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For Memories, Look to the Alps

The terrain shapes the experience of all here. POSTCARD FROM ALBERTVILLE

THE night before my departure for Albertville and the winter Olympics, a neighbor dropped by to bid me adieu and make an unusual request. "Could you bring back some rocks?" he asked.

I cringed inwardly, knowing that my long-john-stuffed luggage and its custodian could little afford additional items or weight. But not wishing to disappoint a budding bonsai enthusiast, who only wants a couple of high-pedigree pebbles to grace his pots, I determined that rock-hunting in the French Alps should be a snap. Especially with so little snow on the mountains during the Olympics' first week.

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As it turns out, I discovered a rich hunting ground near the mountain-fed river that bends around the press center here - and am even considering going back for more. The Alps, after all, are the central presence that lends the 16th Winter Games their unfolding character and mystique.

The cheap-looking radio that came in my welcome-to-the-Games goodie bag might not last the fortnight; the Evian water bottle will soon be empty; and those corporate-logo emblazoned Olympic trading pins will serve more as reminders of commercial largesse than of genuine Olympic experiences.

What I and thousands of other journalists will certainly remember years hence will be the monumental mountains that are shaping the Games and the stays of all those attending them.

On a simple map of the Savoie, my hotel sits cheek-by-jowl with the Main Press Center, the Olympics' media hub in the Tarentaise Valley. It is close - as the crow flies, but it becomes a far longer journey for the straining vans that make the long climb up to the mountain resort complex of Doucy Combelouviere. I counted 14 major-league switchbacks in the narrow road that leads up to my mountain retreat. None has the benefit of a guard rail to prevent a serious drop.

And speaking of descents, Le Face de Bellevarde, the men's downhill ski run in Val d'Isere, gets my vote as one of most electrifying race courses extant - in any sport. There is no place for catching a breath, and especially not at the narrow, rock-lined pass halfway down. The winner, in something of a rarity, was the first man down the mountain, Austria's Patrick Ortlieb - by 5/100ths of a second. (See graphic below.)

It was a glorious competitive start to an Olympics that began with what certainly was the most original and avant-garde opening ceremony ever. You knew as soon as the parade of the athletes began that something was up: The young women marching ahead of each national delegation did not carry the traditional placards but bore the country names atop their heads. That left their arms free to stir the artificial snow within the large plastic globes that encased most of their bodies.

Even before this memorable opening, which saw French president Francois Mitterrand and United States vice president Dan Quayle join in doing "the wave," one veteran Olympic scribe was convinced these would be "the best Games ever."

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Why? "Great food and good phone lines," he replied. "What more could you ask for?"

Well, maybe a few good rocks for a neighbor's garden and personal memory's sake.

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