WINTER SPORTS WORLD: Remembering Albertville 1992 thirty-years later, a magical Olympic Winter Games that played out across the majestic and inspiring French Alps

The XVI Winter Games were spread out across France’s Savoie region at significant distance, through charming towns, villages and ski resorts, as the sublime beauty witnessed while criss-crossing mountain venues inspired and amazed. No one seemed to care or complain about the distances.

The festive scene in Courchevel, venue for ski jumping, during the 1992 Albertville Winter Games (Patrick Pachod)
The festive scene in Courchevel, venue for ski jumping, during the 1992 Albertville Winter Games (Patrick Pachod)

From Méribel to Courchevel, Val d’Isère and Tignes; the charm, great pride and hospitality of the local residents across these distinct French towns, along with awe-inspiring peaks towering above, were evident as the world was warmly welcomed for 16 memorable days and nights in February, 1992.

If one was asked to paint the perfect picture of what an Olympic Winter Games should represent, look and feel like, then Albertville and the surrounding French Savoie region should grace the canvas. Some 1,800 athletes from 64 countries skied, skated and sledded in 57 medal events, competing on France’s sun-drenched snow and solid ice, but it was the magnificent backdrop and idyllic beauty of the French Alps that both defined and served as an epic theater for these 16th Winter Games. Enthusiastic, colorfully-adorned spectators packed venues.

Large crowds at a women's ski race in Meribel (©Sylvain Aymoz)
Large crowds at a women's ski race in Meribel (©Sylvain Aymoz)

France celebrates the 30th Anniversary of the Albertville 1992 Olympic Winter Games this winter. In March, alpine skiing’s World Cup Finals will once again gather the world’s premier ski racers in the French Savoie, the slopes of Méribel and Courchevel as the race venues.

French skiing legend, longtime IOC member and co-president of the Albertville 1992 organizing committee, Jean-Claude Killy can reminisce with the same inner pride that he felt while racing to three gold medals for his country on home snow in Grenoble 1968.

The Albertville Games were special for myriad reasons, but as usual, the athletes took center stage, albeit with frequent glances and reflection upon the splendid French Alps.

Athletes that starred included Italian skier Alberto Tomba, who successfully defended his Olympic giant slalom gold medal in Val d’Isere, and then followed with a near miraculous second run of slalom to win an improbable silver. Rumors circled that the flamboyant Italian star even made an attempt to court German figure skating beauty Katerina Witt, although reportedly he came up short of scoring high marks.

The highly technical, steep and sinuous Face de Bellevard downhill course in Val-d’Isère will forever be remembered as one of the most intriguing in Winter Olympic history. Powerful Austrian Patrick Ortlieb, first out of the start, raced to Olympic downhill gold in bluebird weather conditions.

Norwegian and Unified Team cross-country skiers collected troves of medals on the Nordic tracks in Les Saisies. Bjørn Dæhlie and Vegard Ulvang dominated the men’s races, both taking home three gold medals with Norway winning all events. Unfied Team skiers Yelena Välbe and Lyubov Yegorova won five medals across the women’s events.

Hockey was played in the cozy, high-altitude Meribel Arena, just adjacent to the women’s alpine skiing finish area. Just weeks after the collapse of the Soviet Union, players from the Unified Team united on the ice to win gold with a 3-1 victory over Canada. Images of Canadian teen-aged star Eric Lindros consuming quantities of oxygen while on the bench portrayed the story.

Eric Lindros looks on as The Unified Team and Canada battle for hockey gold at high altitude in Meribel (Meribel Tourism))
Eric Lindros looks on as The Unified Team and Canada battle for hockey gold at high altitude in Meribel (Meribel Tourism))

Albertville was also the last Winter Games, in which speed skaters competed on a frosty, outdoor oval. American Bonnie Blair and Germany’s Gunda Niemann each skated to a pair of gold medals.

The gracious French hosts won nine medals in total, including three gold – Fabrice Guy in Nordic Combined, Edgar Grospiron in moguls and French women in the biathlon relay.

These 1992 Olympic Winter Games also marked the last time both the Winter and Summer games were held in the same year.

FIS French Secretary General reminisces about Albertville 1992

New International Ski Federation secretary general and former president of the French Ski Federation, Michel Vion, who was born and raised in the Savoie region, recalled the overall pride felt by the French citizens.

“It was a great event for the all the country, of course the region and inhabitants too,” Vion tells Around the Rings. “We were very proud that Albertville was able to organize such an Olympic Games.”

Vion was then employed by French ski manufacturer Dynastar, as numerous medal-winning racers skied on the brand.

“To show the world resorts like Val d’Isère, Tignes, Courchevel, Méribel and other sites was great, the best promotion we could have,” he said. “Albertville was the center of the world more or less for 16 days. An Olympic Games at home was extraordinary.”

A ski jumper takes flight in scenic Courchevel during the 1992 Games (Patrick Pachod)
A ski jumper takes flight in scenic Courchevel during the 1992 Games (Patrick Pachod)

Vion notes that many of Albertville’s venues are still in use for World Cup events today. “It’s 30 years and in terms of sports, the legacy was enormous.

“And you could imagine all the roads, trains and facilities that were built – we gained 25 years in terms of Olympics,” he said. “It would have never been achieved if we didn’t have the Games.”

Building upon the region’s storied ski history and Olympic legacy, the 2023 FIS Alpine Ski World Championships will be contested in Méribel and Courchevel in February 2023. Vion was instrumental in bringing the championships to his home region.

“The men will race on a new downhill course in Courchevel and it will be a great show to see these athletes on this new, very demanding course.”

Vion hints that a movement to bring the Winter Games back to the French Alps could even materialize for 2034.

CBS Sports bring the French Alps into U.S. homes

The Albertville ‘92 Games were broadcast in the United States by CBS Sports, the first Olympics that the ‘Tiffany Network’ had produced since Squaw Valley 1960.

Howard Zalkowitz was a researcher compiling an avalanche of invaluable material for CBS’s dedicated team of producers and announcers that descended upon the French Alps. Zalkowitz reported to CBS Sports executive producer and 16-time Sports Emmy award winner Michael Pearl, who died this past March.

“He once told me that Jean-Claude Killy was his favorite person he met producing the Games – for Mike, Killy was the glue who brought rival villages together, who bridged tradition and innovation, and who understood the athletes, fans and media,” said Zalkowitz, referring to the legendary TV producer, whose credits also included work on numerous other Olympic Games, for ABC and Turner Sports.

Jean-Claude Killy, IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch and other Olympic family members at the '92 Albertville Games (Meribel Tourism)
Jean-Claude Killy, IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch and other Olympic family members at the '92 Albertville Games (Meribel Tourism)

Zalkowitz, now a leading sports producer and executive himself, shared his thoughts and impressions about what was a game-changing Albertville Games.

“The Games took place at a crossroads in both the world and Olympic movement – the Soviet Union had just broken up, Germany had reunited, China was opening up and the proud Baltic and Balkan countries competed for the first time under their own flags,” Zalkowitz said. “And you saw the Olympic debuts of freestyle skiing, short track skating and women’s biathlon which was the start of embracing extreme sports and providing more equity and opportunity.”

Like Zalkowitz, these very special and memorable Games were my first as a young journalist, also contributing to the CBS Sports team.

To travel overseas to the French Alps – while still completing my university studies in New York – a place I had only seen occasionally on TV and in ski magazines, was beyond belief, undoubtedly a dream come true.

While there were certainly long hours spent in the International Broadcast Center assisting CBS producers in locating the right footage for their feature stories and teases, and occasionally offering an opinion, albeit not always well-received in pressure-packed edit rooms, we also managed to get out at night to experience some events and the friendly French local flavor.

Highlights included seeing U.S. hockey games in Meribel arena, including an unexpected fight between the American and Italian players, as well as a not very popular U.S. victory over host France in the quarter-finals. The nightlife and energy after games in the French resort was stirring.

Spectators on their way to a women's alpine skiing event in Meribel (©Sylvain Aymoz)
Spectators on their way to a women's alpine skiing event in Meribel (©Sylvain Aymoz)

A rare off-day trip to the bobsleigh track in La Plagne, where U.S. football star Herschel Walker had lent his speed and power to the American squad, was also very cool.

Capping it off were indelible moments at the closing ceremony in downtown Albertville. Let’s just say that mingling with athletes and extroverted, artistic, costume-clad French performers on the stadium floor, as the ceremony drew to a teary-eyed close, might not be possible today.

My colleague Zalkowitz also noted CBS Sports’ memorable closing piece, in which consummate storyteller Charles Kuralt articulately extended a very warm thank you to the kind and welcoming French hosts.

“Our Olympic coverage ended with the legendary essayist Charles Kuralt’s ode to the Savoie – I wish everyone could see this essay again,” Zalkowitz says.

“One line stuck with me all these years later: “We have sunshine and snow back home, but your sun is brighter and your snow is whiter.””

I echo those exact same sentiments. Merci Beaucoup Albertville 1992!

Follow Brian on Twitter - @Brian_Pinelli

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