ANNECY, France -- No matter how many times one travels through the Alps, it never fails. To be here is breathtaking, indeed awe-inspiring. You wind through canyons marked by vineyards and quaint villages, through mountains that seem to rise right up from rushing rivers, these huge massive blocks of rock standing sentinel against the sky.
This is ski country, indeed the world's leading destination for winter sports. Seven million people come to this region each winter, according to the French ministry that counts such things, and from all over the world.
So there's zero question the French could organize Winter Games. After all, the very first Winter Games were organized in France, and in this part of France -- in Chamonix, in 1924.
There's also zero question that the French know how to organize Winter Games: Chamonix in 1924 was followed by Grenoble in 1968, and that was followed by Albertville in 1992.
So the pertinent question now, as an International Olympic Committee commission on Wednesday undertook a three-day evaluation of the latest bid here for the Winter Games: France, again?
In Annecy, in 2018?
The IOC will pick the 2018 Winter Games site in July. Annecy is in a three-way race. The other two candidates: Pyeongchang, South Korea, and Munich.
This IOC evaluation visit is the first of three site visits. Annecy gets looked over first; Pyeongchang gets visited next week; Munich gets looked over in early March.
The preliminary question the IOC wants to know here is: what kind of Games would they be if they went to Annecy in 2018?
The focus here -- at this point -- is purportedly on what's called the "technical" merits of the bid, on matters such as transport, hotels and other such things. The politics purportedly comes later. Not really -- but there are technical issues to be reviewed.
Fair or not, everyone knows the Albertville Games in 1992 were spread-out over what seemed like far-flung swatches of French mountainside.
Fair or not, too, everyone knows as well that the IOC had to step in last June and ask the Annecy 2018 bid committee to re-think the technical merits of its plan.
So they did. They centered the plan on two main hubs, Annecy and Chamonix.
So, they were asked at a news conference here Wednesday, why do you talk about two main hubs when there are really three? The third would be the sliding center at La Plagne, where the bobsled, luge and skeleton competitions would be held -- the assembled journalists having had the advantage of having been taken by Annecy 2018 organizers to La Plagne earlier in the day.
The answer: Because we haven't planned an athletes' village nor a medals plaza at La Plagne so that doesn't get called a hub. It's just, like, the place where they'd actually do, you know, the sports.
Another question: The Annecy bid book says everyone who comes would be housed in roughly 530 hotels (or pensions or the like). That would make for a lot of people spread out in a lot of places. But the Olympics are all about getting groups of people together. What's the solution?
Answer: We're working on it, and we anticipate a "much stronger transport infrastructure."
Ninety minutes is what they said it would take from Annecy to La Plagne.
It took two hours and twenty minutes Wednesday on the press bus, and that was on a day with perfect weather. No snow, no ice, temperatures in the 40s, maybe even 50s. Incidentally, the road to La Plagne features a barf-inducing series of 21 hairpin turns. Thoughtfully, they passed out hard candy on the press bus with assurances that it would quell any unease.
With a few kilometers yet to go to get to La Plagne, the last of the 21 turns behind us, there were eight cars strung out in a line behind the press bus.
These are precisely the sorts of real-world things the IOC ought to know about when evaluating the "technical" criteria. It's the kind of thing that isn't in the bid books.
Does this mean Annecy has no chance?
Not a chance.
These may, in the end, be glitches.
It is undeniably the case that the Annecy team is running on undeniable energy under new bid boss Charles Beigbeder.
The leadership team includes several former Olympic athletes. Many bids, of course, include former Olympic stars. In Annecy's case, they're not there to serve as mere props. They have real leadership roles and responsibilities, and word out of the first day of meetings with the evaluation commission was that the panel was duly impressed with that leadership.
Meanwhile, this 2018 campaign is the seventh IOC bid contest I have covered, dating back to 1999, and the press tour Wednesday easily ranks among the smoothest and most well-intentioned of such events (that is, it was genuine without being gratuitous). That's remarkable in any instance, all the more so because virtually all the organizers are new to the Olympic scene, some brought on literally just two or three weeks ago.
Imagine what they could do if they had seven years to pour themselves into it for real.