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Preparations Near Completion, but Olympic Fever Hasn’t Sunk In

February 2, 1991

ALBERTVILLE, France (AP) _ A few strings of light bulbs forming the five Olympic rings dangle above the one-way rue de la Republique, this town’s main street. A few signs declare Coca-Cola as an Olympic sponsor, as do a handful of posters for the French bank Credit Lyonnais and filmmaker Kodak.

Otherwise Albertville is one of scores of picturesque foot-of-the-Alps towns, known for its charm, medieval castles dotting surrounding slopes and savory cuisine.

But the 16th Winter Olympics which are to begin here Feb. 8, 1992 face local apathy, price-gouging and potentially crippling cost overruns.

A year before the Games come to the Savoy region in southern France, preparations are already nearing completion. Albertville, designated the Games’ host city, has brand-new figure- and speed-skating rinks, and has become linked to Paris by the high-speed TGV train.

New competition facilities are being built for all the events, and a wide new highway has replaced a narrow mountain road.

Set against the breathtaking backdrop of the French Alps and Rhone River valley, the ’92 Winter Games are certain to impress. ″We think Albertville is an enormously attractive property,″ said CBS Sports President Neal Pilson after the network won U.S. broadcast rights. ″It’s in a beautiful section of France, the weather is wonderful.″

But Albertville has few of the trappings expected of a town counting down the opening of the world’s biggest winter sportsfest. There are no Olympic banners or flags fluttering, and only a few stores sell souvenirs.

At the Alps village of Val d’Isere, the site of most of the men’s alpine ski events, unwitting visitors can’t tell the Olympics are coming.

″There are no signs up, there aren’t any Olympic parties,″ said Andrew Smith, an Australian trying out Val d’Isere’s renowned slopes. ″We wouldn’t have known the Olympics were going to be here if they didn’t tell us on the bus coming in.″

Daniel Arpin, a native son who owns the Ski One shop in Val d’Isere, is even more blase. ″Two weeks before it starts we’ll all know, and then all of a sudden it will all be gone,″ he said.

Champagne bottles uncorked and partying broke out across Savoy when Albertville was selected in October 1986 as the Games’ host, the third French city to host the winter Games after Chamonix inaugurated them in 1924 and Grenoble held them in 1968.

Albertville Mayor Henry Dujon was subsequently re-elected even after his politically risky move - for a small town - of installing downtown parking meters.

Arpin’s carefree attitude reflects what organizers grudgingly acknowledge: the Games just haven’t sparked much local interest.

″I’m crazy about winter sports,″ says Rene Perret, owner of Le Gaulois brasserie in Albertville. ″I already have tickets for the 1994 Winter Olympics.″

But he’s not so crazy about Albertville hosting the Games.

″The prices people are charging are an outrage,″ Perret says. ″It’s cheaper to be in Los Angeles or Calgary and buy a package tour to come here for the Olympics than be here and try to get a hotel and tickets.″

Indifference and profiteering aren’t the only problems the Games are facing. Huge cost overruns and serious safety questions have arisen. And transportation between the 11 competition sites, far-flung over 640 square miles and almost all connected only by two-lane mountain roadways, could cause dilemmas of crisis proportions.

The failure to mobilize local citizens has also bred complaints that the Games are being run by a select few, with the only economic fallout for Albertville inflated prices and rents.

Olympic organizers ″aren’t doing anything,″ said Thierry Ainaud, 20, an Albertville student. ″For young people especially, it’s zero. I have no sensation that the Games are coming.″

For Luigi Bruno, a 22-year-old waiter, the Olympics are a chance for Albertville, hitherto relatively unknown, to get on the map.

″But the town hasn’t followed through well. They need to do something to make people want to come back after the Games,″ Bruno said. ″Something to attract young people and visitors, like pedestrian streets.″

″Those are legitimate sentiments,″ acknowledges Michel Barnier, a politically savvy Savoyard who is co-chairman of the Olympic Organizing Committee, known by its French acronym COJO.

″I don’t deny that feeling, but there will be a time for everybody,″ Barnier said in an interview. ″We’re at the end of the construction period with still a year to go. The time to mobilize people is from now.″

He said there are 7,000 volunteers on file, with plenty of work to do.

Barnier, president of the Savoy assembly, heads COJO along with former French ski star Jean-Claude Killy, who created a stir by abruptly resigning 17 days after being appointed to the post in 1987.

Killy quit after a row over a redesignation of ski competition sites that dropped the resorts of Tignes and Les Menuires, but was eventually persuaded to return as co-chairman.

Savoyards care about issues closer at heart.

″What we’re happy about most is the improvement in the road access,″ said Arpin, echoing the sentiments of many locals.

The departmental government built a four-lane highway from Albertville to Moutiers, the gateway to several Alps resorts, which hadn’t been planned until the 21st century.

With Savoy’s experience at hosting world-class winter sports, COJO’s run-up events to the Olympics have been mostly flawless. Few problems with running the 1992 events are expected.

But COJO has uneasy ties with two groups it can ill afford to - official sponsors and the press. Because of high COJO prices for lodging, workspace and communications, some journalists, and sponsors such as Kodak and Visa, are spurning Albertville for nearby Chambery, Annecy and even Geneva, Switzerland.

But COJO’s biggest headache has been the controversial bobsled and ski jump courses. They have wreaked havoc on the overall budget, which has ballooned from $460 million to $780 million.

The cost of the bobsled run at La Plagne has quadrupled to 240 million $48 million, according to knowledgeable sources, though Killy told the French sports newspaper L’Equipe that the current estimate was $40 million. That’s still twice the price of the 1988 bobsled course at Calgary.

Potentially shifting earth could rupture the cooling system and release poisonous ammonia. The course needed new safety systems which were only ready for testing in January.

The ski jump platforms at Courchevel faced similar problems: numerous underground springs were discovered that could make the ground unstable, so costly modifications were made, to the tune of about 40 percent above the initial $12 million estimate.

Western European television revenue is also considerably less than hoped, only $18 million for 32 countries, while CBS, operating with a disadvantageous time difference, is shelling out $243 million. Barnier said COJO will economize elsewhere, among the ideas is building fewer parking lots.

″Our only worry is the fall of the dollar. We’re very sensitive to that,″ Barnier said. ″But our goal is to break even. It will be difficult, but possible.″

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