Sapporo Story


We sat, cross-legged on the floor, two shot glasses on a low table between us. Sato uncorked a bottle of Suntory VSOP Brandy and filled my glass. Then he put the bottle down, and raised his empty glass, as if to a toast. I picked up the bottle and filled his glass. “Ah! You know our custom,” he said. “Just some preparation to be a guest here, like you photographers picking the right film for the day,” I replied. The rapport was there.

We had met the year before at the ninth Interski ski instruction congress in Garmisch-Partenkirken, Germany, which I had written up for the February 2, 1971, issue of Skiers’ Gazette (the predecessor of MG). When SKI Magazine assigned me to join Editor John Fry and photographer Peter Miller on the magazine team covering the skiing events of the 1972 Winter Olympics, I had written to suggest that we meet again. That’s what we were doing in mid-February, in his home on the outskirts of Sapporo on Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island.

Even to the Japanese, Hokkaido has always been remote. At the latitude of and a third the area of Oregon, it was unexplored until the 17th century. Its topography is rugged. Cold winds lash it in summer; snows cover it in winter. For untold centuries, its only human inhabitants were the Ainus, a light-skinned, hairy people who spoke a language related to nothing else. But then the frontier was pushed northward by the usual means of subduing the natives. The Ainus lost their last battle in 1669, and Hokkaido became part of Japan.

“I’m part Ainu,” Sato said, this time filling both glasses. “But in spirit, I’m just a Hokkaidoan, fond of our mountains and our winters.” That fondness was well located. Japan is a country of skiers, then some seven million out of a population of 100 million. Paradoxically, one of the reasons for the popularity of the sport is the lack of outdoor recreation space in the crowded island chain. Japan is mountainous, and nearly a fifth of the mountain areas cannot be farmed or used for any other viable production. So, in winter, skiing is the prime outdoor recreation, particularly in Sapporo. Nearby Mt. Eniwa, site of the downhill courses, stands out as prominently, as do the peaks of the Cascades. Mt. Teina, site of the slalom and GS courses, is in a ward of the city.

Sato’s wife served and joined us for dinner, washed down with Dewatsuru sake. “From the mountainous Akita Prefecture north on Honshu, the big island south of here,” she explained. The conversation turned to the place that the Sapporo Winter Olympics might have in history, save for being the first held in Asia. Sato believed that it might be the last Games in which amateur rules would be so hypocritically enforced. International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage had banned Austrian racer Karl Schranz, then the world’s best in the Alpine events, for admitting to having been paid by ski manufacturers. Canada had spotlighted the weakness of the concept of amateurism by refusing to send a hockey team to compete against the teams of communist countries, who were in fact full-time paid professionals.

We agreed that aerodynamics probably would play a greater role in ski jumping, as the lithe Japanese jumpers who had flown gracefully through the air to take all the medals in the normal hill event had shown. And it seemed only a matter of time until fiberglass skis that worked so well in the wet snows of Sapporo would replace the traditional wooden skis in cross-country events.

We had pride in what we did, but we both had seen the ever-increasing clout of the big media. Sato lamented that “it probably will be the last time that small publications will have teams of people like you and me reporting on events. TV will take over.” In retrospect, he was right, as we were in our guesses of that evening. The furor triggered by disqualifying Schranz led to reform of the IOC. Ski jumping now is all about aerodynamics. And save for a few wooden skis made by craft shops, all cross-country skis now are fiberglass laminates.

For almost three years, long-time contributor M. Michael Brady penned MG’s Dateline: Europe column. He lives in a suburb of Oslo, Norway, where he works as a translator.