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January 25, 2006 — Editor's note: David O. Williams spent eight weeks traveling around Europe in 2006, six of them working the Winter Olympics in Torino for the Olympic News Service run by the Italian organizing committee. This is his account written during that six-week odyssey:
After 10 days here I now know why the Olympic News Service - for whom I will serve as a press information specialist at the menís alpine venue in Sestriere Borgata once the Games finally begin Feb. 10 Ė told us we needed to be here a month before opening ceremonies. The Italian bureaucracy is truly awe-inspiring.
Since arriving in Milano after a punishing trans-Atlantic flight (I missed my connection to Torino when the German police made me run all over the Munich airport), it has been an endless legacy of trains, buses and crazed taxi rides.
I got a crash course in the Italian train system trying to get to Torino from Milano and wound up getting off at the wrong station, where I discovered my one international Italian phone card was quickly consumed when calling a Spanish cell phone (my friend Andy Hood was circling the wrong train station in an ONS car trying to find me).
He did manage to tell me I was supposed to be staying in the Olympic Village (the Italians never bothered to tell me where my accommodations were before I left) before my card went dead.
When I finally discovered my mistake and the fact that most Torinites donít speak any English, a taxi driver stared blankly at me when I asked him to take me to the Olympic Village. He had no idea where it was, which let me in on the fact that most Torinites could care less the Games are here. Another driver asked me which one, telling me there are three Olympic Villages (turns out two are in the mountains, but who knew?).
Finally I got a local calling card to work so I could call my Italian connection, the boss of ONS, Lucia Montanarella, who promptly dispatched one of her Australian henchmen to pick me up and deposit me at a local cafť and bar called Alexanderís at the entrance to the Olympic Village.
This place would become our unofficial press center for the next week, and it took them awhile (and hundreds of euros spent on beer and wine) but the locals did finally warm to our motley crew of Aussies, Kiwis, Yanks, Brits, Canucks, Italians and Finns.
Now, moving into an Olympic Village might sound kind of cool, but trust me, in Italy, where construction is not their strong suit (at least on modern buildings) it wasnít cool. Toilettes didnít work, windows were missing, locks didnít work, the elevator was broken, and there appeared to be virtually no security.
We had to walk nearly a half mile to go through the main gate, then another mile and a half to the Main Press Center, all because the last few steps of the bridge that grandly bisects the Olympic arch werenít completed (apparently they were waiting on the proper form), but then we discovered there were gaps in the chain link fence we could climb through. Once in a while an armored car would drive by and the soldiers would kindly wave their machine guns at us and let us pass through.
On top of the disarray, the Olympic Village was put in the worst part of town, so everything had sort of a post-Apocalyptic Beirut-eque feel to it. So each day we would trudge two miles to the MPC in a sort of Batan death march, then be told to go off and chase down some obscure form somewhere in the city: work visas, tax forms, police checks and something called a Marco di Bollo, a tax stamp that you had to purchase at a tobacconist shop (where, once you asked them for the Marco di Bollo they produced books with hundreds of options, always trying to steer you to the most expensive one).
One day, after hours of waiting around the TOROC (Torino Organizing Committee Ė howís that for a misnomer?) headquarters for hours we were told the man who issues the badges had gone home. He simply put a sign on his door reading: ďNo Badges.Ē To which we all, of course, responded: ďWe donít need no stinking badges!Ē
Humor Ö and lots of vino rossa and grappa Öis the only way to get through all of this. But I should add that I now have all my proper paper work after just 10 short days and was issued my official Olympic uniform today (ski pants, coat, two fleece vests, a T-shirt, backpack, gloves and hat Ė all in a hideous burnt orange and red, the official Olympic colors). Iíll be taking bids on eBay soon.
Tomorrow, if I can find a hotspot (wi/fi is a luxury not a necessity here) Iíll write part two of this tome and tell you about the fun stuff. In the meantime, if you wish to be removed from this list, send me your Marco di Bollo.
January 26, 2006
A week into this misadventure and still hopelessly entangled in a mind-numbing scavenger hunt for documents conceived of by the Italian bureaucracy (one Aussie whoís been living in Torino for two years told me it took him eight months to get his work permit), and the tide began to turn.
We began to get into the actual process of training for our jobs, which is to produce and publish for internal consumption all the news of the Games thatís fit to print. None of what we will publish can be viewed by the public but instead is posted on an Intranet system called Info2006 with hundreds of terminals at all the press centers throughout Torino and all the various mountain venues.
Some of what we do may actually be used by a few of the 3,000 journalists now beginning to descend for the Games, picked up in bits and pieces by various publications and wire services, but I doubt it. Still the actual training felt good, like we were about to perhaps do something useful.
Most of the first week had been spent listening to guys with names Christiano and Liugi endlessly discuss the various layers of TOROC hierarchy Ė information of absolutely no use to us, but apparently quite important to the Italians. Most of the time we were all in various stages of sleep deprivation brought on by jetlag and late nights in cafes and knocked back only by massive doses of the best cappuccino and espresso youíve ever tasted.
So to have the tide turn and get into the actual stuff of our job (flawlessly organized and presented by a band of Aussies, Kiwis and Brits some of whom have worked every Games, winter and summer, dating back to Sydney) was a massive relief. Then on Sunday, a week after my marathon arrival, we got a day off.
The area of the city where the Olympic Village is located truly is a dump, but it turns out that this city of one million (dubbed the Detroit of Italy because of grungy industrial look and its role as home base for Fiat) really has a beautiful side. The city centro is a gorgeous collection of charming piazzas, churches, a sprawling 300-year-old university and block after block of marble porticos (archways filled with shops, cafes and bars).
There are fantastic museos: a terrifying collection stolen from pyramids across Egypt, an armory museo containing one of the most extensive collections of Medieval weaponry in Europe, and a cinema museo in the massive Molle tower youíll all be seeing a great deal of in coming weeks.
The medals plaza is going up just off Piazza Costello in the heart of all of this, and itís all very easily accessed by cheap taxis, buses or a tram ride thatís supposed to cost a euro or so but nobody ever checks bigliettos (tickets) so itís essentially free.
But on our day off, our band of freelance writers, all experts in sports ranging from curling to skeleton, chose a day of sport. First to the football (soccer) pitch for a Juventis match. They are one of the best teams in Italy, with stars from all over the world, but nobody goes because the stadium is so poor.
It was built only a few years ago to accommodate track and field but designed to the wrong specs (so it will never see international competition), which means the crowd is too far from the pitch because of the track. Still, there was plenty of flag-waving and singing. I wanted to pay just 10 euro to be in the hooligan section but was overruled by the group.
After that we were invited to Canada House, a spectacular log lodge plopped down in an ancient piazza with a giant Vancouver 2010 sign to one side. The Canucks showed us a very good time, plying us with heaps of free beer and food, and we all angled hard for jobs at the next Winter Games in North Americaís most beautiful city (sorry San Fran).
Then it was off to Murphyís, an English-Irish pub near the train station that is the only place in town that will show American football. The Denver-Pittsburgh game kicked off at 1 p.m. MST but 9 p.m. local time so it was a late evening of shouting ourselves hoarse at the Donkeyís ineptitude and arguing with the Brits and Aussies about the merits of Yank football vs. the Euro version or cricket or rugby.
My friends, Andy Hood, Tom Boyd and a bloke from Boulder named Jason Sumner, are collectively known as Team Vail despite Andyís residence in Spain and Tomís round-the-world travels with his fiancť, Renee (they came here after two months in Costa Rica and head to India after the Games).
We represented Colorado well, though our Argentine friend, Seb, who is a big fantasy football league player and arranged that end of the evening, said we were tame by South American and European football standards because no one was killed.
Tom, Andy and I had the good sense to get a hotel room by the train station that night as weíd been told the Olympic Village was being locked down the next day for its final security sweep. Indeed, when we rolled into the Main Press Center (MPC) that afternoon we were told that everyone had been rousted from village at 6:30 a.m. by carabinieri toting machine guns.
PS, snowing here in Torino today. On our way to Sestriere.
January 28, 2006
Week two in Torino was a strange one, mitigated somewhat by my familiarity with the strangeness. We moved into the Lingotto, a major upgrade from the Olympic Village but just as weird in many ways.
The Lingotto is a massive building, formerly a factory for building Fiats. It stretches at least three full city blocks. It contains the Main Press Center where ONS staff had been meeting all along, the International Broadcast Center, where NBC will work all its magic, a shopping mall that takes up at least one of those city blocks, complete with a cinema, department store and grocery, a banked driving test track that spirals up through the building and culminates in an oval on the roof, helipads on the same roof, and at least two hotels, one of which, the Foresteria, we moved into.
It was billed as a five-star, and itís where the International Olympic Committee will be staying in a week or so, but we were the first to ever sleep in its tiny single beds. In fact, it was in some ways still very unfinished when we moved in, which, I suspect, is why we were put in the Olympic Village in the first place.
The sewer lines were having some problems, creating quite a stench all up and down the hallways, the elevator would not stop on the fourth floor (our floor), forcing us to schlep our luggage up the spiraling test track, and there were no phones, TVs or curtains Ė all of which arrived at various stages during our stay, though none of them worked properly once installed (apparently the correct forms werenít fill out).
I was told that after the Games the Foresteria will be shut down as a hotel and converted into student housing for a nearby university, which tells you all you need to know about its five-star status (Mobil was not consulted). And, of course, there was no wi-fi.
One resourceful member of Team Vail (aka the Colorado Cartel, with Andy Hood serving as our Pablo Escobar) talked a student in one of the student lounges into giving us his university login and password so that we all could get back on the Web for a few days. Thank you so much, Federico!
Because the Lingotto had also undergone its final security sweep (meaning we all had to now pass through bag and mag every morning on the way to work Ė a lengthy Kafka-esque exercise to say the least) we were told there would be no returning to our hotel after midnight. If we needed to, we were told to go to a certain address on the Via Nizza (the main drag in front of the Lingotto heading downtown), call security and state our name and room number.
Needless to say, we opted to party in the mall that night, where the pizzerias and cafes in the food court were planning to stay open later to accommodate the crazy foreigners. Picture our motley crew quaffing bierres and vini rossa in the food court of the mall till 1 a.m., when the exasperated carabinieri finally asked us to go home.
Many of us stayed in the Lingotto for the next three nights and four days, meeting with our venue press managers, breaking up into teams of ONS writers and editors (all three alpine venues will work as one squad Ė Team Alpine) and tying up the loose ends of ongoing bureaucratic minutia. On Wednesday, Jan. 15, 10 days after arriving in Torino I finally got my full accreditation, which allowed me to get my uniform, which allowed me to take those full-on Captain Torino photos you saw (yes, I am Zoolander).
That day also marked our final night as one big ONS group Ė supervisors, sub-editors, sports information specialists, the whole ball of wax Ė as many of us were being shipped off to our mountain venues on Thursday, Jan. 26. It was kind of graduation night, so, of course, this required a party.
Since I had now exhausted my clean laundry supply, I wore cross-country ski tights, a sweater and snow clogs, making me an object of fascination to the fashion-conscious Torinians and even some of my American colleagues, one of whom said, ďItís graduation night and you wore your pajamas to the ceremony.Ē Hey, it was either that or stay home. All my clothes had reached an unacceptable level of Torino grunge from the pollution and chain-smoking (although thank god not in bars) locals.
At the Area Bar that night many of us compared notes on the status of our press offices at the venues as relayed to us by our venue press managers (in my case a Swiss-French guy named Yves who has worked the past 16 years for the massive sports management firm, IMG). Yves did not paint a pretty picture: no heat, no phones, no computers and lodging in Sestriere was a bit dodgy.
So, in fine Italian tradition, we contemplated a strike. In Italy, they schedule their strikes. One day the previous week we had been told to be somewhere at a certain hour because at 3 p.m. the tram drivers were going on strike. Very civilized of them to let you know.
And sewage smells aside, we didnít want to leave the relative comforts of the Lingotto and the safety of the mall for god knows what tortures in the mountains, even though a bit of fresh air was appealing.
Torino gets air inversions in the winter much like Denver and pollution alerts were becoming common because of a lack of snow (none since late December) and wind to blow the smog out.
Thatís all for now. Next episode: Sestriere: the Colorado Cartel brings the snow.
January 29, 2006
We awoke to snow Thursday, Jan. 26, in Torino, a welcome white coating to brighten up the post-industrial grunge. The Siberian cold front brought fresh air and a renewed sense of possibility and hope to our team.
So, after getting assurances from the very understanding front desk staff at the Foresteria that our room would be unoccupied until Feb. 3 when the IOC moved in (giving us a backup plan of returning to the city if conditions were unacceptable in Sestriere), we headed off on the TGV (bullet train) to Oulx.
A French jobbie with plush seats and a bar car, Andy noted that it would take us to Paris in just five hours (tempting, but we detrained in Oulx in the valley floor just 45 minutes from Torino). There we were met by Marco Ferrari (no relation to the car-makers), a Toroc staffer who drove us the 45 winding minutes up a very bad and snow-choked mountain road (think Independence Pass near Aspen) to Sestriere and the Torre Rosse.
The Red Tower is an architectural marvel. Built in the 30s by the Fiat folks, it is a fatter, more squat, less ornate version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The hallway spirals all the way up 12 floors with tiny, and I mean Ritz-Carlton-closet-sized rooms barely big enough for a bed.
We walked into the lobby Thursday evening to find two ONS staffers basically having a breakdown in the lobby. The hotel staff had asked one of them (a Brit who lives in Rome) to share a double bed with a stranger; the other they only wanted to share a room with a stranger, but the two single beds were basically jammed up against each other. They were working through that situation as Andy and I checked in.
We were told we would be sharing similar rooms with complete strangers. Andy immediately began using his pigeon Italian (aided by speaking fluent Spanish) to explain that if we had to share rooms we would at least like to be together. Andy and I shared a room one painfully long ski season in East Vail, so itís a case of the devil you know Ö
Our protests led in fact to us each getting our own tiny single room, though with no bathrooms (the communal unisex toilets and showers are just across the hall). This was a major victory, proving that sometimes it helps to make some noise in Italy.
We immediately headed across the street to the Irish Igloo, a pub that definitely does its name justice. After convincing the barkeep to turn down the pounding techno music, the bedraggled ONSers were able to commiserate. Everyoneís room situations were eventually resolved somewhat to their satisfaction.
And as a bonus when we headed back to the main restaurant at the Torre Rosse, a Club Med no less (although it has to be the worst one in their quiver), we were told we had three free meals a day and all the free wine and beer we could drink before 10 p.m.
While the Mormon Games in Salt Lake were well-organized, the biggest complaint Iíve heard from most staffers and volunteers is that the food was inedible. While itís not always great for the Torino Games, itís always decent, and sometimes itís fantastic: pasta, casseroles, meat, fish, potatoes, salads. Good stuff. Although Iím taking over-and-under bets on my weight by the end of the Games.
The next day it was still snowing quite hard, a big sigh of relief for Toroc, so we headed to the office and were pleasantly surprised by the state of the Palazetto press center, in a massive ice arena in Sestriere Colle. All our computers were up and running, although we heard that a lack of security in the mountain venues led to wholesale pillaging by the locals, so all the machines had to be replaced at least once.
There were (and still are) no phones, but the heat was working and we were actually able to get a bit of work done over the next couple of days: sport previews and updating athlete bios to reflect the current world cup season.
And I was able to get my laptop online thanks to the kindness of a Sports Illustrated photo editor who let me plug straight into their Ethernet jacks in the SI offices upstairs from ONS (Kristin and Max and I have been happily skyping ever since Ė free Internet voice communication laptop to laptop at www.skype.com).
The SI guy is married to the ONS supervisor at Sestiere Borgata, so thatís the connection there. Borgata is a small ski area just down from the even smaller Sestriere Colle ski area and itís the site of the menís alpine speed events (downhill and super-G), which are my responsibility. I havenít been there yet because there are no computers in that press office because they donít want to pay for security yet.
SI, Reuters, AP and several other large news agencies were allegedly preparing a formal protest to the IOC because many of the things they were contractually guaranteed for the hundreds of thousands theyíve already shelled out are not in place.
The downhill course, which earlier in the month made headlines for a lack of snow that International Ski Federation officials said was unacceptable, now has the opposite problem. I talked to a volunteer course slipper who said there were 1,200 volunteers to remove snow (you want a vertical sheet of ice, so fresh snow is bad) on just the menís downhill course at Snowbasin (2002 Olympics) and only 700 for all three of the alpine venues here. He said it will be a miracle if the downhill course is ready in time for the menís DH Feb. 12. But the alpine police (seriously, ski troopers) were arriving in force to help out.
Andy and I can personally attest to the fact that the menís GS/Slalom (tech events) course in Colle is in fine shape as we skied it on Saturday, Jan. 28 after renting some marginal ski gear (I brought my boots, but the Italians are still stuck in straight-ski hell).
The GS/slalom course has two rows of light towers on each side and a massive grandstand (looks like it seats maybe 8,000 people) at the finish area and can be seen from the restaurant of what we now affectionately refer to as the Club Dread at Turda Rossa.
It was still snowing hard on Saturday, with wind shutting down some of the lifts, but we found about a foot of fresh snow right down the gut of the GS/Slalom course, so I can say I skied it if either American Ted Ligety (current third in World Cup slalom standings) or Italian hero Giorgio Rocca (winner of five straight world cup slaloms this season) capture the gold there under the lights toward the end of the Games.
Today is Sunday and we thought about either busing it to some of the other mountain venues (weíve heard the bobsled track at Cesana-San Sicario, where during test events a bobsledder crashed and is still in a coma, looks a lot like Ground Zero) or continuing on to Claviere. There itís possible to ski into France and the adjoining ski area of Montgenevre, which is higher and therefore possessed of better snow.
But when we awoke to even more snow (total accumulations anywhere from a foot to two feet since Thursday - a very light, dry blanket on top of very hard month-old ice) and with transportation horror stories from the day before (the main road shut down twice) ringing in our ears, we opted to stay put and get some more work done, even on a Sunday.
Thereís a centuries-old church right next to the Turda Rossa, and the bells were a delight this morning, and just down the street thereís a monument to Napoleon passing through this area during one of his campaigns (not something you see at ski areas in the States).
Itís too bad they surrounded all this history with some of worst architectural abominations Iíve ever seen. Pre-stressed concrete condo battleships that make Vailís dated and soon to be demolished Lionshead Mall look quaint.
A lot of Brits come to this place, looking for value, and the equally cost-conscious Torino elite (for whom Sestriere is their Vail or Aspen). But everything is very low-rent. As Andy is fond of saying these days, ďWeíre stuck in Euro-trash hell.Ē And loving it, I might add.
Anyway, Andy and I felt like skiing the race course the day before qualified as research and then we watched the menís downhill live from Garmish on the telly in the mid-mountain warming hut surrounded by alpine ski police cheering on Italian Peter Fill, who crashed. The Herminator (Austrian great Hermann Maier) won, and upstart American Steve Nyman was fourth, his best result ever. Meanwhile, his girlfriend, Julia Mancuso of the US, was second twice in Cortina over the weekend. Quite inspiring, even though we lost Steamboatís Caroline Lalive to injury during training there.
Anyway, off to the office now to send this novella and a few more pix, but youíre basically caught up. Look for an update in a few more days. Weíre being booted from the Turda Rossa into apartments on Wednesday and then our venues are being locked down for final security sweeps on Thursday. That should all go smoothly.
February 8, 2006
Itís getting close to Games time and all hell is breaking loose. Weíre actually doing quite a bit of work, cranking out stories on Info that are being gobbled up on wire services and by stressed out journos who are starting to arrive en masse and canít believe the backward state of lodging and transport in Italy.
After three weeks of it, we on ONS staff are no longer shocked by anything, so itís amusing to see the reactions of the incoming world media. Weíre like the grizzled vets laughing at the green new recruits on the front lines (OK, thatís maybe a slight exaggeration, but only slight).
Anyway, it finally stopped snowing a week ago Monday (final total one meter, or three feet), then the sun came out big-time and on Tuesday Andy and I skied to Sauze díOulx, site of the freestyle aerials and moguls. Long gondola ride from Sestriere Borgata, then a single seat chairlift (think elementary school desk suspended over a gaping crevasse) to a mountain half the size of Beaver Creek, most of which was closed - some due to avalanche danger but mostly because they just didnít feel like opening it all up (itís the Italian way!)
In fact, all of Sestriere Colle, site of the slalom and GS, Sestriere Borgata, site of the menís downhill and San Sicario, site of the womenís downhill, are now totally shut down to the public, which is incredible if you think about it.
It would be like Park City closing to the public in 2002 Ė the outcry from merchants and tourists would have been deafening. In Italy, no one seems to care. Talked to a ski shop owner who noted that it really hasnít snowed much for five years, then it finally dumps three feet, and they shut the mountain down. Needless to say, we were his only customers, but he didnít seem to care too much about lost business, he was just bummed that he couldnít ski! Itís the Italian way.
Anyway, it was fun to finally see the spectacular scenery of the Alps after four straight days of snow and to turn our skis loose in the Alps, and all the Brits who vacation there are terrible skiers, so we were like gods on the slopes, or at least demi-gods.
The next day we set out in full Toroc unies to ski the menís downhill course at Borgata (again, research). Imagine playing catch on the field right before the Super Bowl.
We flashed out credentials and got right on the lifts at Colle, which are running for workers but off-limits to the public, so we were able to ski for free over to Borgata just in time to run into a couple of American volunteer course workers and race slippers for an on-mountain lunch (they smooth out the ruts in the run between racers, and I did a quick story on them for Info).
Then up the lift and onto the course, which was swarming with Truppe Alpini (literally, ski troopers Ė Andy interviewed a couple for a quick story), many of whom are from Southern Italy and canít ski a lick. Plus theyíre on skis that would go for five bucks at most Vail garage sales.
We heard tales of six or seven Italians riding up on the blades of snowcats, oblivious to the fact that if they fell theyíd be smashed under the tracks. Itís the Italian way!
Our course worker guide Lloyd, a farmer in Oregon whose daughter used to race, which got him into the sport, told us that a lot of the workers were nipping grappa to stay warm on the mountain. Scary stuff.
But we didnít care. We came to ski the course, which we did (twice) right after a snowcat came up, giving us groomed corduroy the whole way down, not the ice the big boys will contend with. With this epic poach in the bag, we headed home to find out our new accommodation situation.
We were pleasantly surprised to find out we had a two-room apartment right in Sestriere, with a kitchen. A huge upgrade from the Turda Rosa. What a day. We celebrated with beers and pizza that night, no doubt jinxing ourselves in the process.
The next day at work, the venue press manager at Sestriere, a Swiss-German with major attitude, told us that there had been a mistake, and we were booted out of her apartment unceremoniously, proving once again that when things are going really well in Italy theyíre bound to fall apart.
Schlepping our bags around snowy Sestriere yet again, we were forced into a hotel for two nights (actually a pretty nice place by Italian standards), then finally into our final resting place (yeah, right), the Grangesissses (the Big Jesus) complex in Sauze di Cesana, a medieval rabbitís warren of stone condos 3K outside of town, with, of course, no way to get there.
The next night Andy and I and his wife from Spain, Maria Jesus (he calls her MJ), who flew in for a few days to see her long-lost hubby, talked the driver who delivered us from the accommodation desk into to taking us back into town for dinner, where we met a herd of ONSers from other venues in town for a party at the Tabata disco (tiger-striped sofas and disco balls galore).
Andy and MJ bailed early but I was determined to get my 20 Euro worth of drinks (of course the Italians wouldnít have a free mandatory staff party), so I wound up walking the 3K narrow, winding and pitch-black road (thankfully all downhill) at 1:30 in the morning. The lone car that came by picked me up and a lovely Italian couple chattered on to me ceaselessly even after determining I speak only about two dozen words of Italian.
On Saturday, Andy and MJ went skiing, so did the rest of our Alpine Skiing ONS team: a German woman named Petra (an equestrian writer usually), a Brit named Michael (a city beat reporter for a weekly in England), Jez (a Brit sports producer for Sky Sports used to covering cricket and football, not the American variety) and team leader Beth (whose husband works for SI).
The Brits were never-evers, so I avoided that debacle, stayed in the suddenly uncrowded office and wrote up a story on golfer Greg Norman, with whom I strangely conducted an email interview from Italy while he was somewhere between his homes in Australia and Florida (gotta love the Web). It was a day to catch up. Much needed after the stress of my seventh move in just under three weeks.
Sunday Andy took MJ back to Torino to put her on a plane and I worked away diligently despite still not receiving my pay that was promised on Jan 31. After putting in another long day Monday, Feb 7, it was time for another play day.
This time the plan was wonderfully simple. We hit the office at 8 a.m., each cranked out a story by 11 and jumped on a bus to Cesana, site of the biathlon venue, where Tom Boyd is now gleefully getting to fire rifles on the course and put to use his Colorado elk-hunting experience.
Also thereís a gondola heading up to the ski area of San Sicario, site of the womenís downhill, but Andy and I had a different destination in mind. After hitching, taking various buses and scamming our way onto media transport (weíre officially Toroc employees so weíre not allowed to ride media buses), we crossed over the French border (only 17K from Sestrierre) and arrived in Montgenevre, a great little ski town with an old stone church and not nearly the architectural obscenity of Sestriere, which weíve taken to calling Suck-striere, Disastriere, Ses-pool-triere, etc. You get the idea.
Montgenevre is a great little ski area with excellent snow and some high lifts that take you to steep wide open chutes reminiscent of Jackson but with views that rival Alaska. We could see all the way to the Matterhorn and the back side of Mont Blanc. Truly awesome.
And the real novelty is that you can then ski back into Italy to the ski area of Claviere and then back to France, although the difference in grooming, lift quality and efficiency is stunning. The French have their act together, with the only exception being their insistence on still allowing smoking in bars. Miraculously, the Italians have shut down smoking in the bars, which has saved me given the lack of access to laundry facilities.
So to recap, we took a bus to France, skied back to Italy, then back to France, and finally took a bus back to Italy. We wound up in Cesana, where Boyd and his super, a really nice Brit named Alec (a Sky Sports news producer) were waiting at the Hotel Aldo for a bus that seemed destined never to come. Suddenly everyone converged: Jason from Boulder, Tipsy (a Brit covering freestyle), Lucia and Graham Park (an Aussie nicknamed Parksy), both of whom are our big bosses in Torino, and it was an instant party.
I had to hide my ski boots under my ski coat so they wouldnít know weíd been off skiing, but frankly, since I hadnít been paid yet, it was hard to really care.
Regardless, it was a great day, culminated with a reunion of the Colorado Cartel, which had not been together since Torino 10 days earlier. But back to reality on Wednesday, soft opening of our venue in Borgata, and I do mean soft. Tents were dangerously close to collapsing. Huge trash piles were still heaped up all over. Quite a scene of destruction.
Then today (Thursday, Feb. 9) they had most of it cleaned up just in time for the first downhill training run and our first real test as a team under fire.
I grabbed Hermann Maier for quotes, Beth got Daron Rahlves and Andy got everyone else. If you read the AP story on the first training run, the quotes from the Herminator are mine (yeah, baby, Iíve gone global). All in all a successful first run. Two more training days Friday and Saturday to fine-tune things, then the real deal on Sunday.
Feels good to do real work, and good to see the American journos I know rolling into town, also funny to hear their tales of woe. None of them, though, can touch my level of pain having run the Olympic decathalon of bureaucracy and misery.
But now, the fun starts, and Kris, Nick and Max arrive two weeks from Friday. Weíre going to stay in Milan one night when they get in, and there weíll visit the Duomo (the fourth largest church in Europe and see Da Vinciís Last Supper), then weíll head up to the little apartment at the Grangesisses, where Nick, Kris and I will watch the menís slalom under the lights (superstar Giorgio Rocca goes for the first Italian gold since Tomba), then hopefully down to Torino he next night for closing ceremonies, then off to Lech, Austria (Beaver Creekís sister resort), where weíre skiing for a few days before taking the train to Venice.
February 13, 2006
Itís early Monday morning in the Grangesises (only about 10 or 11 p.m. mountain time in the States), and Iím watching the dawn alpenglow slowly gathering on the mountains of France to the west. The small village of Sauze di Cesana and its two church towers are still enveloped in the lifting gloom.
The electric heat is noisily ticking away and in the apartment above me a barbarian horde of German journalists has started to stir. They moved in a couple of days ago and have been conducting noisy debriefings till all hours, slamming their beer steins down periodically, chain smoking and issuing occasional belly laughs in true German style.
Thank god for my iPod.
ONS passed with flying colors (or, as I would have to write it in Info, where we use British English Ė colours) its first big test of these Games. A little background first:
Established at the Sydney Summer Olympics in 2000, ONS and its Info system were created to aid the world media in spreading the word about the Olympic spirit (massive international boondoggle that it is) so that corporate sponsors who pour millions into this thing would feel they got their moneyís worth (thatís the cynical take anyway).
It functioned well in Sydney, run by the hard-drinking but also hard-working Aussie mafia, and did OK in Salt Lake City (2002 Winter Games) as well. But then the wheels fell off in Athens in í04. A big part of that was the Greeks insisting on filling most of the jobs and refusing to acknowledge English as the official language of the Games, or the world media for that matter.
In Greece, as an IOC official informed me last night on the van ride home, the journos work for four or five different papers, so by the time they were done filing for all of those publications they would only have time for a few lines in Info, and that would come way after the working press had fulfilled its deadlines (absolutely useless).
The only problem they had in Salt Lake was that some of the ďwritersĒ ONS hired were sports insiders, guys with side deals with teams and gear manufacturers, who either just sat around and didnít work or pushed their athletes, teams or products when they did.
So this time ONS decided to hire real working journalists (mostly freelancers because staff writers canít take six weeks off) with some working knowledge of their sport. It is working brilliantly this time.
In three days weíve managed to grab back all the credibility lost at Athens. At the menís alpine skiing venue the quotes and stories weíre publishing are now showing up on all the major wire services and in countless newspapers in the States and Europe. Some of the ski teams are even using us in their press releases.
Reuters and AP both ordered more Info computers for their offices. One Reuters editor told our main editor, Simon King, that ONS was now the wire service to watch at these Games.
I contributed to that a bit by getting the first and only interview of the Games (so far) with Americaís bodacious bad boy, Bode Miller, at Fridayís downhill training run after he refused to talk to the press Thursday (that night I actually passed him coming in as I was leaving the Irish Igloo bar, but ONS is limited to field-of-play interviews).
Then came the big event Sunday (happy birthday, Mom, I tried to get you an American win): the first alpine skiing event of the Games, the menís downhill. Again, we came through with shining colours, though no gold, silver or bronze for the Yanks.
We punched out quotes from the surprise winner, Frenchman Antoine Deneriaz, before the race was even over. He skied from the 30th spot and topped Austrian Michael Walchhofer by .72 seconds, which was amazing to watch and thrilled the Euro-centric crowd of 8,000. A Swiss, Bruno Kernen, took bronze, and an Italian even cracked the top 10.
Alas, heavily favoured (Brit spelling) Americans Miller and Daron Rahlves finished 5th and 10th respectively. Bode was just .08 off the gold at the bottom and final spit but took the last two turns a bit sloppily and got too much air under him off the final jump. So close to a podium. Daron just couldnít find any speed on the course, losing time at every split (must have had the wrong skis).
Oh well, as I told my son Nick on the phone last night, Bode has four more shots at a medal (starting with the combined Tuesday Ė one run of downhill combined with two runs of slalom Ė an event he silvered in at Salt Lake) and Daron has two more: Giant slalom and super-G.
Nick, 5, said heís sure one of them will medal and that someday heíll be faster than Bode. This after skiing a double black diamond run in his ski school class Saturday. I told him to take up golf instead, which, after standing around in the cold for the last four days, would be more fun for me to cover anyway.
A couple of quick transport notes: with the massive crowds descending for the downhill all of the buses coming by the Grangesises were packed to the gills. I threw my thumb out in front of a flatbed workmanís truck driven by a Mongolian who spoke not a single word of any language in the Western Hemisphere.
With hand signals he managed to indicate it was OK for Andy and I to join him in the rickety cab but not all right for the mob of other TOROC (hereafter Torocians) workers to clamber on the flatbed. We told them all to buzz off and hit the road to Borgata.
On the way home we caught the last chairlift out of Borgata (they made spectators walk 2K on a muddy goat path down from Colle and then back up after the race but let old people and kids take the lift Ė Andy and I fell somewhere in-between) as the road back was absolutely gridlocked for two hours. Think seething journalists on deadline screaming at the top of their lungs on stationary buses.
Our only fear was the lift op would go to the bar and leave us dangling on a chairlift overnight, but we arrived to a scene of utter vehicular carnage (buses, military Humvees and half-tracks, cars, all jammed up and honking in unison).
The IOC guy told us later that the main jam-up was due to 400 more carabinieri than expected deciding to drive their police cars into Borgata, clogging the roads and the parking. Then they all jumped out of those cars with lollipops (hand-held traffic-directing wands) and waved frantically at vehicles that had nowhere to go.
When we got off the lift we ran into NBCís Tom Green (the former MTV clown who was married to Drew Barrymore, not the Denver TV weather guy) doing a bit where he tried to make fun of the carabineiri, until his producers informed him this might be a good way to get shot (if they even have bullets in their guns).
Then we headed straight to the Swiss House, which was a roiling good time, full of guys in fur hats singing ďMerci BrunoĒ over and over in honor of Bruno Kernenís bronze in the downhill. Bruno himself was supposed to appear later but we were too hungry to stay.
Today is the downhill training day for the combined on Tuesday (a much lighter day than Sunday). Tuesday will be brutal with a downhill in the morning at Borgata, then a mad scramble to get back to Colle (hope that chairlift is working) for two runs of slalom under the lights. We wonít be done till midnight (morning for you folks).
Hoping for some American hardware (although weíre objective as ONS staff) for the alpine team. Shut out in womenís moguls, we did get gold and silver in snowboarding half-pipe, proving once again how we excel at the X Games sports.
Wednesday should be a day off unless weíre called in to help with womenís downhill, but either way weíre heading to Sauze díOulx (we lovingly call it Sucks Ducks) for the menís moguls finals under the lights. Boulder footballer Jeremy Bloom and Vailís Toby Dawson are among the medal favourites. More after all of that.
Update on Feb. 15. Couldnít send previous update earlier due to lack of Web access, so a quick appendix. What a day yesterday was. The Menís Combined (one run of downhill followed by two runs of slalom in the evening under the lights, best total time wins) saw bad boy Bode Miller leading by a full second after the downhill. Then after the first run of slalom he appeared to still be up by a full second.
Meanwhile, his teammate, 21-year-old Ted Ligety from Park City, a slalom specialist who has never won on the world cup circuit (although he was third in Beaver Creek), was three seconds behind Miller after the downhill. (Miller allegedly stayed out till 5 in the morning the night before the downhill, Sunday, drinking at a bar called the Cavern, and then just missed the podium by a tenth of a second. More on all that later).
I got the only interview with Miller as he was running past after the first run of slalom, then I heard he was DQíd (disqualified for straddling a slalom pole near the bottom). Suddenly Bode was back, and we got an in-depth interview in a mass media scrum. Bode said he wasnít too disappointed because at least he wouldnít have to go to Torino for the medal ceremony (a quote that quickly went out on all the wires). I also got the only quote from Ligety after his first run of slalom, in which he was fastest and made up nearly half of the three seconds.
In a bar getting a quick beer and apertivo in between slalom runs an American borrowed my cell phone and called Bodeís dad to say he was sorry about the DQ, so I now have Bodeís dadís number on my cell.
Anyway, in the final run of slalom Ligety was fastest again and leader Benny Raich of Austria skied off course and Ligety won the gold. Amazing. What a press conference.
Later we celebrated into the wee hours at the Cavern with a huge ONS crew and the bartender told me the Bode until 5 am story was bogus. Had dinner there but left early the night of the downhill (hard-nosed reporting once again, and in my element Ė a bar).
At the Tabata disco that night I got bronze medalist in the combined, Rainer Schoenfelder, a rock star-skier (literally) to sign my work papers. And Peter Fill, the Italian star, also signed. Still trying to get Ligety.
Off to the menís moguls and hopefully and American medal sweep tonight.
The last week has been crazed but the Olys are finally coming to a merciful conclusion. This will be my last update as Iím heading to Milan first thing in the morning to pick up Kristin and the boys and bring them back to Sestriere for the coup de grace of the alpine skiing events, the menís slalom under the lights at Sestriere.
Then we all head to Torino for a night (final ONS wrap-up party), then jump on a train the next morning (Monday) for Milan, Verona, Innsbruck and, if all goes well, St. Anton, Austria, by the end of the day, where weíll be guests for three nights of the Lech tourism board Ė the sister resort of Beaver Creek.
When I last wrote Andy and I were headed to Sauze díOulx, which literally means above Oulx, for the menís moguls finals, and the mojo of the Colorado Cartel paid off, with Vailís Toby Dawson grabbing the bronze medal. We worked in the mix zone getting quotes, so I was able to get one of the first interviews with him after he medaled.
A great guy, he was born in Korea and dropped on the steps of an orphanage, where two Vail ski instructors adopted him, and the rest is history. Iíve read wire reports since his medal win that a Korean man saw him on TV and claims now to be his long-lost father. Gotta love fame and fortune.
Jeremy Bloom, the Colorado football player turned bump skier who was heading to the NFL combine right after the Olympics and will later this spring host MTVís new high-def show in a studio atop Vail Mountain, didnít fare as well as Toby, but I got his autograph on the start sheet anyway (had him sign it to Nick).
It was a little too conspicuous to have Toby sign anything with all the TV cameras rolling and TOROC officials watching, but Andy got a photo of me interviewing him and I have plenty of time to get that signed back in Vail.
If it seems like this has turned into one big Olympic sightseeing tour, it has. I feel like Forest Gump showing up in photos at historic moments. But it has also been a serious grind work-wise. Work hard, play hard, as the Aussie Mafia bosses at ONS like to say.
That night the Colorado Cartel was reunited in earnest, with Tom Boyd talking a Sauze díOulx bar owner into letting him play his guitar for a group that included Tomís fiancť Renee (back from a couple of weeks in Florence), Denver Post writer Scott Willoughby of Vail (Minturn actually), Aspen Daily News writer Troy Hooper (whose brother Brett lives in the Vail area), freestyle ONSers Tipsy (Chris Tipping) and Yuckers (an Aussie named Clara), a whole bunch of Reuters guys and the Swedish moguls team (they had a woman who finished fourth and a guy who was fifth, so they were drowning sorrows).
Tom opened with Country Roads and it was all downhill from there. When the bartender finally kicked us out, Andy, Scott and I jumped a train to Bardanecchio, and stayed at Scottís place, where I literally slept in a drawer (a mattress actually that pulled out from under another bed).
The next day we wandered around Bard, home to the snowboarding venues, checked out menís boardercross (American Seth Wescott won the gold) and made an early evening of it. Bard is a very cool town with a 14th-century watchtower on a hill with stunning views of the Alps and an old church down below. It has its own ski areas not connected to the Vialettea but much lower so less snow.
The next several days were consumed with work and a massive snowstorm that rolled in on Friday and paralyzed things for a couple of days. They managed to get the menís super-G in (our last event at Borgata Ė gotta get out of Borgata) although it was delayed for several hours. And no Americans got on the podium. Bode Miller crashed into a gate and made a spectacular save but was done for the day.
Norwegian Kjetil Andre Aamodt, a nice guy whoís been around forever, won the super-G for his record eighth Olympic medal Ė four of them gold Ė at five Olympic Games. Hermann Maier, the Herminator, was second. Cool stuff, but a bummer for the Americans.
Womenís speed races at San Sicario were delayed and then postponed and we had to help with some of that ensuing scheduling nightmare.
All the technical events (slalom and GS) for men and women kicked off as well, so itís been a blur of races, mostly marked by Austrians winning everything in sight and Americans going down in flames. Daron Rahlves skied out in the GS and that was his final medal hope. Bode wound up sixth or something.
Heíll have one more chance at a medal in the slalom, which he hasnít skied very well this year, so Nick will get to seem him race (and who knows, maybe make history). Ted Ligety has a much better shot, as does Austrian Benny Raich, who won the gold in GS, and Italian hero Giorgio Rocca. Itís going to be rockiní and rolliní in Colle Saturday.
Managed to get a couple days in down in Torino, my first time back since coming up to the mountains three weeks ago, so it was cool to see the place converted from a giant construction zone into something truly beautiful and even a little inspiring.
The medals plaza is the most spectacular venue of the Games and the piazza where the Today Show is filming is also very cool. You guys probably arenít seeing any of this, though, as Iíve heard the ratings for NBC for the Olympics are below American Idol. Probably the time difference and lack of a break-out American star is hurting these Games back home.
Anyway, tried to go to USA-Sweden hockey game but tix were 250 Euro from scalpers out front (the arena amazingly only seats 7,000) and I didnít want to see former Colorado Av Peter Forsberg that badly.
Wound up getting passes to the medal ceremony (Italian cross-country relay team got their golds) followed by Whitney Houston, who seemed like she and Bobby Brown had had a particularly rough night. She was haggard and more than a little off-key.
Also managed on an off day to do something weíd been talking about since arriving in Torino (no, not pull an all-nighter with Whitney and Bobby): head up to Cervinia, a ski area north of T-town on the Swiss border. It was a planes, trains and buses odyssey that took four hours each way (OK, no planes involved) but was well worth the effort because of the potential views and fresh snow.
When we finally arrived the Italian side of the Alps was totally socked in, negating the whole point of the trip, which was to get up close and personal with the Matterhorn. But when we took the four chairlifts to the top and started to ski down into Switzerland, the clouds cleared and we were literally at the base of the Matterhorn. Itís one of the most spectacular mountains Iíve every seen: 4,500 some meters, or well over 14,000 feet, most of it a single tooth of solid granite.
The views into Switzerland were mind-blowing, as were the glaciated flanks of Monta Rossa, the highest mountain in Italy at about 14,000-something-feet. We didnít have time to ski down to Zermatt, Switzerland, our original plan, as we didnít think it would be cool to get stuck in another country and have to call our ONS boss and explain just what the hell we were doing there in the first place.
Anyway, kind of the highlight of the trip and a great capper.
Back to the Olympic grind now and very glad the Games are coming to an end. Vailís Sarah Schleper was the top American in the womenís slalom last night (in 10th), and Minnesotaís Kristina Koznick (Koz) skied the first run despite a torn knee ligament. Sheís retiring this season so wanted to do one more Olympic slalom run, and while she was quite slow, it was kind of inspirational.
Itís been hard, though, to keep the Olympic spirit burning after all these weeks, especially with Americans doing so poorly at our venues (they had a target of eight medals and have just one, Ligetyís gold).
I think these games were summed up for me the other night when we got off the last train from Torino at 12:40 p.m. in Oulx and there were two empty buses sitting there but the drivers refused to budge or even let us wait inside where it was warm because they werenít schedule to leave until 2:30 and 3 a.m. respectively, even though there were no more passengers coming up from Torino.
The mob got a little ugly and started screaming in six or seven different languages and after about a half hour another bus magically appeared. It was an inspiring example of international unity demonstrating that (a.) sometimes going ballistic works in Italy (b.) we can all come together as many nations to solve our difficulties and (c.) Passion actually does Live Here! Ė Torinoís Olympic slogan. Though some waggish Brit offered ďPassion Lives in my ass.Ē
An apt way to wrap up these at-times amazingly frustrating and at other times incredibly blissful Olympics. People ask me if this experience has soured me at all on Italy and I have to honestly say no. The people are incredible, the food is fantastic, the scenery is unmatched.
What this experience has soured me on is the Olympics. Itís become a many-headed monster that simply doesnít work well with the Italian style of living life in the moment and laughing a lot while theyíre doing it.
From what Iíve heard the Olympics in Salt Lake were a fantastic time for everyone who attended (Kris, Nick and I went for only two ill-fated days, but thatís another story) and thatís perhaps because no one is better at pulling off a mass-marketed overly-hyped sports event than the Americans. Itís a sad commentary on the size and scale now of the Games that a nation like Italy really canít handle it (similarly, I heard the 1992 Albertville Olympics in France also were a disaster).
The Canadians will do a much better job in 2010 (Vancouver) but after that, unless theyíre in Switzerland or Germany, Iím staying far away from the next Olympic Games in Europe (unless Nick or Max are competing).
Bottom line is six weeks is way, way too much time to be away from my fam, but Iím psyched they get to come here and experience some of what Iíve seen (minus the mind-numbing bureaucracy. Itís going to be one happy reunion tomorrow in Milanís Malpensa Airport.
Anyway, thatís all from Sestriere. After Lech, Austria, we hope to head to Venice for a few days (I know, I didnít learn my lesson, and weíre bravely returning to Italy), then Florence for a few days, then back to Torino and home March 9.
For any of you that I owe work to, Iím all over it March 10 (or maybe the 11th). Canít wait to get back to the land of free wi-fi.
In the meantime, ciao from Italy. Hope youíre all doing well.
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