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Weather Plagues Olympic Skiing

February 16, 1998

HAKUBA, Japan (AP) _ There was big trouble on the big mountain in this little city.

The weather did it.

At first the snow was no big deal. Then came more snow, and rain, and sleet, and wind, and lightning, and fog.

In eight days, not one race went off on schedule. On five days, there were no races at all. Now it’s so bad that officials had to schedule three races for Monday (Sunday night EST) _ the first tripleheader in Olympic Alpine history.

``Why shouldn’t it be an emergency if you have to delay everything and you’re in the last week of the Winter Games,″ said Guenter Hujara, men’s technical director for the international ski federation.

``We all see that it’s getting tight now. That’s why we work all around the clock. We do what we can do. We do what’s even thinkable.″

No one wanted to utter the unthinkable: that the games might end without all the races being run. It happens routinely in World Cup events, but never in the Olympics.

But with eight Alpine races to fit into six days _ or seven days, if they race on the day of the closing ceremony _ there was hardly any room for more weather disruptions.

``I don’t think about that,″ Hujara said. ``We go for tomorrow, and at the end we will be lucky.″

Until Monday, the luck was mostly bad, and the Olympics are running out of days.

After a stubborn fog refused to lift to allow the men’s super-G to be run on Sunday, organizers played their final big hole card. They scheduled the unprecedented triple: the men’s super-G, women’s downhill and women’s combined downhill. Those races were set to go off within a six-hour period coinciding with a small predicted window of sunshine _ before the next storm arrived.

The sun broke through the clouds 10 minutes before the start of Monday’s super-G. Fog delayed the start for 45 minutes, but finally, with visibility still a bit murky at the top, the race began.

Just 15 minutes after the last super-G racer had finish, the women’s downhill began. It looked as if the trifecta would pay off and, amazingly, the Alpine schedule would be back to normal.

Otherwise, the problems would have become enormous because, after Tuesday, the events are to move some 70 miles east to Shiga Kogen for the slalom and giant slalom races. Skiers just arriving for those events will find their rooms still occupied by skiers whose events have been delayed. Equipment that is supposed to be shifted to Shiga Kogen would still be needed in Hakuba. Transportation back and forth could be a nightmare.

The hardy skiers who smile through routine weather delays with their old saying ``Ours is a winter sport″ admit they have never seen anything like this.

Daron Rahlves of Truckee, Calif., who races in the super-G, said the delays remind him of the movie ``Groundhog Day,″ where Bill Murray wakes up morning after morning to find that’s always the same day.

``It’s not so much being physically tired. It’s more mentally,″ Rahlves said. ``You drain yourself because you’re thinking so much, getting geared up and ready to go, and then they take the race away from you.″

The racers have been trying to stay busy. The U.S. women’s downhillers, including Picabo Street, spent Sunday doing some light training. On Saturday night, Street, whose super-G gold medal was one of just three in Alpine skiing last week, went to a hockey game in Nagano.

``Forget about the weather,″ she said. ``We’re here in Japan _ let’s enjoy ourselves and enjoy the country.″

But in Hakuba, everyone was talking about the weather, and no one could do anything about it.

``We had been expecting unpredictable weather in Japan,″ said Sepp Messner, assistant referee of the super-G race, ``but we could not imagine it could have been so bad.″

The locals say the weather has been unusual, even by their standards. One day warm sunshine, the next day thunder, lightning and rain, the next day snow.

On Sunday, course conditions were perfect. Except for the fog.

All week, Gian Franco Kasper, the secretary general of the international ski federation, insisted there was no crisis. But on Sunday, after yet another race was called off, his appearance betrayed him.

Through the window of his work station, he could be seen slumped in a chair, his head resting in one hand and a cigarette dangling from the other. His eyes looked tired.

He has been involved in every Olympics since 1948, he said, and never had he experienced anything like this. Still, he regrouped and put on his official optimistic game face.

``There is no reason to panic,″ he said. ``We get three races off tomorrow, we will be fine.‴

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