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Memories of the 1972 Sapporo Olympics

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A look back at the future?

We didn’t set out to go to the 1972 Winter Olympics, but like the 2010 Olympics if the Whistler bid goes through, we just happened to be there. Depending on your point of view, a bonus or a burden to be enjoyed or suffered by those of us who live in ski resorts.

Our family moved to Japan in July 1971, occupied a small, traditional Japanese house in the Miyanomori district on the outskirts of Sapporo, acquired a car, and settled in to the daily routine of living and working in a friendly, fascinating, but very different culture than we had left behind in B.C. By September we had ceased to be curiosities, though we were often joined on the street by strangers who wanted to practice their English. I commuted six days a week to Hokkaido University where I was collaborating with one of the professors on some volcano research. My wife, Betty, shopped in the local market and, with her attempts at "kitchen Japanese," drew gales of laughter from the shopkeepers. Our three blonde daughters, dressed in school uniforms like all the other kids, attended the local Japanese school. We were simply accepted as the "gaijin" family that lived up by the 70-metre ski jump.

By December there was enough snow to ski at Moiwayama, only minutes from our house. Slightly farther from home a modern gondola whisked us up to some challenging runs at Teine, where each skier was greeted at the top with a bow and a cheery "konnichiwa" from a young woman clad in traditional kimono and obe. The hills were surprisingly uncrowded.

By January things began to change. Signs bearing the Olympic rings and "Sapporo 72" proclaimed the coming of the Winter Games. Work that had been going on for months behind the scenes began to spill out into the open. A host of drab construction sites were suddenly transformed into glittering venues where the athletes would compete and take part in the opening and closing ceremonies. Despite environmental protests, a downhill course complete with new lift was built from scratch on Mount Eniwa in Shikotsu-Toya National Park. The streets of Sapporo became a gathering place for a multitude of other "gaijins" speaking not just English, but Italian, German, French and a chatter of other unidentified languages. At one point we ran into Nancy Greene in a downtown Sapporo shop. The skiing world, it seemed, was coming to Japan.

Two weeks before the Games, concern over the lack of snow became a minor panic. The army was mobilized to truck in snow from the mountains and spread it on the 70- and 90-metre jumps. For several days the snow-laden lorries trundled past our house. The young soldiers who shovelled it onto the slope were convinced that my daughters were famous Olympic athletes and, to everyone’s delight, insisted on getting autographs.

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