Winter Olympics: Prayers and big players as Olympic show hits Nagano

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The XVIII Winter Olympics begin tomorrow with wall to wall television coverage guaranteeing huge armchair audiences around the world. Mike Rowbottom reports from Nagano, Japan, on the greatest show in the snow.

There is a new edifice in the grounds of Nagano's ancient Zenkoji Temple - the CBS Television Centre, complete with satellite dish and a huge, roving camera crane.

Pilgrims arriving to worship at the Buddhist shrine in recent days have found film crews from the American TV network attending their devotions. And, on occasions, requesting that those devotions be repeated in order to obtain a better shot.

It is a fitting image for the modern Olympics, where time honoured ideals have to co-exist with commercialism for the Games to be viable.

The last time the Winter Olympics came to Japan - when they were held at Sapporo in 1972 - the event generated $8.5m (pounds 5.3m) in broadcast rights. This time, the figure is $513m and CBS's pride of place may not be unrelated to the fact that they are paying $375m of that figure.

The 1994 winter Olympics in Lillehammer generated the fourth largest TV audience in US history. An estimated 120 million viewers tuned in to watch Nancy Kerrigan skate against a field who included Tonya Harding, whose husband had been implicated in an attack on Kerrigan before the Games.

The 18th winter Olympics hold similar televisual potential, even if their dramas will lack the vicious edge of the one that was played out in the Hamar Amphitheatre.

Once again, it is the women's figure skating which offers a compelling rivalry and once again the rivals are American - Tara Lipinski and Michelle Kwan.

Last year, at the age of 14, the tiny figure of Lipinski took the US and world titles away from her 17-year-old compatriot.

Lipinski's success has come as a result of developing the most technically demanding routine in the world, involving seven triple jumps. But in terms of artistry, she is not on the same rink as the graceful Kwan.

"About a second after they crowned her, the judges wanted to take it back," one American skating observer commented on Lipinski's World Championship victory.

Last month, Kwan regained her US title with a sublime performance earning a maximum 6.0 for artistry in 15 out of the possible 18 marks. She is the media darling, while Lipinski, whose acrobatics appear to have been scrutinised more critically by the judges this season, has been put on the defensive.

The alpine skiing events are also likely to prove compulsive viewing at the end of the season which has been dominated by the arrival of Hermann Maier.

He has been at the forefront of Austria's domination in World Cup events and is the favourite here for at least three of the five alpine disciplines - the giant slalom, the super-giant slalom and the blue riband event of the downhill.

Perhaps wisely, Maier downplayed his prospects in the latter event after finishing third in practice, claiming the course was too flat to favour his high-risk style. Will a course succeed where every rival has so far failed this season? Another dramatic conflict begins to build.

The TV ratings will also soar for the ice hockey competition where, for the first time, the elite professionals of the National Hockey League will take part.

The summer Games have their "Dream Team" after bringing the leading US basketball professionals of the NBA into the Olympic fold five years ago. And now the Winter Games have "The Great One" - ice hockey's legendary goal-scorer Wayne Gretzky, who, with 124 of his NHL colleagues, has been given two weeks off to represent his country.

Other innovations at these Olympics include the formal introduction of three new events - women's ice hockey, snowboarding, which is the fastest growing winter sport, and curling, which is one of the oldest.

The latter represents one of the three main medal opportunities for a lean, but keen British team of 35, the smallest in number since the 1960 Winter Games at Squaw Valley. The Scottish quartet who form the Great Britain team - James Dryburgh, Dougie Dryburgh, John Napier and Philip Wilson - recently finished third in the European Championships and then registered a victory over the German team who won that title.

While Canada are the favourites for the gold, Britain are among five teams who could fill the other medal places.

The four-man bobsleigh team driven by Corporal Sean Olsson, 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment have a fighting chance of a medal after a highly competitive season in which they have finished fifth in the world rankings, earning two bronze medals in World Cup events.

The other prospect of British success involves the short-track speed skaters, who will be challenging for a medal in the 5,000 metres relay and are also in with a chance of taking an individual medal through Nicky Gooch, who won a bronze in the 500m at the last winter Olympics.

Steven Cousins, Britain's sole representative in the ice skating has prepared himself for an all or nothing effort in his third and, he maintains, last Olympics. Meanwhile, Graham Bell, in the alpine skiing, and Michael Dixon, in the biathlon, are taking part in their fifth Games.

As the 3,000 athletes from 80 nations congregate in this sprawling industrialised town, the big question is whether the road network can cope. Traffic up to the skiing venue at Hakuba was held up for nearly two hours when a media bus collided with a car on the single lane road.

The police have asked the 36,486-strong population to keep their cars off the road at key times and anyone living within two miles of their work is expected to walk there. It remains to be seen whether these calls will be respected by residents who are, understandably, feeling a little grumpy.

All will start to be revealed this weekend.