NAGANO, Japan - She is waiting when I clear customs, holding a sign with my name on it, the way a limo driver might meet some corporate titan.
Mayumi Ishihama's trade is translation. She turns Japanese into English and chaos into comfort. She has volunteered to welcome Olympic visitors at the airport in Nagoya, and she makes a powerful first impression.
The last bus has left, so Mayumi arranges for a cab. She escorts two jet-lagged Americans to the train station, pays the driver and insists on buying our tickets on the Limited Express No. 31. She stands shivering on the platform until the train pulls out, too lightly dressed in her volunteer uniform, too proud or too polite or too programmed to borrow my parka.
The Olympic Games are fundamentally about sports, and inherently about international relations. They are staged for economic development and national ego, to promote tourism and the construction trades, and to show the world a place and a people at their prettiest.
Mayumi Ishihama will see none of the events in Nagano this month. She will be reimbursed for the transportation she arranges, but she will not be paid. Her reward is the idea first expressed by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics: that the real purpose of these Games is not victory, but taking part.
Much as they have been marred by nationalism, commercialism, professionalism and curling, the Olympic Games remain one of the world's leading repositories of idealism. Organizers operate on the quaint conceit that this event should always find the planet at peace. The Olympic Truce may not preclude hostilities between the United States and Iraq, but it is a testament to this transcendent sporting event that the question even merits consideration.
However briefly, the Olympics appeal to our better instincts. Among the expressed goals of the Nagano Games are to, ''inspire grand dreams in children'' and ''impart to future generations the joy of living on this beautiful planet.''
We may grow weary of the platitudes, and lament the coarse corners the Olympics have cut for commercial interests, yet this spectacle still challenges our cynicism and inspires our imaginations. It prompts people to treat total strangers - reporters, even - as if they were visiting heads of state.
When the Winter Games were last held, in Lillehammer in 1994, the people of Norway were perfectly congenial. The rural French were a kindly contrast to Parisians in Albertville in 1992. But it is difficult to conceive that the Winter Games have ever known more aggressively helpful hosts than here.
''I have never been to a place,'' said Vicki Movsessian, the U.S. women's hockey player, ''where people have been so generous and so kind.''
They rush to assist with your luggage. They scramble to see to your needs. They are so determined that their Olympic guests experience Japan without a glitch that they distribute detailed instructions on how to answer the telephone.
1) The telephone rings.
2) Respond by picking up the receiver.
The preceding is a direct quote, and an indication of how carefully the host country has sweated the details. If they are obsessive about organization, the Japanese are also marvelously efficient. When the Limited Express No. 31 lurches into Nagano after three hours and 11 stops, two volunteers await us on the platform and reach for our heaviest bags. Our hosts are so sweet, it is almost suffocating.
''They feel they have a particular obligation to ensure that a guest's stay is a pleasurable and memorable one,'' wrote Paul Maruyama, the U.S. Olympic Committee's Japanese liaison, in a memo to members of the American team. ''As a member of the official United States Olympic team delegation, all Japanese are, in a way, your hosts, and thus you and your team members will never be able to escape the constant attention of your Japanese hosts.''
It has been, so far, a pleasant intrusion. Remind me to send Mayumi Ishihama a thank-you note.
Columnist Tim Sullivan is covering the XVIII Winter Olympic Games for the Enquirer.
OLYMPIC COVERAGE from Associated Press