Leisure: Downhill all the way for the Winter Olympics

The Japanese city of Nagano won the right to hold February's Winter Olympics at the height of the Japanese boom when money was no object. But since then rising costs and interminable squabbles have threatened to create yet another acrimonious Games, as Richard Lloyd Parry in Nagano discovers.
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The Independent Online
Early next year a new word will enter the vocabulary of television watchers and sports fans: Naoc, an uncomfortable-looking acronym, pronounced "Nowk" in English and "Naoku" in Japanese. It stands for Nagano Olympic Committee, the organising body behind the 18th Winter Olympics which lift off in the Japan Alps in February. But winter sports enthusiasts may find an easier and more appropriate interpretation of the four letters: Not Another Olympic Cock-up.

The Nagano Winter Olympics will be the biggest ever, with 83 competing nations from Laos to Latvia, 3,000 athletes and officials, 68 separate events and three new sports (curling, snowboarding and women's ice hockey). But apart from their scale, they also have the potential to be one of the most bad-tempered Games ever. For the last six years, and increasingly as the Games approach, the Nagano Olympics have been mired in murky practices, incompetent planning, and distinctly un-Olympian bickering which threatens to eclipse even last year's unhappy Atlanta Games.

The whole sorry tangle was epitomised this week by the visit to Nagano of a party led by Marc Hodler, president of the International Ski Federation (FIS). With less than five months to go, the trip was intended to lay the finishing touches to plans for the 33 skiing events. But FIS and Naoc are still bogged down in an interminable dispute over the most basic of facilities - the course of the men's downhill ski run, the most glamorous and high-profile of all the Winter Olympic events.

The FIS wants the run to be longer; Naoc refuses to extend it. At the weekend Mr Hodler hinted that he might take the committee to court over the squabble. "They talk as if FIS has no idea how to ski or what snow is," said an exasperated Gian- Franco Kasper, the federation's secretary-general, this week. "When someone who knows little about snow talks like they know better, it's difficult to understand."

Naoc's main problem is straightforward enough: money. When the idea of holding the games in Nagano was first conceived, it was reckoned that they would cost 40 billion yen (pounds 210m at today's rates). Six years ago, when the city was awarded the Games, this figure had almost doubled. Ever since then it has continued rising: when the athletes fly home at the end of February the total bill will be over 100 billion yen (pounds 526m).

Nagano won the Games in 1991 in the last months of Japan's notorious "bubble" economy when money seemed to be no object. Among many grand promises made before its selection was Nagano's offer to pay the travel and accommodation expenses of all athletes and officials. Now this promise has been withdrawn: Naoc says it will pay a maximum of $1,000 for certain athletes only. Understandably, competing nations, especially the poorer ones are not pleased; the towns defeated by Nagano are furious.

Another 150 billion yen (pounds 789m) has been spent on constructing the facilities; 1.2 trillion yen (pounds 6.3bn) has gone on roads and a brand new bullet train line connecting Nagano with Tokyo in less than an hour and a half. The argument is that by investing in its infrastructure, the region will reap the economic benefits for years to come.

But no one seems able to say how long it will take for the new constructions to pay for themselves. After the fortnight-long Games, will a town of 360,000 really make use of a bobsleigh track, for instance, a sport practised at most by only a few hundred people in the whole country? "The next generation will shoulder the tax burden of holding the Olympics, an event which lasts two weeks," says Masao Ezawa, of the Anti-Olympic People's Network.

A glance at Naoc's scrapbook reveals the committee's habit of falling flat on its face more often than a novice skier on a glacier. Several teams have complained that the Olympic village is too far from the competition venues. The ice hockey federation says the arena for their sport is too small.

When Mr Ezawa's group sued over the public funds spent in the Olympics, it emerged that key financial records had been "lost", raising suspicions of financial impropriety. A few weeks ago, the governor of Nagano Prefecture, Goro Yoshimura, joined in the controversy, feet first, with some overly candid remarks about speed skating. The sport is "uninteresting", he declared, and likened its practitioners to "water beetles on a whirligig".

The most stubborn dispute of all is about the men's downhill course. The FIS says that the course offers too little challenge; Naoc refuses to extend it because to do so would involve passing through a national park. FIS insists that no permanent damage will be done and points out that half a million amateur skiers pass through the park every year without any prohibition. Yesterday, Chiharu Igaya, a Japanese member of the International Olympic Committee implored Naoc to change its mind, but in vain.