by committees assigned to make sure there were no screwups. The spectacle unfolds flawlessly, staged to the point that you’d think Simmen, Franck, and Powers rehearsed it to perfection.Television cameras spin from one end of the catwalk to the other. The live-feed pours onto the video screens, then relays to the satellite truck outside the ring. Inside the truck, a production crew monitors the satellite. Inside the satellite is the signal. Inside the signal is a picture, and inside the picture is a … horn. Thisabsurd image goes everywhere, and millions of people sit in front of their televisions and yell out, “Heyhoney, come on in here and look at this snowboarder on TV. That crazy kid’s got a damn horn in his hand!”And that is the Olympics. In surreal pixel form, it’s easy to see that Daniel kills it on the second run. Ross Powers stays on it for both his runs as well, but it’s Simmen who is most consistent, and consistency is paramount in the Olympic judging format-adopted from FIS (Fédération International Du Ski) which combines the scores of two runs to decide the winner. The video is silent-no harsh scratching of edges as boards approach the rim of the pipe, no sound as all energy and gravitational law is released when Simmen drifts a big frontside air. No lightning and crackling thunder in the background as the rain pours down on the pipe. You see only what they want you to see. And that is also the Olympics.

Ross: Part Two

The model’s almost naked, walking across the NBC sound stage and politely smiling at Ross. Leno’s eyes reach out and hold a clear, bright vision of the model as she bumps Ross Rebagliati out of the main guest seat and over to the couch. She’s beautiful, and Ross can’t help but notice. But the model doesn’t notice Ross looking at her chest. Who knows what he’s thinking. She possesses a deep and sumptuous bosom. Ross possesses a gold medal. It’s a cultural fact that what rests on the chests of these two people played an important part in bringing them together at this moment in time. Ross’s gold medal and the model’s golden cleavage-next on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. There’s only a modest exchange between the cleavage and medal, all the while Leno lobs his lame jokes. In the fleeting words of the model to Ross, it appears she doubts his story of secondary inhalation. For his part, Ross remains insistent on his innocent-bystander status. Before the model is thrown into the equation, Ross and Leno had covered the crucial set of facts that brought him to the show:boy wins medal, boy loses medal, boy wins medal back. And in those three points we have the most basics toryline for every myth ever written, wherein the hero is transformed into villain, then is redeemed and rises to the status of eternal hero. Ross plays it cool, completing the journey with rare and admirable poise.

Closing Ceremonies

The snowboarders who made it to the Nagano Olympics deserve the utmost respect,and the medalists play an even more important part in the sport’s young story. But in the context of history,will snowboarding be remembered solely because it was an Olympic sport? Probably not. Hopefully snowboarding will be remembered for its freedom. Not because of “freeriding,” or because someone stood on a podium and said snowboarding is about “being free.” And not because anyone boycotted an event because it wasn’t “free enough.” Snowboarding should be remembered for the freedom all of us seek in some form when we step on a board. It’s that magic no political system can define or contain, no event can create,and no medal or trophy can ever properly signify. No matter what happens to the dream of winning a medal,snowboarding will always offer the victory of personal freedom, and the top spot on that podium will always fit more than one person