As the seventh Winter Olympic Games approached the halfway mark, the Soviet Union, in its first try, was the only nation close to dominating them.
That, for the sporting world in general and the United States in particular, is the unaccommodating truth, only partly camouflaged by the color and gaiety which outwardly characterize the festivities at Cortina d'Ampezzo.
These, if superficial, are real enough. The Corso Itali, twisting main stem around which this little town is built, is ablaze with the flags of 32 participating nations. The five Olympic rings decorate every store window. Between events, athletes, reporters and fans, in multihued capes and sweaters, so throng the streets that all automobiles except those with the highest priority are barred from the center of town.
At night the dance floors and bars at the biggest hotels, like the Bellevue, where the bulk of the U.S. team is lodged, and the Savoia, which houses some 400 newsmen, throb and bulge with the merrymaking of as motley a crew as can be met outside an international peace conference. Food (spinach is almost the only green vegetable available in Cortina) and drink (Scotch whisky at $1.30 a shot) leave something to be desired. But most of the 12,000-odd visitors who have tripled the population of this small Dolomite resort seem determined to consider the Olympic Games as something to be enjoyed. And that goes for a good many of the competitors.
February 6, 1956
Not, it is almost superfluous to say, for the Russians. It is their wont on these occasions to live some distance from the heart of the matter, and they have isolated themselves in a lonely hotel at Tre Croci, a 5,700-foot mountain pass 3½ miles from Cortina. Here, in their brown hats and blue coats, on which the letters "C C C P" are stitched in white, they sleep and eat (three steak meals a day) in seclusion, and are polite but reticent when approached. In fact, they are surprised at liberties taken with them.
SI Photographer Jerry Cooke, who speaks Russian, overheard the following dialogue between two Russian skiers in a group he surprised at training:
First skier: "But has he been given permission to photograph us?"
Second skier: "No."
First skier: "He should be reported."
Second skier (evidently not on his first trip through the Curtain): "Here they do not have to have permission to photograph us."
First skier: "Are you sure?"
Second skier: "Yes, quite sure."
In the vital matter of preparing for the Games, though, the Russians have been far from naive. They have stayed out of Winter Olympic competition until they figured they were good enough to come out on top. Although they still abstain from such competitions as figure skating and bobsledding, partly because they consider them showy and nonutilitarian and possibly because they are not yet able to win them, they have entered enough Olympic events to give them the chance of claiming to be the world's premier winter-sports nation. Four gold medals out of 10 in the first five days at Cortina gave sharp initial endorsement to their claim.
U.S. experts were aware of Soviet progress, but were not apprised of its extent until they got to Europe for pre-Olympic trials this winter.
The shock has perhaps been greatest in the domain of speed skating. In the six previous Winter Olympics, the U.S. and Norway between them had won 18 of the 24 gold medals awarded for this sport over the four Olympic distances. The U.S., itself six times gold medalist in speed skating, had won the 500-meter three times. At Cortina, the Russians won the first three skating events with ease, placing first and second in the 500-meter, and first and third in the 5,000, while two of them dead-heated for first honors in the 1,500. But the U.S. has been out of the hunt. Nearest American in the 500 was Bill Carow, 31-year-old fire fighter from Madison, Wis., who finished sixth. His 41.8 was a new U.S. record, although almost two seconds slower than Evgeny Grishin's new world record of 40.2.
In the 5,000-meter the nearest American was Pat McNamara, nearly 22 seconds behind Boris Shilhov. In the 1,500 McNamara was again best American—in 20th place, and 6.6 seconds behind Grishin and Yuri Mikhailov.
It must be reported that the morale of the U.S. skating squad was low before the Olympics ever started. Pre-Olympic trials in Europe, in which the Russians had participated, had all turned to. the latter's advantage, and the culmination came in training at Misurina itself.
Misurina, where all the Olympic speed skating has been held, is a frozen lake eight miles from Cortina. Gosta Nilsson, with his 40 years of experience of building skating rinks, has made what is now generally admitted to be the fastest rink in the world, putting in the shade even the Russians' "miracle rink" at Alma-Ata in Turkestan. His formula is a closely guarded secret, but it involves daily chopping the ice free from the land all around the circumference of the lake, packing six inches of snow on the black ice formed by the frozen lake and then pouring spring water on the snow to form a layer of white ice.
The qualities of the Misurina rink were soon shown when an unofficial international competition was held a few days before the Olympics and Grishin won in 40.2, thus setting the unofficial new world record which he was to confirm in the Olympic event. Russians were first, second, third and fifth. Carow, fourth, was the best American. When the Olympic 500-meter was skated, 13 competitors improved on their own national records. The Russians had been feared over the longer skating distances, but until recently had not been expected to shine in the 500. That was sadly to underrate the qualities of infinite patience and application which these Soviet successes are demonstrating.
It is now clear that every Russian athlete of international promise has been taken out of his job and given intense, year-round training which few in the West can equal and which, of course, is state-paid. A Russian skating coach told me: "We have 50 men for every distance, each as good as the other. We almost had to draw lots to pick the Olympic teams."
Away from the ice, Soviet skaters don't stop practicing. They slide their feet through plowed fields, and attach weights to their ankles to develop calf and thigh muscles. The greatest attention is paid to technique, and movies of athletes from rival countries are closely studied long before the Olympics are on the horizon. This does not only apply to the speed skaters. Skiers and jumpers from the U.S. and western Europe in Cortina have been surprised to have been hailed familiarly by Russians they are meeting for the first time but who know them well from movies.
Del Lamb, U.S. speed-skating coach, hardly bothered to conceal his gloom before the Olympics started. When I asked him what made the Soviet skaters so good, he answered curtly: "Money—which makes it possible for them to work at it." In the hotel lobbies where American coaches and managers foregather, I have heard $35 million mentioned as the sum set aside by the Soviet government for its state-subsidized athletic program. Lamb, who lost his job as a fireman in 1948 to go with the U.S. Olympic team and who has had to close his sporting-goods store in Milwaukee to accompany this one, feels particularly strongly that not enough help is given American skaters. He, of course, would much prefer Olympic skating races to be run according to the U.S. "pack" system with its crowded, highly competitive turns, which he justly thinks is more crowd pleasing. "Then we'd show 'em. We'd have 'em sprawling all over the place." But such a change, which is not in the cards anyway, would merely give the U.S. the chance to exploit superior tactical experience.
Grishin, Shilkov and Mikhailov skated superbly. Like all great artists, they made it look easy. There is no question of their winning by brute strength, although their leg muscles plainly bulge through their ankle-length blue tights. While others give the impression of forcing their muscles to keep up with the clock, they skate smoothly and seemingly effortlessly. They combine the grace of a ballet dancer with the leg drive of a footballer, while every move they make—every curve of their bodies, and even of their fingers—is scientifically designed to reduce wind resistance to a minimum.
Whether or no the Russians continue as they have begun and go on to be the great victors of these Olympics, enough has already been seen of their approach to winter sports to make it important for their Western rivals, and the U.S. in particular, to think things through more thoroughly than they have.
It is, of course, quite natural that a country with the population of the U.S.S.R. should produce some world champions. It is also natural that its climate should give it some advantage in winter competitions. And it must also be said, by way of a preliminary, that in all the complaints about the state aid given to Soviet athletes there is the old familiar ring of the alibi. For it is also true that the simon-pure amateurism of many Western competitors can also be questioned on ethical, if not technical, grounds.
Yet, when all is said and done, a problem of redefinition remains for us. An essay on the political importance of sport in a world of competitive coexistence could easily be written. But, leaving politics right out of it, it seems that simple logic requires us to be sure in our own minds of what we are trying to do. There are three positions from which to choose:
1) We can say that others may make sport a matter of state enterprise and national prestige if they wish, but that we prefer to continue to compete on our basis of personal satisfaction and enjoyment. In that case we can carry on as we do, probably have a lot of fun and take a lot of beatings.
2) We can say that we and the dictator countries do not look at sport in the same way, and refuse to compete with them on an amateur basis. This would ring down the Iron Curtain on sport.
3) We can say we intend to compete at all costs, and employ the same methods as the Russians. The logical outcome of this would be to admit professionals to the Olympics.
These deeper issues, however, are so far only being carelessly discussed at Cortina. Attention is naturally focused on actual results.
The three competitions which have excited most interest have been hockey, the two-man bob and the men's giant slalom. At hockey, the Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchmen, 1954-55 Allen Cup winners, represent Canada, still tournament favorites. Canada won all three of its games in the elimination contests, scoring 30 goals against one. Soviet Russia, Czechoslovakia and the U.S., in that order, are rated the Canadians' chief rivals, and the issue will not be decided until the last days.
Already bitter controversy is growing over interpretation of hockey rules. The Europeans pull a lot of snide tricks which European referees let pass, but which Canadians and Americans consider unfair play. On the other hand, vigorous body-checking as practiced on our side of the Atlantic is frowned on in Europe and often penalized by European referees.
Saturday night a capacity crowd of 15,000 jammed the pine and cement Olympic stadium to watch Italy hold the Canadians to a surprisingly tight 3-1 victory. Nine times a Canadian was sent to the penalty box, despite repeated protests from Captain Jack McKenzie. During the first two periods there were not three consecutive minutes when the Canadians had a full squad on the ice.
The two-man bob provided the U.S. with a sharp disappointment and the host country, Italy, with a great initial satisfaction as well as its only likely gold medal. All through the trials it looked like a two-nation contest between the two Italian bobs and the American sled driven by the 192-pound, East Hartford, Conn. sledder, Bud Washbond, himself the son of a former Olympic bobsled winner. The other American bob, driven by the Rochester physicist, Art Tyler, never looked like going places, chiefly because Tyler developed a mental block about the "Labyrinth," a name given to four consecutive twists in the 5,576-foot run which lead into the Bandion Curve, the run's deadliest. Through not taking the Labyrinth cleanly, Tyler time and again came "fishtailing" (bumping on both sides of the run) into the Bandion, thus losing vital fractions of seconds.
In actual competition, though, Washbond did little better than Tyler, allowing the two Italian teams, the Swiss and the Spanish (driven by the well-known European amateur jockey and automobile driver, the Marquis de Portago) to finish ahead of him.
The U.S. bobsledders insist that "this is not a dangerous sport." But De Portago told me, "This damn well is a dangerous sport, and unless you go at it with that idea you might as well stay out. If you crash, it doesn't matter whether you are traveling at 55 mph or 60, but the margin in speed makes all the difference to your time."
The Americans used a steering wheel on their bob, while the four who finished ahead of them used a hand-rope arrangement. There is a long-standing argument between bobsledders as to the respective merits of the rope, admittedly more sensitive, and the wheel, which is safer. Results at Cortina have given the hemp boys a big talking point.
No one, of course, thinks the American sledders lacked courage, but it is suggested that they were unduly complacent. Moreover, almost all the bob-sledding in the U.S. is centered around Lake Placid, and the squad suffered from the same frictions which plague a family that lives too much with itself.
An estimated 30,000, including a good portion of the most dedicated ski fans in the world, lined the run for the men's giant slalom. Lack of snow had made the course tricky and bumpy. The Austrians were heavy favorites, and they duly obliged by filling the first three places, ahead of two Frenchmen. (The French ski squad is split wide open by charges of favoritism leveled against their coach and former champion, James Couttet.) Winner was the 21-year-old phenomenon, Toni Sailer, who finished over five seconds ahead of his compatriot, Anderl Molterer.
Sailer, who shot downhill in the most offhand and airy manner, was mobbed by the crowd after his victory. He is likely to be a big name in the international ski world for years to come.
Curiously enough, the Games to date have produced few real upset victories.
Some put in that category the 30-kilometer cross-country victory of the Finn, Veikku Hakulinen, in the very first event. But an unofficial poll of Olympic ski coaches the day before the race revealed that Hakulinen, who won the 50-kilometer at Oslo in 1952, was strongly favored over the Russian bloc headed by Vladimir Kusin. The Russians hinted at their strength by filling the third, fourth, fifth and sixth places. Kusin, who was fifth, had only just recovered from a bout of grippe. The stocky, eyebrowless Soviet champion was spitting blood after the race. Hakulinen's victory quote was Olympian in its simplicity: "It is to go fast you enter a race. So I went fast." (It was left to an official Russian observer to produce the most unconsciously ironical comment of the Olympics: "Hakulinen is a forester in Finland. That means he spends the whole year on skis. That hardly makes him an amateur.")
The most notable surprises came in two women's ski events. The women's giant slalom was won by the most German-looking of all fr√§uleins, the buxom, pink-and-white-complexioned Ossi Reichert. The German Olympic squad here includes representatives from both West and East Germany, which Avery Brundage regards as a considerable diplomatic march stolen on John Foster Dulles, and Ossi comes from Bavaria. So it was the West German anthem which was played when she received her gold medal in front of the flickering Olympic flame. Ossi had first run, a considerable advantage in view of the lack of snow, and made the very good time of 1:56.5.
She is around 30, but coyly refuses to divulge her age. Her success she attributes to the fact that her home was 500 yards higher than her first school, and that from the age of 6 she had to ski down to lessons every morning.
In the giant slalom a very honorable fourth was Andrea Mead Lawrence. Andy is a little annoyed about the publicity she has been getting over the handicap she has incurred by having all those babies. "It doesn't take me long to work up my strength," she told me, "and right now I feel at full strength. Of course, I have only had six weeks' training, but many others are in the same spot. The fact is the standard of international skiing is higher than ever before, and I have been out of the big time."
There were hopes that Mead would take the special slalom, which was, however, unexpectedly won by Renee Colliard, a blonde, blue-eyed Swiss. Colliard had never before won a big race. Nevertheless, she finished excellently, with more than three seconds in hand over her runners-up, respectively Austrian and Russian. Andy Mead ruined her chance by missing a gate at the steepest and most slippery point.
Mead is a great-hearted competitor. Her personality and her fourth in the giant slalom have helped keep the U.S. in the picture. But it is the figure skaters who give the firmest guarantee that the Stars and Stripes will fly from the winner's pole before the Games are much older.
'FOR GLORY AND HONOR'
ATHLETES OF 32 NATIONS TAKE THE OLYMPIC OATH AT CORTINA
"We swear that we will take part in the Olympic Games in fair competition, respecting the regulations which govern them and with the desire to participate in the true spirit of sportsmanship for the glory of sport and for the honor of our country."