Nagano? Naga-Yes!

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, February 1998
W I N T E R   O L Y M P I C S   P R E V I E W

Nagano? Naga-Yes!

Sure, this year's Winter Olympics will have its foibles, including a gaggle of over-hyped personal stories, suspense-killing tape-delays, and TV talking heads nattering on about "adorable" pixies on skates. But that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of good reasons to love the Games anyway.

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Alberto, We Hardly Knew Ye
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About halfway between Tokyo and Nagano stands a large replica of "Liberty Enlightening the World," more commonly known as the Statue of Liberty. The Lady sways above the disorderly crush of some industrial town, where it serves perhaps as a billboard for a nightclub or a small hotel or its owner's eccentricity. Because I glimpsed it from a plush seat on a newly built gee-whiz high-speed train, a train that came into existence to feed athletes and spectators into Nagano for this month's Games, Liberty passed in a kilometer-eating blink. Still, the one thing quickly absorbed about the icon was that she had her back turned on aspiring little Nagano and its Olympics, nonchalantly ignoring the whole affair.

Oh, cruel metaphor. True, it's considered nigh impossible for any country to match the grand success of the Lillehammer Games, where weather, venues, foodstuffs, and rosy-cheeked hosts conspired toward utter perfection. A media groundswell even arose post-Lillehammer to make the Norwegian town permanent host of the Winter Olympics. And yes, little Nagano has had its troubles, what with the specter of El Ni±o-ized snow cover (meaning none), a horribly choked infrastructure, a shortage of hotel rooms, a nasty catfight over the downhill course, and a troublingly collapsing Nikkei index eating into the operating budget. But for America to ignore the XVIII Winter Olympiad would be, well, un-American. Or un-Japanese. Or something. For if ever a Games had a theme, these would be they. That theme? Pluck. From that alleged day eight years ago when a few million of the Nagano Olympic Committee's dollars somehow found their way into select IOC pockets, thus ensuring by four votes that the Winter Games would arrive in the most southerly city ever, Nagano has played the underdog, scolded and belittled by the rest of the world. Well, pluck them. Display that storied resolve. Hike up those kimonos and shed those shoes.

Why, at this very moment the Japanese military is probably shoveling tons of snow onto the upper ramparts of Mount Happo one for the downhill. Innkeepers are busy swapping futons for western-style beds, the better to make athletes feel comfy. The Shinkansen is zipping into the just-opened and wildly impressive Nagano station, a short, lovely walk from the medals podium, arriving at precisely the scheduled minute. And fleshy Sumo wrestlers are warming up to stamp away evil spirits during the opening ceremonies. Let's see Norway match that. The sake is warming (or chilling, as you prefer), the maguro is sliced, the tatami mats are rolled out in greeting. So welcome not to the games of Nagano, but to the games of Naga-yes. Hai!

When it's all over and the banners are struck, will we remember that the siting of the men's downhill put the rare Gomoshijimi hairstreak butterfly at risk? Or that Nagano's ancient and dignified Zenkoji Buddhist temple had to endure a visit by Sukki, Nokki, Lekki, and Tsukki, those lovable mascots known as the Snowlets? Of course not. These Games will be recalled as all other Games are, for the personal achievements. The historic victory of the very first Olympic curling champion (our money's on some Canadian guy). Or the Olympic debut of women's ice hockey (Go Team Canada!). And don't forget, the anointing of the world's best biathlete (we like Myriam Bedard, a Canadian). Yes, it's the human stories that engage us during the Games, and Nagano will not be lacking. From the possible swan song of AJ Kitt (by the way, he's married to a former Miss Canada), to the triple axels of the ubiquitous Elvis Stojko (Canada's own!), we'll watch every tape-delayed-and-rebroadcast-nine-hours-later moment. Because that, after all, is what the Olympics are all about. Arigato! — JOHN TAYMAN

Illustrations by Tim Bower

Copyright 1998, Outside magazine

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