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Winter Olympics escape extinction

Some Olympic reflections as we file away our scouting reports on the luge, the biathlon, and the women's 4 X 5 kilometer cross country relay for another four years:

It's hard to believe right now, given the vast media coverage at Lake Placid and the wild excitement of the final weekend of competition, but less than 10 years ago the Winter Olympics were on the verge of extinction.

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The main arguments for abolition were (1) the Winter Games were added to the Olympic calendar in the 1920s primarily to build interest in the various sports and to boost winter tourism -- both of which goals had been accomplished; (2) the games didn't really meet the Olympic ideal of widespread involvement since most of the sports on the program are not played in that many countries and in fact only a handful of nations have anything more than token representation; (3) the whole scene had become much too commercial and professional -- especially in Alpine skiing; and (4) public interest, including that of television, wasn't very high.

The lte Avery Brundage, then president of the International Olympic committee , was a strong advocate of abolition -- and at Sapporo in 1972 he made no bones about the fact that he hoped the 1976 games would be the last ones.

Brundage was a stickler for amateurism, and his bete noirem was Alpine skiing, where even in those days it was common knowledge that top stars were being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by equipment manufacturers. At Sapporo he made an example of Karl Schranz, banning the great Austrian star from competition although the only difference between his professionalism and that of most other racers was one of degree.

This action caused a lot of controversy and turmoil, while another problem at that time was simply a lack of public interest. Many major US papers didn't even bother sending a staff writer to Sapporo, relying on wire service reports or freelance correspondents, and the television ratings were not very encouragin either.

In the next few years, the Winter Games continued to slide toward apparent oblivion.Denver, the supposed 1976 host, changed its mind and Innsbruck had to step in to fill the breach. And no one even bid for the 1980 games except the tine village of Lake Placid.

Meanwhile, in contrast to the quadrennial bidding wars for righst to the summer games, the American networks were not very interested in the winter version. ABC had the 1976 TV rights, and the consensus of the industry was that it would be a ratings disaster. So when the Lake Placid rights went on the block in 1975, the same network was also able to acquire these for a veritable song.

But then came Innsbruck! Starting off with Franz Klammer's spectacular victory in the men's downhill on the first day of competition, ABC suddenly found it had a hit on its hands. The public was captivated, it kept on watching throughout the nearly two weeks of competition, and the Winter Olympics had arrived as a television success.

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As a sporting even, the games still have plenty of problems -- starting with the fact that the program is made up mostly of repetitive, monotonous sports that don't have much spectator appeal. But as a TV entertainment spectacle (which is what they have really become), the Winter Games are boffo. Television can kiss off less popular sports with token coverage; show plenty of Alpine skiing and figure skating; zero in on whatever else captures the public's fancy (Eric Heiden, the US hockey saga); personalize the whole thing with interviews and mood pieces; and present a package guaranteed to score high in the ratings game.

So one thing we can be sure of is that there won't be any more talk about abolishing the winter Olympics. Sarajevo is the site for 1984 and Cortina (the 1956 host) is supposedly readying a bid for 1988. And the way the ratings keep going up, if the day ever comes that nobody wants the games, ABC would probably build a bobsled run and a ski jump in Central Park and put on the show itself!

One set of medals awarded during the Winter Olympics that doesn't get much publicity is for Alpine Combined skiing. That's because they're given out by the International Ski Federation (FIS) and are not Olympic medals. They're a true mark of outstanding all- around skill, however, and it's a shame the winners dont't get a bit more recognition.

Phil Mahre of the United States won the men's gold medal on the basis of his second place finish in the slalom, 10th in the giant slalom, and 14th in the downhill. Andreas Wenzel of Liechtenstein took the silver and Leonhard Stock of Austria got the bronze.

Hanni Wenzel, with two golds and a silver, was the runaway women's winner, while Cindy Nelson of the US, though failing to win a medal, was consistent enough overall to get the silver via a seventh in the downhill, 11th in the slalom, and 13th in the giant slalom. Ingrid Eberle of Austria won the bronze.

Since the absence of an Alphine Combined event on the Olympic program is such an obvious omission that the FIS feels compelled to award its own medals to make up for it, one wonders why the IOC doesn't include it. The question is particularly mystifying because (1) There once was such a medal, and (2) there is already a Nordic Combined event.

Certainly it seems strange that the sport which most observers agree is the centerpiece of the Winter Games awards only six sets of medals while a sport like speed sakting, which normally commands far less public interest, offers nine. The IOC could rectify the situation by making Alpine Combined an entirely separate event, as in the Nordic disciplines, or, if it didn't want to add any more races, it could just do what the FIS does now and award the medals on the basis of the best overall performances in the three existing races.


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