The End of the Olympics—and the Continuation of Winter

As the glow of the Games fades from Turin, our man on the scene reflects on the hits and misses of the U.S. Alpine Team, plots his way to Switzerland, and dances with demonic winter spirits.

Feb 27, 2006
Outside Magazine
Jack Shaw

Jack Shaw, getting into the spirit in the Tschäggättä Festival   

Turin Olympics Glossary & Map

Our alphabetical journey through of all things Olympian, Italian, and semantically significant ends:

Saturday, February 25, 2006

My Olympic trip came full circle today as I woke up in Verbier, Switzerland. After two magical ski days in an undisclosed location, and with no lodging anywhere near Torino or Sestriere available without forking out an arm and a leg, I retreated to the safety bubble of Switzerland, where I could watch hockey in French and have a free couch to crash on.

Just before driving back through the St. Bernard Tunnel, I could tell that a lot of snow had hit the region in my absence. When I emerged to the Swiss side, I stopped in at the Super St. Bernard ski area for a before/after snow check. This is one of those little areas of the Alps that you can have a powder day with hardly any others to share it with; a single, diesel-powered gondola delivers 3,000 feet of wide-open terrain that you'll never forget if you catch it right. It was totally filled in, and a score of knee-deep tracks on the front face above the parking lot were evidence that the same storms that plagued the race crews at Sestriere had brought the goods to the Valais Alps as well.

A lot has happened in the last few days at the games, though. As predicted, North America will be a no-show in the hockey medals round, for the first time since 1976. Both Canada (versus Russia, a 2-0 loss) and team USA (Finland a more respectable 5-4 loss) couldn't make their brand of hard-hitting hockey pay off, and goals were hard to come by for the entire tournament. Maybe it was better when the teams were filled with younger, hungry players, but the "dream team" era had been kind to North American teams in the past. There will definitely be some reevaluating in both camps.

So that meant an all-Euro semifinal, with Sweden playing the Czechs and Russia matching up with Finland. Without Dominik Hasek in the goal, the Czech team would have a hard time keeping Forsberg and company from racking up goals. They did, and lost easily 7-3. The Russia-Finland game held a great deal of historic importance. Since holding off a Russian invasion in the Winter War of 1939, the Finns have remained fiercely independent, and wary of their neighbor to the east. And while their style of play may be similar, it was the skills of veterans like Satu Koivu and Teemu Selanne that would carry the Finns into the final. Seven straight wins for the Finns…could they possibly play a perfect Olympic tournament? Sunday's game against the Swedes will be a test.

Despite nothing but disappointment from our marquee skiers, USA still had the golden performance from Ted "Shred" Ligety to take comfort in. But until Friday, there was little to cheer about on the women's team. Although rookie Resi Stiegler gave a solid performance in her first Olympic Slalom, finishing 12th just behind Sarah Schleper (10th) and ahead of Lindsey Kildow (14th), the team had been beleaguered with nagging injuries (Koznick), terrible crashes (Kildow), and generally failing to meet expectations. But finally in the women's GS, Julia Mancuso uncorked a couple of runs that left the Austrians in the dust. Befitting that she was the only American athlete that the host Italians had embraced as one of their own, she stunned the field in a driving snowstorm, and hardly could believe it herself.

It's great to see a couple of kids that aren't trash-talkers, don't carry the weight of an enormous ego on their shoulders, and work hard to put in a performance that beats the pants off the world's best. They will definitely be the foundation of our ski team in Vancouver in 2010.

So now the next stage of my winter begins. I left Verbier and headed to the Geneva Airport to drop off my car, and pick up a van along with a crew of skiers. Not racers, but professional freeskiers, in Switzerland for three weeks to film for Teton Gravity Research. We linked up, loaded the van as full as humanly possible, and headed into one of the darkest corners of the Swiss Alps, the Lötschental Valley. We were planning on taking part in a Carnivale celebration, a centuries-old tradition involving hideous masks and costumes that represented the evil spirits of the winter.

After a three-hour drive up the Rhone Valley, we arrived in Wiler, the village where the Tschäggättä festival takes place. Where Aostan mountain villages are constructed of stone, these Valais mountain villages are like gingerbread houses, built from rough-hewn timbers propped up on giant, pizza-shaped flagstones (to keep the rats out). We met up with Andy Reider, a local whose father carves the intricate masks year round in preparation for this weekend's festivities. Some of the other villagers were already working on their buzz, halfway-dressed in their costumes in his basement.

He set all of us up with the obligatory gear, starting with wool or burlap pants and a WWII-era Swiss army jacket turned inside out. We then put on the shoulder padding and goatskins, and I began to resemble a central casting reject from the Star Wars bar scene. A cowbell, cinched incredibly tight around my waist (by two strong, drunk Swiss men and a pair of vice-grips) and all that was left to do was to pick out my mask. When you see these terrifying wood carvings, you can only wonder what demons haunted the men that make these things.

After everyone was done getting dressed, we stood around and laughed at each other for a while, then donned our heavy masks and headed out into the street for the parade. Every villager in the valley packs the streets for the festival, and you basically run amok, ringing your bell and scaring children. I know for a fact that I made at least a half-dozen cry, and probably gave more than a few nightmares. And I wasn't anywhere near as scary as some of the others.

Tomorrow we meet up with a guide and set out to film in the high peaks that line this valley. These are big, glaciated mountains with postcard views and a fresh coat of paint, and we can't wait to get into them. While Torino was a very cool multi-national experience, two weeks is enough, and I am ready to get on with the rest of the winter. If I don't have to watch another minute of curling or ice dancing for four more years, it'll be too soon. It's snowing in the Alps again, there isn't a racing gate in sight, and the closing ceremonies will be over tomorrow night. The Torinese can get back to normal life, while enjoying the brief urban renewal that the Games brought their city. Whether Passion will Continue to Live There remains to be seen, but in another four winters, we'll be back at it again in Vancouver.

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