When the others have faded, one vivid and significant memory of the seventh Winter Games will linger.
It was near midnight at the stadium. The Dolomites were dim outlines against the frosty blue sky. The flags of 32 nations hung protectively around the dancing Olympic flame, soon to be extinguished. In the stands the biggest crowd since opening day was giving a generous hand to the Soviet hockey players who, by beating Canada 2-0, had just acquired the proud title of Olympic hockey champions.
For two weeks I had watched that Soviet hockey bench, as the squad, smooth as a well-oiled, high-speed machine, glided from victory to victory. As they huddled in their blankets, their faces, which often looked cruel to Western eyes, rarely betrayed a flicker of elation. Others could casually give colleagues a friendly smack on the rump in recognition of good play, shout encouragement from the bench or bang the boards with their sticks when a goal came along. Even when, one night from last, they had crushed the U.S. 4-0, the Russian players barely permitted themselves a half smile. But when the final victory was theirs, they went crazy.
They kissed each other, they kissed their coaches, they jumped and sang. One player had blood trickling from a cut in his head, and a colleague playfully stretched out a hand and smeared the blood over the other's face.
February 13, 1956
That demonstration testified to two things. It testified to release from a discipline, rigidly imposed from the start of the competition, unlike anything Western athletes had known. There we had, in a psychological nutshell, what we are up against in competing with the Soviet Union.
The demonstration also testified to a fierce joy, from which was lacking the gaiety which marks a Western reaction to triumph. This, Russia's seventh gold medal of the Games, tasted sweetest of all. For here was success wrested directly from the West, at a great Western sport.
The hockey success consecrated Russia's victory at the Games, which is definite by any system of point counting (seven gold medals to Austria's four, 16 medals of all kinds to 11 for Austria).
But, though definite, it was not overwhelming in all departments.
On skates, the Russians dominated. It was a different story on skis. At long-distance skiing they merely shared top honors with the Scandinavian trio—Sweden, Finland and Norway. In the alpine skiing, dashes straight downhill or through the gates which constitute the slalom, they were never in the picture with the nations of the Alpine range, who traditionally capture most of these events. Among these, Austria led the way, thanks mainly to the miracle boy from Kitzb√ºhel, Toni Sailer, who was the only triple gold medalist of the Games.
A special pat on the back must be reserved for little Switzerland, which picked up three gold medals. Two Swiss girls, Renée Colliard and Madeleine Berthod, outskied the Austrian women in the slalom and downhill races. Berthod, a mousy wisp of a girl who doesn't look as if she could pick up a heavy suitcase, was already moral winner of the giant slalom before she rocketed over the downhill course nearly five seconds ahead of the field. Madeleine ("I am so happy when I race, I light up inside") must now be reckoned the world's champion woman skier, replacing Andy Mead, whose ever-bubbling courage does not compensate for the fact that she now seems past her best.
Third, Switzerland's grim-faced sledder, Franz Kapus, who injured himself so severely here in training for the 1954 world bob championships that it was thought he would never compete again, drove his country's four-man sled to victory, with a new track record in the bargain, ahead of Italy and America's Art Tyler, whose confidence in his ability to negotiate the four quick curves of the "Labyrinth" returned after the two-man event.
The U.S. recovered fairly well, although not spectacularly, from its disastrous first week. The second-place hockey medal was better than most expected, and was won largely through the tournament's biggest upset: the 4-1 defeat of Canada, first victory over Canada in a world championship by an amateur American hockey team in 23 years.
Most credit went to two players. One was John Mayasich, 180-pound, 22-year-old center from Eveleth, Minn., the classiest member of the U.S. squad. Fast and elusive as Mercury, Mayasich three times caught the Canadians flat-footed in breakaways.
Yet there would have been no victory but for another boy from Eveleth, Willard (Ike) Ikola, the U.S. goal tender. While Johnny Mariucci, American coach, a former captain of the Black Hawks who was voted Coach of the Year after his first season at the University of Minnesota in 1952, alternately stormed, spat on the ice, kicked the bench in savage frustration or gleefully brandished a clenched fist (he could earn his living in Hollywood any time, playing the tough coach with the heart of gold) and the desperate Canadian attackers whirled like dervishes around the American cage, Ikola, with great determination and the necessary measure of luck, kept all but one shot out of the net.
CANADIANS IN THE MINES
Canada's setback brought joy to Russian hearts, although the event was curiously interpreted. In the press box one Soviet reporter told another as the final siren wailed:
"There'll be hell to pay over this in Ottawa tomorrow." (Implication: the Canadian squad would be arrested on its return by the Royal Mounted Police and deported to the uranium mines.)
But a second Russian newsman disagreed:
"No, no, the Canadians could never win." (Implication: Canada, as a satellite of the U.S., was not allowed to win.)
The victory over Canada gave the whole American delegation a great lift. It was followed by two unadulterated American triumphs of the Games, in men's and women's figure skating.
And behind these lies quite a story, upon which it may be profitable as well as amusing to ponder.
The figure-skating world is curious and unique. Its basic premises are that nine would-be Olympic champions out of 10 are hoping for professional futures. In their mind's eye they keep firmly fixed the vision of their names in lights outside Madison Square Garden or at the top of the bill at the Radio City Ice Follies. If and when the vision is fulfilled, they will gracefully glide, whirl and jump their way on skates to the big money, and to the accompaniment of suitable music. But to get the best offers, they need that Olympic consecration. So the blue chips are really down when the figure skaters get to grips. It can be truly said that only in the figure-skating department of the American delegation did the "Russian spirit" reign. Whether or not that is wholly admirable or desirable, results show that it is the spirit that wins.
Certainly there was more bitter rivalry between American figure skaters than between other American representatives and foreign nations.
In both events, intramural competition was razor-keen. Champion Hayes Alan Jenkins had most to fear from Ronnie Robertson, the 18-year-old from Long Beach, Calif., already second to Jenkins in the 1955 world championships. In that competition Robertson had beaten Jenkins in the free skating, which is a demonstration of skating virtuosity set to music of the competitor's choice, but had lagged behind in the school figures, set patterns to be traced on the ice.
In Olympic competition, a classical view is taken of figure skating. Sixty per cent of obtainable marks are given to the school-figures display. About half of these are awarded according to the perfection of the patterns traced by the skates on the ice, and about half to the style in which they are traced. Only 40% of the marks go to the free-skating display. This means that no competitor, though he be the most dazzling and daring free skater in the world, has a chance of a gold medal unless he is marked up with the best for his school figures.
Since 1955, rumor had it, Robertson had considerably improved his school skating. In this case rumor was generously fed by his personal coach, the fiery, forthright and unsubtle Gus Lussi. Lussi lost no opportunity of telling all and sundry that his boy was sure to win. Robertson was going to produce, for the first time on Olympic ice, a sensational jump known as the triple axel. Jenkins on ice, he implied, was little better than a lout.
There was calculation behind this campaign. Lussi knows that the skating judges who award marks are humans, subject to prejudice. They are amateurs, volunteers, not necessarily true experts. They are also most certainly influenced by the applause of the crowd, which is invariably ignorant of the finer points. If he could get the crowd to believing that Robertson was the logical winner before the event, he was already halfway to victory.
Other coaches snarled back at Lussi, called him a cad. He and Robertson ate alone, in a corner of the American dining room at the Bellevue. The snob element, always strong in an Olympic gathering, was heavily on the side of the gentlemanly Jenkins against the brash, publicity-conscious Robertson.
Even so, backbiting was not keenest among skaters and coaches. They were a mild people in comparison with the competitors' mothers.
Skating mothers are a race apart. They have brought their prodigies along, usually with a professional career in mind at the start, from the age of 6 or less. The ill-concealed glee of one skating mother at seeing another's prodigy take a pratfall on the ice can only be compared to the satisfaction of a Madame Defarge watching another head roll from the guillotine. When a triumphant skater, boy or girl, leaves the ice, it is into his mother's arms that he first falls in triumphant exhaustion.
MOTHER IN THE WINGS
This material intensity of purpose is usually camouflaged as something more restrained. The mothers pretend they have just come along to watch the Olympics and hold their child's wind-breaker.
A refreshing exception to this rule, as a matter of fact, is Mrs. Robertson. A frank and pretty woman, she has sacrificed much for the son of whom she is proud. To help pay for his lessons she went to work eight years ago at Welch's Restaurant in Long Beach. When Ronnie shifted to Gus Lussi at Lake Placid, she took a similar post at the Mirror Lake Hotel. Says Mrs. Robertson, "Let's be honest about it. We're in it to get a top spot in a top show, to get back the thousands invested." I met no other mother who had the candor to say that.
In the school figures, Robertson showed that Lussi's promises were not all empty. He did them excellently, but not quite as well as Hayes Alan Jenkins, who totaled 852.2 points to Robertson's 840.1. Nevertheless, the margin was small enough to encourage Robertson to think that, with a decisive win in free skating, he could hope for the gold medal.
Fifteen minutes before Robertson was due to go on the rink for his free-skating demonstration, Gus Lussi sent a message up to the press gallery to say that his boy would not do the triple axel after all, "because he is so sure to win anyhow." In fact, Robertson could have lost precious marks if he had failed to bring off this extraordinarily difficult jump.
Nevertheless, Robertson gave a great display of skating fireworks which enthused the stands, and he was extremely highly marked.
In his dressing room Champion Hayes Alan Jenkins heard the shouting and the high marks. He knew that a single mistake would cost him the title. He was tense. His coach, Edi Scholdan (the same Robertson had had when younger), told him, "Hayes, skate for sure. Stand up. No terrific risks. Get after it."
Jenkins took a final look in the mirror, straightened his bowtie, tugged at his coffee-colored jacket and made his way to the rink. It was a quarter of 5, and the sun had disappeared. The floodlights only made the ice seem colder and rougher. He was too stiff as he first moved to the music, and almost skidded in a set spin. One of the five minutes allocated him had gone before he was in complete control. Then he completed his routine, unsensationally but classically, with unparalleled ease and grace.
Hayes himself says free skating "is the ability to skate backward and forward on one edge of the blade, not in the air, in a continuous, uninterrupted flow which must be in perfect rhythm with the music." The 22-year-old economics student has well defined the causes of his Olympic triumph. In French and Italian, figure skating is called artistic skating, which is a truer definition. On this basis, Hayes Jenkins, who skates the way Fred Astaire dances, won from Robertson, who is more like a Jimmy Cagney on ice. The dynamic Ronnie did shade Jenkins in free-skating marks, but not by enough to quite catch up what he had lost over the set figures. Jenkins took the title by one judge's point, while his kid brother David placed third, to give the U.S. a clean sweep of the medals
After the result was known, Gus Lussi, cigarette stuck aggressively in the corner of his mouth, strode into the Jenkins dressing room to offer perfunctory congratulations. "Thanks," said Hayes. "It was a tough fight," continued Lussi. "Yes, unnecessarily tough," retorted Jenkins, thinking of the gossip and publicity battle Lussi had waged to win the title. Lussi turned away and threw over his shoulder, "And it's going to keep right on being tough." Forty-eight hours later, Gus had Robertson back in training for the forthcoming world championships.
The Boston queen, Tenley Albright, was similarly crowded by Carol Heiss, a pert blonde from Ozone Park, N.Y., who had her 16th birthday while training at Cortina. Mrs. Heiss stands in relation to Mrs. Albright as Mrs. Robertson does to Mrs. Jenkins. It is reliably reported the four mothers do say good morning to each other. As with Jenkins, the social set, which weighs heavily in the U.S. Olympic delegation, was solidly for Albright. Ted Patterson, U.S. team skating manager, another Bostonian, who is theoretically impartial about his own competitors, made no secret of his preference for Jenkins and Albright.
The leggy Tenley is a more classical skater than Carol Heiss, although some judges consider the younger girl more accomplished. Lussi passed a typical judgment: "One is a lady from Boston, the other girl's a skater."
Sweep away the devouring ambition from figure skating, and you uncover an important truth: these boys and girls work their hearts out. Here is the incredible training schedule followed by Carol Heiss, year in year out, Olympics or no, and she has been skating seriously since she was 6:
From mid-September to June—up at 5:15, drive from Ozone Park to the New York Skating Club rink where she works out from 6 to 11. School (a special one for kids following a professional career) from 11 to 3. Three days a week, homework from 3 to 5 at the apartment of her coach, Pierre Brunet. Then back on the ice from 5:30 to 7:45. Days when she doesn't have homework, she is on the rink through 5:30, then home with her mother to dinner (lunch, by the way, is a sandwich and a bottle of milk taken in a few minutes). Saturday she is off. Sunday is a full skating day. Nor is Carol an exceptionally hard worker.
Small wonder that, in a world where international sporting competition renews itself ever more fiercely, the figure skaters were the only triumphant Americans at the 1956 Winter Olympics. Should other American amateur athletes try as hard, or should they continue to take their sport in their present more enjoyable manner? There is probably no short, simple answer to the question. Top American Olympic officials here, in any case, prefer to answer it evasively.
When I questioned Tug Wilson, leader of the U.S. Olympic delegation at Cortina, he was unwilling to admit that amateur U.S. athletes faced any crisis. "Certainly," he conceded, "we need to make a much bigger effort. There should be far more athletic facilities. In Russia, every factory employing over 150 people has to supply athletic facilities. Mind you, I am not questioning Russian amateurism. The Russian athletes here seem to be getting fun out of their sport, which is the simplest definition of an amateur. But we do have to find a way to make a participant out of the boy who now prefers to stay home and watch a big league ball game on TV."
Others are less inclined to pull punches. I have seen Austrian skiers laugh at Americans who finished a race completely pooped. U.S. athletes complain that the Olympics came too soon, that back home there has not been enough snow to permit full training this winter. But there is a lot which can be done in any weather to improve body conditioning without putting on skis or skates.
Bill Carow, the Madison fire fighter, did better than any other American in the speed skating. Yet he was the boy they laughed at when he sat down at the piano. He only just made the team. Minutes after the squad landed in Europe, he was out practicing. He became a standing joke in the American team. When the others were finishing their second cup of morning coffee, someone would ask, "Where's Bill?"
"Out on the ice," someone else would answer.
"Where does he think he's going to get, anyway?"
One of the U.S. team masseurs told me that the hockey players just didn't have the strength to keep up a hot pace through the third period. They hadn't been given enough buildup to play hockey in this class, out of doors, at this trying altitude. When the Russian hockeymen returned to the bench they were breathing easily. The Americans gasped as if it hurt. Said the masseur: "It would have been very different if they had had the leg muscles of a workhorse like Ronnie Robertson, and he's supposed to be competing in a sissy game."
Before long, the Melbourne Summer Games will be with us. Meanwhile, the 1956 Winter Olympics have become history. They provided plenty of fun and some high class sport. To the U.S., which ought to be the greatest sporting nation in the world, they blinked a warning: to stop and think, where do we go from here?
THE RUSSIANS UNBEND
An SI photographer penetrates Soviet social curtain, finds winners relaxed and friendly
E. SIDOROVA, THIRD IN SLALOM, DREW WHISTLES FROM TEAMMATES
SMILING ATHLETES GOT CAKES, MEDALS FROM SPORT COMMISSAR
SPEED SKATERS MERCULOV AND MIKHAILOV TRIED TABLE GAME
PRETTY INTERPRETER NEARLY STOLE THE SHOW FROM ATHLETES
SKIERS PASSED UP CAKES TO FIDDLE WITH UNFAMILIAR TV SET
COACHES, COMPETITORS RELAXED IN QUIET CHAT AFTER PARTY