THE OLYMPICS / WINTER GAMES AT ALBERTVILLE : Going for the Gold : Games Will Either Be the Salvation of Struggling Savoy or the Last Push Down Ski Slope Toward Economic Ruin
When Michel Barnier hit low points during his 10-year quest to bring the Winter Olympic Games to his native Savoy region of France, he would raise his eyes to the peaks of the snow-crested Alps for inspiration.
“I am a man of the mountains,” he said during final preparations for the Feb. 8-23 Games. “I could see the summits. They encouraged me to climb that last distance and reach for the top.”
For Barnier, 41, one of France’s most promising young Gaullist politicians, and his fellow Savoyard Jean-Claude Killy, 47, there have been many ups and downs in their shared dream of bringing the Winter Olympics to France for the third time since 1924. The ambitious politician and the Olympic skiing hero have been a two-man team from the beginning, steering the Olympics to this modest Tarentaise Valley industrial town with the verve and daring of a bobsled crew.
Except for a few minor last-minute details--such as finding flags and national anthem music for the newly recognized nations of Slovenia and Croatia--Barnier and Killy said the games are ready to go. But both men, acting as co-presidents, acknowledge that many times they were not sure they would succeed.
Squabbling among villages over rights to play host to Olympic events deflated some of the regional spirit in Savoy, the struggling mountain region that hopes to use the international competition as a springboard to economic recovery. At one point, even Killy, a legendary figure here since winning three gold medals at the 1968 Games in nearby Grenoble, came under attack from his fellow montagnards.
On Jan. 26, 1987, more than 3,000 who were angered at Killy’s cost-cutting decision--since rescinded--to exclude the ski area of Les Menuires from the games showed up in the Savoy departmental capital of Chambery to demonstrate against him.
The feuding in the mountain region south of Geneva and west of Lyon was so bitter and divisive that Killy quit in frustration three days after the protest, accusing Savoyard community leaders of not being able to see the world beyond their own fences.
Killy eventually returned, but later in 1987, Daniele Gaubert Killy, his wife of 15 years, died of cancer, casting even more gloom on his Olympic effort.
Meanwhile, huge cost overruns took away any hopes of making a profit out of the Games.
“The best we can hope to do is break even,” Barnier said.
The bobsled run in the village of La Plagne, for example, cost more than three times the original estimate--$43 million instead of $13 million. Likewise, the ski jump in Courchevel--Olympic events will be held at 10 villages--once expected to cost $11.3 million to build, ended up costing $28.3 because engineers had to deal with a tricky soil base.
Thus, the 1992 Albertville games are almost certain to be the first money-losing Olympic venture since the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, when Peter Ueberroth taught the world how to profit from the quadrennial competition. The Olympic Committee budget for the games is roughly 4 billion French francs, or about $750 million. But national, regional and local entities have also pitched in another estimated $1.4 billion worth of development projects, such as new roads, train stations and even sewage treatment plants somehow linked to the Olympic effort.
For politician Barnier, a business school graduate who was first elected to public office at 22, these improvements to the Savoy’s sagging infrastructure are a bigger event than the Olympics.
“Without the Olympic Games, it would have taken us 20 years to do the projects we have finished in four years,” he said in his office at the turreted castle of the former Dukes of Savoy.
But overzealous public spending and borrowing in preparation for the Games have put three of the 13 host villages in serious financial difficulty.
The most publicized case involved the tiny Alpine village of Pralognan-la-Vanoise, a town of only 600 nestled under La Grande Casse peak, at nearly 13,000 feet the highest mountain in the Savoy region.
For years, Pralognan had been a struggling ski station looking for a way to jump into the trendy ranks of nearby Val d’Isere, Killy’s hometown, and Courchevel, the most upscale Savoy ski station. So badly did Pralognan’s leadership want a piece of the Olympics that they offered to build a $6-million ice rink for curling, a sport practically unknown in France and not even an official Olympic event, but one of the demonstration sports offered at each Olympics.
The investment sent the community skating toward bankruptcy. It cost the townspeople $400 a day simply to keep the ice frozen. Recently, the town leadership was voted from office.
Barnier said he now regrets not having better counseled towns such as Pralognan against such foolish overextension.
The biggest spender, and consequently the biggest debtor of the 1992 Winter Games, is the small summer spa--population 600--of Brides-les-Bains, site of the Olympic residential village for athletes participating in the Games.
Brides-les-Bains, a resort town that specializes in treating obesity, used the Olympics as an excuse to build a new city hall and a four-mile ski lift that links the low-elevation valley town with the popular ski station at Meribel. The reasoning of the town leadership was that the lift would attract skiers to stay at cheap rates in its ample hotels, then take the new cabin lift to the slopes. Brides-les-Bains would then become a winter as well as a summer resort.
Logical thinking, perhaps, but not persuasive to banks when the town council asked for financing to help pay for its projects, totaling $100 million.
Jean-Francois Chedal, the mayor of Brides-les-Bains, said French banks refused to lend the $14 million the town needs to pay its contractors.
“They have been deaf to our requests,” Chedal said. “Sometimes I feel like turning in my keys to city hall and walking away.”
Across the street from the Brides-les-Bains city hall, at the Hotel de Centre, Jacqueline Raffaud, 45, seethed over the financial condition in which the town finds itself.
“I’ll be happy when the Olympics are over,” said Raffaud, co-owner of the hotel and bar with her husband. “They haven’t brought us any business, and the whole thing has been conducted like a spending spree.”
She acknowledged, however, that her 34-room hotel would be full for the first three weeks of February, normally a very slow period, housing security personnel brought into the town to protect the athletes.
Local environmentalists have also criticized the Games, particularly construction of the ammonia-cooled bobsled run in La Plagne.
When workers filled the cooling system with 45 tons of liquid ammonia, residents of the village were given gas masks to protect them from accidental poisoning. Although ammonia is often used to freeze bobsled runs--it was used at the 1984 Games in Calgary--the ecologists remind officials that in 1968, the year of France’s greatest glory in Olympic competition, the bobsleds and luges were driven at night on naturally produced ice.
“The Albertville Olympics are an environmental nightmare,” said Monique Gautier, spokeswoman for the Rhone-Alps Federation for the Protection of Nature, a regional ecology group that plans a small demonstration during the Feb. 8 opening ceremony.
“The bobsled run is the most spectacular example,” said Gautier, a professor and specialist in high-altitude biology at the University of Chambery. “But the real problems are caused by the amount of new building everywhere.”
Barnier, however, considers himself a committed environmentalist and insists that every care was taken to protect the Alpine eco-system. Brochures published by his office note how even the downhill ski course was diverted to avoid a delicate patch of Alpine wildflowers similar to columbine. But local environmentalists, he said, go too far when it comes to the Olympics.
“The ecologists are against all ski resorts,” he said. “But I can’t turn the Savoy into an Indian reservation.”
Barnier, thin and fit from daily runs in the mountain climate, maintains that the Winter Games will be nothing less than Savoy’s economic salvation.
In recent years leading up to the Games, he said, the Savoy region had been in a period of steady decline.
Long one of France’s poorest regions--historically known as the ancestral home for most of Paris’ chimney sweeps--Savoy experienced rapid industrial development immediately after World War II. But metallurgical industries, drawn to the mountain valley towns by cheap hydroelectric power, began leaving the region in the late 1970s.
Between 1980 and 1985, Savoy, with a total population of only 348,000, lost 5,000 industrial jobs. Likewise, the once-vibrant winter tourism industry has been on a recent slide. Cursed by poor snowfalls and overbuilding, ski resorts have suffered four successive bad years.
Barnier says the Olympic Games could not have come at a better time.
“I always tell my compatriots: ‘Try to imagine what would have become of Savoy without the Olympic Games.’ We were in difficult times. The most beautiful region in France faced economic strangulation.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
Get the latest on L.A.'s teams in the daily Sports Report newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.