To a handful of historians, the March 10-12 running of the International Arlberg-Kandahar at M√ºrren, Switzerland is important chiefly because it marks the 50th anniversary of modern ski racing. But to swarms of very practical hotel owners, tourist agents, ski equipment manufacturers and, in fact, the heads of state of several Alpine nations, the running of these races will be much more than an anniversary. For the odds are that the results of this Kandahar will be among the most decisive in skiing's half century, fixing 1961 as the final year of a French revolution that has been violent enough to satisfy even a Madame Defarge.
"La grande aventure du ski fran√ßais," as the French newspaper L'Equipe has breathlessly called it, has been under way for nearly three years. Its avowed purpose has been to capture the summit of ski racing—more specifically, to capture it from the Austrians, who have dominated the sport for the past decade. The aventure registered its first success in the 1959 season, when Fran√ßois Bonlieu unexpectedly won the Kandahar slalom at Garmisch, the only notable French victory in big-time skiing since 1950.
Last year, to the dismay of the Austrians, the French team began a wholesale bloodletting. Adrien Duvillard, until then an erratic also-ran, won both the downhill and slalom at the Hahnenkamm Races in Kitzb√ºhel, the first non-Austrian to win that title in 26 years. Later Duvillard took the downhill and the combination at the 1960 Kandahar. At Squaw Valley, Jean Vuarnet won the Olympic downhill, and 20-year-old Guy Périllat, the youngest member of the French team, won the world combined championship.
Then, in the first two months of the 1961 season, Périllat swept the downhill and combined titles of four classic races: the Lauberhorn (in Wengen), Hahnenkamm (Kitzb√ºhel), Allais Cup (Még√®ve) and the Grand Prix (Chamonix). Right behind him came a cloud of other talented young Frenchmen—Duvillard, Charles Bozon, Bonlieu and company—and suddenly France was, indeed, the leading nation in downhill racing.
March 13, 1961
The most obvious reason for their leadership is Périllat, one of the finest Alpine skiers of all time. Like many top racers, Périllat is short and square-cut (5 feet 6 inches tall, 150 pounds) with a low center of gravity. He is pug-nosed, affable, smiles easily, but he is also a deadly earnest young man. Son of a ski lift operator at the Haute-Savoie village of La Clusaz, Guy was skiing almost as soon as he could walk, and little else has entered his life since then.
Like a good many of his contemporaries, Perillat's attitude toward racing reflects the fact that the downhill has become one of the world's most dangerous sports, where a man who hopes to win must literally turn himself into a guided missile, bolting down steep tree-lined courses where a fall could easily be fatal. "Most of the time," says Périllat, "I'm scared stiff." When a newsman once asked him after a major race if anything interesting had happened during the run, he replied: "When one risks a fall, it is not amusing. I remember nothing but the skiing."
In Périllat's case, the skiing is worth remembering. So polished is his style that in the Lauberhorn downhill his time was 4.6 seconds faster than his closest rival, an astonishing margin in an event where tenths of a second are usually decisive. Karl Schranz, the Austrian star, was so staggered that he asked to look at Périllat's skis after the race. Périllat politely refused.
The real reason for the French successes—as indicated by the remarkable depth of their team—is not so much the excellence of individuals as it is their system. Of all people, the French, the world's most hopelessly unreconstructed individualists, have converted skiing from an individual sport into a team sport, with backing that amounts to a national effort. In fact, the entire aventure was undertaken by a deliberate decision of the French government.
To begin with, the Fédération de Ski Fran√ßaise has an annual budget of some 100 million old francs (about $203,000), including a direct government subsidy of some 15 million, making it appreciably richer than most other national federations. A sizable chunk of this goes to the French national ski team, covering such expenses as preseason training. The 28 team members (15 men, 13 women) themselves get no direct living expenses (except by host clubs during races) but, like other European teams, they are equipped gratis by French manufacturers—e.g., 250 pairs of skis are contributed annually by the Rossignol firm, maker of the Allais 60 ski. More perhaps than others, the French racers also are spurred by an intense sense of patriotic duty reflecting President de Gaulle's drive to revive French national pride.
The French government also has donated the services of Périllat, who is on a two-year tour of duty with the mountain troops, and clearly serves his country better winning races than carrying a gun. But by all odds the government's most important gesture was its three-year loan to the national civilian team of Honoré Bonnet, chief instructor of the French army's mountain troops. A hard-bitten, leathery man of 41, Bonnet is a native of Chamonix and a lifelong skier (though never a racer). In two short seasons he has wiped out the discord and petty jealousies which was the order of the day on the French teams. And he has created a unit that is, in terms of condition, morale and technique, the strongest ski team in the world. Part of this he has done by pure physical training. "I'm interested in the athlete," says Bonnet, "even more than in the skier. All the boys on my team are in the best physical condition." But he has also done it through a rare ability to handle men.
His racers love and respect him like a father confessor. When he broke his leg in an accident early this season, they insisted on carrying him piggyback to observation points on the courses. For an understanding of his role, one need only be present at the champagne party he permits his men after a victorious day; he presides like Dr. Johnson at the Cheshire Cheese, with the skiers listening in admiring silence. The ultimate accolade: "Guy, tu as bien fait." Bonnet has also managed to instill in his men a greater loyalty to the team than to personal glory. Thus if one of the early French starters in a race makes a good time, the others know they can risk everything because the team will still win. Says Périllat: "Every one of us is happy even if he loses as long as another teammate takes the victory. When you feel surrounded by warmth and encouragement like that you can do anything." At the same time Bonnet's men have acquired a cocky, indomitable confidence that works psychologically against their opponents. The Austrians, for example, were driven to fury—and perhaps costly recklessness—by a French skier's remark to newsmen just before the Hahnenkamm: "Let the Austrians fight it out among themselves for fourth place if they want."
To make sure that the Austrians stay in fourth place the French have developed a new approach to downhill racing. Their "secret" rests on the simple realization that in modern downhill, speeds are so great—up to 75 mph—that streamlining can make a difference of several seconds, or more than enough to win. Bonnet & Co., therefore, set out to establish scientifically the exact human position that creates the least aerodynamic drag. They studied films of champions in action, notably Toni Sailer, made stop-watch tests of different positions on a simple schuss, even experimented with wind tunnel studies of miniature human figures. The result was their now famous crouch, which was first described as the "egg position" (SI, March 7, 1960), and subsequently as the "frog," or as Bonnet calls it, "la position V. J." (meaning Vuarnet, Jean, whom he credits with the original idea).
Although the French consider the egg position their own, a good many authorities assert that the egg has been used for years by champions of other nations. Says Bonnet with a snort: "If that's what they say, then show me a picture of somebody using it before we did."
Whether the position itself is new or not, the French also recognized how extraordinarily difficult it is to hold, even for the two to three minutes of an average race. Yet the French hold it through most of the course, for Bonnet calculates that at high speeds a skier loses anywhere from two-to four-tenths of a second each time he straightens up to regain his balance. These fractions become vitally significant when one remembers the fact that Vuarnet, for example, won the Squaw Valley downhill by only half a second over Germany's Hans-Peter Lanig.
One thing that helps the French hold the egg so long is just plain courage. They resist straightening up until disaster is almost upon them. The other reason is their training. Bonnet begins working with his men in September, appreciably earlier than any other team begins training as a unit. Besides the standard cross-country running and bicycling to develop leg muscles, Bonnet has devised what he calls "special" exercises to develop back and neck muscles—the latter being especially important for the egg position. Says Bonnet: "Our men today can usually stay in the position for 80% of a downhill run. Our objective is 90% or 95%, and we're sure we can reach that, maybe next season." As a result of his physical discipline, says the Olympic giant slalom champion Roger Staub, "Périllat is never in trouble. He goes down the mountain as though he were on rails." Says Toni Sailer: "The true test of a downhill racer is that he doesn't allow his skis to control him. Guy doesn't simply let himself go at the highest possible speeds. He never ceases to guide his skis. He isn't swept downhill by them. He is their master." Such is the case with all of Bonnet's men.
Bonnet and his racers are no less exacting about every other opportunity to apply science to skiing. Their successes last year were certainly due in part to the Allais 60 ski, a product of years of research. Because of the flexibility provided by the metal, plastic and laminated wood construction, the Allais 60 tends to run easily over the surface of the snow, instead of cutting through it and losing speed. At the same time, it preserves the longitudinal rigidity essential to prevent the skis from chattering or skidding on fast turns.
But the French are not satisfied with having the best downhill skis and the best racing positions. They approach each new course like a surgeon studying X-rays before a brain operation. Not only do they test the snow with thermometers at every level to calculate waxes—during the day or two before a race they make stopwatch tests of various approaches to every turn, experiment with changes of a millimeter or two in foot positioning on their skis to match weight distribution to snow conditions and calculate the best "line," i.e., the exact course from gate to gate for maximum speed, like geometricians. Périllat estimates, incredibly, that on a good run he does not vary from his planned line by more than a couple of feet.
Watching this process before one major race early this season, a young American racer (who placed 45th) remarked with undisguised awe: "The French don't even bother to practice running the course. They take that for granted."
The French aventure has been the first major shift in leadership since skiing became a popular recreation, and its longer-term repercussions are thus difficult to forecast. It nevertheless is safe to make a few predictions. Most obviously, the Austrians and other Alpine countries will be forced not only to adopt the egg position in downhill racing but also to provide the financial and moral support for preseason team training on the French model. This will mean providing ski teams the kind of national backing that Europeans now give to other big-money sports. The French governmental subsidy of $30,000, small as it seems, is appreciably larger than the piddling $6,000 that the Swiss government antes up, or even the $21,000 provided by the Austrian government. Additionally, the French ski federation's 160,000 members contribute wealth that smaller countries cannot hope to equal. The stakes in this bidding are a good deal higher than mere satisfaction of national pride. Austrian supremacy during the '50s, due in large measure to their development of the graceful shortswing technique (still used in the slalom races by all nations, including France) has been an increasing financial windfall. The Austrian government estimates that income from winter season tourists amounts to some $40 million out of the country's total foreign exchange earnings of $240 million. Kitzb√ºhel alone has been turned into one of the most prosperous resorts in the Alps in part because it has produced a succession of champions, including Toni Sailer. Since Sailer won three gold medals at the 1956 Olympics, the village has added about 3,000 beds and half a dozen lifts. There are an estimated 200 Austrian ski instructors working today in the U.S. compared with exactly four French instructors. So far there has been no appreciable damage to the Austrian resorts, but the French ski federation estimates that Périllat's victories have already attracted some 100,000 new visitors to French Alpine centers this season. Périllat's home town, La Clusaz, is widely advertising itself as "la station de Guy Périllat." The store his father now owns, with all Guy's trophies spread out in the window, is swamped with business, and the town itself is turning away would-be visitors by the hundreds despite hurriedly added facilities. Rossignol this year is producing 20,000 pairs of Allais 60 skis, compared with 7,000 last year, but the demand already is far ahead of supply. This month Rossignol plans to come out with a new all-plastic model to be called le ski Vuarnet, further capitalizing on French victories.
The French, in short, are clearly determined to exploit their team's fame financially, and the Austrians, just as clearly, are nervous about it. Said a rueful Austrian ski instructor in midseason 1961: "We Austrians have learned that technique = winners = tourists. People like to ski where the champions ski. If the French keep this up, something drastic will have to be done." The French are indeed keeping it up and may very well administer the coup de gr√¢ce this weekend at M√ºrren.