As big as the Olympics are, they’re still pretty small-time, when you get right down to it. I imagine that’s true of most things. Probably once you get inside the White House or Buckingham Palace it’s no big whoop. Still, it’s an unexpected delight to find how informal the Games can be.
At the Whistler Creekside ski hill for the ladies slalom today, the crowds in attendance are fair-sized, but hardly overwhelming: about 5000. I had expected much Swiss-timing solemnity, but instead there’s a festive air to the whole thing, notwithstanding this is the biggest day of the competitors’ lives.
There’s music playing somewhere, and a pair of announcers talking each of the skiers down, finding something positive and encouraging to say about each (more than 80 in all) of them, in both official languages. The concession stands are busy, face-painted fans are walking around beers in hand, and the cowbells—yes, the cowbells are constant.
This, though the conditions are miserable: fog and rain, turning to snow. You can’t see the top half of the run from the bottom at the best of times because of the hill’s layout, but you can barely make out the skiers even 100 yards up. In consequence, most of the press and spectators are watching the whole thing on a massive screen mounted above the timing stand. Seems a long way to go to watch TV.
The course is kept skiable by an army of support crew, who close in after each skier does her run to sweep and scrape the snow back over the spots that have become rough. Some carry shovels, some—the “slippers”—use their skis. They keep at it until seconds before the next skier comes down, somehow always sensing how much time they have.
Maria Riesch of Germany skis the first run nearly half a second faster than anyone else. She’s the story of the women’s alpine skiing competition already, with four top 10 finishes including a gold in the Super Combined. Apparently that came as a surprise, but it’s evident even to these untutored eyes how much smoother she’s skiing than most of the others. There’s no movement in her upper body, and her turns are fluid and unhurried.
The conditions grow worse as the day wears on. On the second run, Marlies Schild of Austria puts down the fastest time, but Riesch is so far ahead of her from her first that she has only to stay close to take the gold. Her victory is bittersweet, however: her kid sister Susanne, in fourth after the first run, skids out on the second (as do at least a dozen others). There’s a tender shot on the big screen of Maria holding her close, for a long time.
At the press conference afterward, the questions are small-town fawning. “How great does it feel to win a second gold?” A middle-aged German journalist peppers each of the skiers with his adoration: “Maria, you’re a fighter, you have so much guts…” “Marlies, you’ve been such a force on the world cup tour…” They blush and giggle out their answers, in halting English. It’s all quite appealingly unprofessional.
Oh, and the Canadians? Brigitte Action leads the way, in 17th. Anna Goodman is 19th, and Erin Mielzynksi 20th. Not our event, yet, but the oldest of them is 24. There’s time.