Winter Olympics: Downhillers have to leap off garage roof but no one's allowed to dangle from the wardrobe

Olympian efforts to master local customs
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The Independent Online
The service road outside Tokyo's Narita Airport was empty. Gesturing to us to wait on the pavement, the policeman took a whistle from his belt and blew it. He then gestured to us to cross the service road.

It was an interesting introduction to Japan.

On the bus ride into Nagano, where we members of the Fourth Estate were to report on the XVIII Winter Olympics, our young guide did what he could to divert our attention from the tedium of the journey.

"We are going through the centre of Tokyo now so you will see lots of buildings. Thank you."

There were indeed many buildings to be seen on our slow progress along the freeway which cuts through the city at seventh floor level. Had they been trees, the slimmer of the densely packed tower blocks around us would have withered away through lack of sunlight.

It had taken us almost two hours to reach Tokyo from the airport. As we crossed over a railway line, the bullet train to Nagano passed right underneath us, its beak-like front section cleaving the air.

"The Shinkansen is going underneath us now. The Shinkansen is the fastest train in Japan."

A little ironic groan went through the bus as a few of us shifted on seats that were just a fraction too narrow for the human back.

"We will be going for six hours," our guide went on. "It may be more. So you can do whatever you want."

The range of possibilities appeared limited.

"Sleep or chat or whatever you want. But please don't stretch your arms out of the windows because this is very dangerous."

Located six hours later in my little room with a view over the cement factory, I detected a similar tone in a sheet of instructions regarding correct usage of my furniture.

There was apparently a possibility that moulds and bacteria might grow behind the furniture if it were situated too close to the wall. A minimum distance of 10 centimetres was recommended. I made a mental note to check that statistic at an appropriate time.

"Do not stand or jump on the furniture," the instruction went on. "You could lose your balance, fall and be injured. These acts may also shorten the life of the furniture."

By way of illustration, two erring stick men were pictured, half obliterated by large crosses. The first was falling backwards off a chair from a standing position, a book flying out of his hand. The second, unaccountably, was hanging from the top of his opened wardrobe door with both hands. No clue was given as to what might have moved him to such an act of desperation.

I had not realised that a simple desk, chair and wardrobe could harbour such peril.

Was this unnerving awareness, a national trait, I wondered, or merely a local peculiarity? Whatever, it was an interesting introduction to my Olympic lodgings.

The concrete factory, in its way, said a lot about the coexistence of the Olympics and this sprawling, low-rise, industrialised town, trapped in its own net of telephone wires.

A blue Olympic symbol, complete with the inevitable sponsor's name, has simply been attached to the highest convenient vantage point - which happens to be this factory's central tower.

But if that juxtaposition appears odd, there are other anomalies about these Games that are even harder to take in.

One of the stated aims of the Nagano Olympics is "to pay homage to nature." Accordingly, there has been much attention given to environmental issues.

A small forest, natural habitat to several rare birds, has been painstakingly transplanted from the biathlon course.

The downhill skiing course at Hakuba has also been shaped by environmental pressures. Its length has been curtailed by the need to safeguard national park land at the top of the mountain. And its first big jump has been specially constructed to ensure racers fly well over a section where rare alpine flowers grow. Graham Bell, Britain's veteran downhiller, likened the experience to jumping off a garage roof.

Yet this is a town where traffic pollution is so bad that many of the inhabitants walk the streets with face masks on. Outside the main Olympic village, another logo depicting five rings is on display in front of a factory issuing yellow smoke into the air from two stacks.

Among those trying to take in the more opaque Japanese customs this week was the minister for sport, Tony Banks. He was, he said, looking forward to seeing the downhill skiing, although he was happy to acknowledge that his native landscape in West Ham had not prepared him for anything like the Hakuba. Not unless one counted the dry skiing facilities at Beckton - "the Beckton Alps" - as he had it.

Later in the week, the minister plans to try to fathom the mysteries of curling. That should provide him with another mountain to climb.

Wandering through Nagano town centre on the way to the function at which the Minister appeared, I had become aware of an elderly Japanese gentleman in a baseball cap closing in on me with intense benevolence.

"Where you from?" he asked, smiling alarmingly.

"From England."

"England?"

"Yes."

"Diana," he said.

"Diana?"

"Diana. Yes. Diana. She dead."

He was still grinning. I smiled, and quickened my step. It was an interesting introduction to Japanese conversation.

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