Nicolas Sarkozy

Jean-Claude Killy meets the press

ANNECY, France -- Jean-Claude Killy met the press here Friday night, about 10 writers, most international reporters, a few locals. "We have come a long way," Killy said, referring to the Annecy bid for the 2018 Winter Games. To be emphatic: There is still a long way to go.

Indeed, perhaps a long, long way to go for Annecy, which by virtually all accounts started the International Olympic Committee's visit here this week in third place in a three-city race and almost surely ends the visit still looking up.

There are still five months to go before the IOC picks the 2018 site; Pyeongchang, South Korea, and Munich are the other two cities in the contest.

"I would say Annecy is back in the race," Killy asserted, and it's true: in five months anything can happen.

Now the question for the next five months: can Annecy 2018 make something happen?

Killy's comments late Friday capped a day of enormous symbolism that highlighted both the opportunity here and the real-world challenges the Annecy campaign must confront.

The opportunity:

The countryside is, in a word, magnificent. To see Mont Blanc and Chamonix on a day like Friday, when the sun was shining and there wasn't a cloud in the brilliant blue sky, is to be reminded of a simple truth: it can be spectacular here.

The skiing is great. The food is great. The wine is great. The cheese -- it may well have been made by the gentleman standing behind the counter himself and he can tell you which cow you ought to thank.

Where else in the world do you find that combination?

Killy, at ease, penciled in for 20 minutes with the press, stayed for 30, the last couple devoted to the reading of a quote he attributed to the artist Paul Cézanne, the great 19th-century French post-impressionist, about the beauty of Lake Annecy, Killy saying he intends to read the words Saturday to the IOC committee as they prepare to depart:

"It is a temperate area. The surrounding hills are of a reasonable height, the lake, narrowed at this spot by two gorges, seems to lend itself to the linear exercises of young ladies."

"See," Killy said, letting the words settle, laughing, "everything in France ends with the love."

If only the Annecy 2018 bid committee could count on the IOC to be so tender.

To paraphrase the more modern American artist Bruce Springsteen -- the French had better start working harder for the IOC's love.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, flew down to this part of the country Friday to meet with the IOC commission. Sarkozy did not meet with reporters covering the IOC's visit.

But, according to an Associated Press account of a tourism and economics conference in La Clusaz, the proposed venue for the cross-country and Nordic combined events, Sarkozy said it would be tough to overcome Annecy's "extremely powerful" rivals.

Sarkozy said, "You have got a very good bid book. Your region is absolutely beautiful. You want to host those games. We are going to fight together to have them."

On the one hand, it's imperative for the bid that Sarkozy make his manners with the IOC over lunch and stump for Annecy 2018 at such conferences.

The IOC demands unqualified support from national governments. It wants to know, reasonably enough, if something goes wrong that the government -- of whatever country it is -- stands ready to guarantee the Olympic project's finances.

"Whether it's a plus or not it's a disaster if it doesn't happen," Killy observed later in the day, referring to such guarantees, which France has emphatically offered, adding, "It's going to happen in Korea, heavily, and in Germany, I am sure."

The challenge with Sarkozy may well be -- Sarkozy.

It is hardly forgotten within the IOC that in late March 2008 Sarkozy became the first world leader to suggest he might boycott the Beijing Olympics as a means of ratcheting up pressure on China over Tibet.

Ultimately, Sarkozy relented. He attended the epic ceremony.

Also not forgotten within the IOC: the tortured path the Beijing torch relay took through Paris in April, 2008, when the flame was extinguished several times, Chinese organizers canceling the last leg through the French capital as well as a stop at City Hall where a banner read, "Paris Defends Human Rights Everywhere in the World."

If it seems unfair to conflate free speech in Paris in 2008 with a bid in Annecy in 2011 for the Winter Games in the mountains in 2018 -- well, c'est la vie, right?

Which had to have been -- or surely should have been -- evident to anyone and everyone in France when the subject of an Annecy bid was undertaken in the first instance.

Compounding the challenge was the way the bid was initially drawn up, with way too many venues.

This past June, the IOC said, no, that's way too many venues. Come back with a different plan. A "black eye," Killy said, adding a moment later, "The bid started very poorly."

The new plan, centered on Annecy and Chamonix with the sliding sports at La Plagne, is better, he said. Credit for that, he said, is due Edgar Grospiron, the then-bid leader who resigned in December amid concerns the project was under-funded.

Killy said of Grospiron: "He did a wonderful job."

Such comments from Killy are powerful, indeed. Killy is not only a French ski legend but arguably the single most important winter-sports figure within Olympic circles, co-chair of the 1992 Albertville Games, the IOC's link to the 2006 Torino and 2014 Sochi Games. He knows sports, politics, business. He knows real when he sees it, and when he doesn't.

So his distance from the Annecy 2018 bid over the past months had been thoroughly obvious.

What, then, to read into his meeting Friday with the press? A rapprochement of sorts, certainly, with the 2018 effort.

But read into this what you will, Killy saying of Charles Beigbeder, the new bid leader, "I don't know him very well, I have seen him two days -- that's all."

Or this, Killy asked how much he expects to pitch in from here on in and answering, "I have my own business. I have Sochi for fun," laughing and adding, "I'm choosing my words properly. And I will help Annecy as much as I can, as much as I can, because I am from this region."

It will be spring soon, and the linear exercises of young ladies will commence in earnest along lovely Lake Annecy. And then summer, and an IOC vote July 6.

"There is no perfect bid," Killy said. "I have been in this business for 30 years.

"There is no perfect bid," he repeated. "The outcome is not known to no one."