In more than two months of European training for the IX Winter Olympics, and through the frail snow flurries that settled on the hills around Innsbruck during the final hours of the games, it was never very difficult to find the U.S. men's Alpine ski team. One had only to ask where the nearest crisis was, and there, usually causing it, were the Americans.
The major crisis was self-imposed. From the beginning, Coach Bob Beattie established the principle that the most important medal in the Winter Olympics was a gold, silver or bronze—any color would be fine—in a men's Alpine event. Never had a U.S. racer placed as high as third before. It was with a complete dedication to this goal that Beattie's Americans set out.
The Americans swiftly encountered a second crisis, which was definitely not self-imposed. This was a permanent floating battle over the seedings, and it frequently turned Coach Bob Beattie into a fairly ugly American. His foremost contribution to diplomacy was a simple opening aside directed against his European rivals, who had always conducted their seeding meetings in continental tongues. "Let 'em speak English," rumbled the U.S. coach.
In these meetings Beattie was forced to boast of his racers' achievements, and Europeans were stunned by his brashness, as each coach fought for good starting positions for his own racers. Consequently, in the final pre-Olympic competitions in France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy, the American skiers, instead of slowly building toward the Innsbruck climax, had to go all out to prove they deserved to be in the top Olympic seedings. Once Beattie paused and said, "The thing that kills me is that each time one of our guys falls, he knows what it does to me in the meetings."
February 17, 1964
Then the Olympics began, and for a time it seemed that Innsbruck would be noted as the scene of the most dreadful setback ever for skiing America. Austria won the men's downhill, and France the men's giant slalom. By now Bob Beattie's promises of success and his husky-voiced ranting in the Olympic seeding sessions had become almost boorish. They seemed especially so in light of the fact that through the downhill and the giant slalom the Americans, though they managed to argue at least two men into the top seed each time, had hardly frightened the French or the Austrians, who were busy collecting medals.
As the games wore on—still unsuccessfully for the Americans—Beattie seemed only to be collecting enemies. While Jean Saubert did smashingly well to win a silver and a bronze medal among the women, Beattie's critics insisted that the cute Oregon State coed would have won a gold if she had not been so tense and overtrained by her hard-driving coach. They then pointed to her shockingly poor 26th-place finish in the ladies' downhill as proof of Beattie's failure.
Among the critics was Austria's Egon Zimmermann, who said, "One can't force oneself to win. I think the Americans are defeating themselves." Another was Willy Schaeffler, the coach of the University of Denver, Beattie's leading college coaching rival. Schaeffler was quoted as saying (though he later denied the remark), "It's no use talking about winning gold medals if you don't have the results on hand to back up your confidence."
Worst of all, there was the Billy Marolt affair. The night he was told he would not race in the slalom, and thus had no more training worries, Billy—the national downhill champion from Aspen, Colo.—made an unscheduled visit to the Innsbruck jail. He was sensationally accused of car theft, drunkenness and resisting arrest—undoubtedly the juvenile delinquents' combination title for the 1964 Olympics. Austrian newspapers reacted with indignant shouts about the ill-mannered hoodlum ski bums on the U.S. team.
But Bob Beattie knew Billy Marolt a lot better than that. The pounding force within Beattie that earned him the nickname "Tiger of Parliament," because of the seeding incidents, was quickly at work. Beattie, armed with a lot of facts, brought instant pressure upon the Austrian tourist bureau by raising questions of police brutality.
Marolt, a sensitive 20-year-old whose eyes tend to water at the slightest criticism from Beattie, had not stolen anything. He had downed two beers, with permission from the coach, since he was no longer competing in any Innsbruck events. Then Marolt had borrowed the Volkswagen bus of a ski-sweater manufacturer, who had given him permission to drive it. But he had neglected to tell the chauffeur. That unhappy man panicked and called the cops. The actual charges finally brought against Marolt were that he had sworn at and struggled with the police—as most anyone else might have who had been dragged out by the feet rather than invited to step down from a vehicle. Marolt was out of jail the next day with a three-month suspended sentence, having no doubt slept on pillows softer than those in the Spartan Olympic Village. His coach, speaking for most Americans who observed the matter closely, was of two minds about the affair. "I regret it," said Beattie, "but I resent it, too."
If Bob Beattie had stopped at this point to list his woes, they would have included all of the personality clashes of the seeding meetings where he was committed to fight for his boys; the wire-service reports that the American racers were sullen and uncooperative with newsmen (actually the U.S. team held the only daily press conferences); Billy Marolt's overplayed escapade; and reverberating remarks of his critics in relation to the multiplying failures on the slopes.
Still, the evening before the men's slalom, the final Alpine event on the Innsbruck program, and the last U.S. hope to retrieve a dismal ski Olympics, Beattie was his old ex-football coach, go-go-go self. "We're at the junction," he said to the team. "If we don't get a medal tomorrow we're all failures and I'm the biggest. But I'll tell you something. We're going to get a medal because you guys are the best slalom skiers in the world."
The next day at Lizum 30,000 spectators pressed together around the slalom finish and clung to the hill itself. They looked a little like a massive oil painting of human misery. But the people were delighted to be there. The only real misery was on the course set for the first slalom run, a brutally tight, steep descent with surprising ice patches, drops and turns and a tangled flush of gates at the finish. The difficulty of the course was apparent immediately. The first four racers lost balance and precious seconds or fell, among them America's Chuck Ferries. When Chuck—the U.S. slalom champion—fell harder than the others, sliding out of the race, it looked as though Beattie was going to finish the Olympics flat on his own back.
Then in the 10th starting position came 20-year-old Billy Kidd, a ski hero on the way in, and in the 12th spot Buddy Werner, that wonderful veteran who, sadly, was on his way out. Both got through the punishing first run with decent enough times, to rank sixth (Kidd) and eighth (Werner). Now for the first time in 10 days there was a real shred of hope. This hope was uncontrollably if unsportingly displayed by the few U.S. spectators when France's Francois Bonlieu, the favorite, took a stunning spill and was out of the race. Two University of Colorado students waved a large banner that said, "Go U.S.A.," and from other scattered spots in the crowd there were some un-Olympic—but unmistakably American—whoops of joy.
Said Fred Casotti, the U.S. Alpine team manager: "I guess if we can knock down enough of them, we can back into a medal." Above all, he feared Austria's Pepi Stiegler, Karl Schranz and Gerhard Nenning, who stood one, two, three after their first runs.
At this moment, Jimmy Heuga, the 24th starter, wove into view with an interval time that caused Austrians and French alike to gasp. Wiggling through the gates with all the finesse of the more experienced Austrians, Heuga, another of Beattie's promising 20-year-olds, posted the third best time. If he could do it again an hour later, no one would have to be knocked down.
Between runs, Heuga, a constantly grinning youngster of Basque descent who deserves his reputation as the finest dancer in Colorado, asked Beattie if the second run did not require some caution. "You can't go for a medal if you're cautious," said Beattie. "We're going for a gold one." Billy Kidd, free of the fever that had weakened him six days before in the giant slalom, was fed the same confidence.
"Nothing," said Beattie to a friend, perhaps trying to bolster his own confidence, "comes out of pressure but greatness. That's what we've told these kids all along, and that's what we believe. What the hell. A young racer ought to try to win, or fall down the mountain anyhow."
Billy Kidd and Jimmy Heuga did not fall down the mountain. On the second run over a more open course, they skied better than any Americans had before. When the disbelieving throngs stared up at the IBM scoreboard, they saw that Kidd, a whirling figure in cap and goggles, and the bare-headed Heuga had clocked the second and third fastest times overall—and the U.S. had its first men's medals ever. Moreover, Kidd with a silver was but a bare .14 of a second away from the winner, Austria's Pepi Stiegler. Heuga, with his bronze, was only .39 away.
Equally worth celebrating—and celebrate the Americans did when Bob Beattie skied down from the top of the run, shouting, waving his poles, literally aflame with pride and joy—was the fact that Kidd finished third in the unofficial Alpine combined standings. With a 16th in the downhill, a seventh in the giant slalom and second in the slalom, Kidd ranked closely behind Germany's Ludwig Leitner and Austria's Gerhard Nenning as the third best ski racer in the world. No American had ever done that, either.
Buddy Werner, who raced well and finished eighth in the slalom to give America three in the top 10—another first for the U.S.—had been hugging Kidd while they waited for Heuga.
"This is the greatest day in our ski history," said Bud. "For a lot of years I was the only guy, but now we've got these two and we'll get a bunch more." Jimmy Heuga, completing his bronze run, had not really stopped before Werner dashed across the snow to embrace him. As moments of delirium go in American sports, this was one of the most moving.
"They're the touchdown twins," said Bob Beattie of his two young racers who had erased years of frustration, weeks of bitterness and days of embarrassment.
And then the crisis-prone Americans had another one: they could not somehow get their hands on some first-rate celebratory champagne. They had to make do with terrible-tasting stuff that had accrued to them at a pre-Innsbruck race. Chuck Ferries saved the day by mixing it in a punchbowl with ice cream. For Beattie the celebration was brief. He was thinking back.
"I don't know whether we went about it the right way," Beattie said. "But we succeeded. We proved that we are the third-best Alpine nation in the world and that we are capable of being the best. We won the battle of the seedings because my kids gave me a lot to yell about. The fact that we were able to start three in the first seeding of the slalom gave us the shot we wanted. We talked a lot about winning. We said we thought only in terms of winning. But we didn't say we had a right to win."
Beattie continued, "When we got off the plane 2½ months ago, the seeding problem turned everything into a madhouse. If we had failed at Val d'Is√®re, we could have gone home. That was the biggest race of all for us, and Buddy winning the slalom there made everybody take notice. We trained hard early because we had to win early. I hope all Americans realize that every time these kids went on the mountain they had to prove their country."
Proving the U.S. is something Beattie seems to want to do as a full-time occupation. "Our success will come in ski racing if we can develop North America. Why isn't it better to have 300 or 400 young people competing in our country than to bring four or five boys over to Europe to race? Most of our kids go to school anyhow. They couldn't go to Europe, and they shouldn't, because we trained at home last year and we proved it could be done."
"Our way of life is the best in the world, and it's good enough to make us the best ski nation. If it isn't, we should only be as good as our society allows. I think ours allows us to be the best. But in the future we have to go about it differently. This was one way. But we can do a lot more."
And, indeed, it seemed necessary that more be done. While the American men got a silver and a bronze at Innsbruck, the gold medals were still ahead of them. In the overall Alpine medal count, Austria's seven and France's six were safely ahead of the four that America so richly could be proud of.
Rupert Zimmerebner, the chief of mission of the Austrian team and Beattie's sternest competitor in the seeding debates, reacted coolly to the American surprises. Said the Austrian: "The slalom was what they had trained for mostly. On the other side, however, one knows that the slalom is usually dominated by chance. In the downhill and giant slalom, it is not chance that prevails but good technique and courage. In the downhill America has but one prospect—Ni Orsi. It would be nonsense to say that we are afraid of them."
Beattie shot back: "That Zimmerebner, isn't he beautiful?" Well, as a matter of fact, at the conclusion of the Olympics nothing was very beautiful inside Austrian skiing. And if Zimmerebner could have heard the departing words of his own racers, he would surely have experienced the surprise that Beattie and his American youngsters had been unable to give him.
"We don't have a real coach like Beattie or Honoré Bonnet," said Gerhard Nenning. "Ernst Oberaigner is incapable. He is a director and not a coach. He never trains with us. We are left to ourselves. The ski manufacturers like K√§stle and Kneissl do something. They send us to a summer training camp in the glaciers every year. We will have a new coach next spring. I think it will be Pepi Stiegler, who would be perfect."
Egon Zimmermann agreed that Stiegler should be the new Austrian coach. He said, "The fact that Stiegler nearly didn't make the slalom team and I didn't make it shows you clearly that there is something wrong in our management. I believe that we have the best skiers and the Americans and French have the best coaches. I don't think the Americans will have caught up with us by 1966, but in 1968 they could be strong. It all depends on whether they can find more young talents like Heuga and Kidd."
It may also depend on the willingness of the U.S. Ski Association and those who give money to support it to adopt the measures that Bob Beattie feels will greatly strengthen America's skiing effort. Some of them are: expand and refine permanent training camps at Aspen, Colo., Stowe, Vt. and Crystal Mountain, Wash.; organize American races more properly with sensible scheduling that takes advantage of high school and college vacations; hire retiring champions like Buddy Werner, Chuck Ferries and Gordy Eaton to work with young racers; promote clinics that include training films and are available to the smallest groups; obtain professional help in raising funds instead of placing so heavy a burden on hard-working volunteers; bring the best racers from Europe to America for serious competition ("they want to come"); build up skiing programs in colleges where those programs are lagging; put 40 boys on a national team and "train the devil" out of them; improve the downhill runs in America, making them more rugged, and prepare more of them; and, finally, create within the U.S. Ski Association a special office for a strong-willed man to "carry the ball" and see that these elaborate plans are undertaken.
Might that man be Bob Beattie?
"I don't know if I'm allowed back in the country. Anyhow, it's always a big secret what the Ski Association wants to do. But," Beattie said with an unsecret smile of satisfaction, "there were a few of us who enjoyed seeing those two boys get their medals more than anything we've ever done."