About that $15,000. Write it off as tax money well spent. Try not to demand something tangible for it, like a lot of gold medals. Or silver medals, or bronze medals. Clear your mind of all crass thoughts about how America blew the World University Winter Games a fortnight ago in Italy. And repeat after us: the spaghetti Olympics were held for fun and international understanding, not for sports profit.
The student games were conducted high in the Italian Alps, in Sestriere, a community of vivid contrasts at 6,675 feet. It is so lost in fog at times that even the Italians can't find it. At other times it is a town of lovely shops and pensiones and an air of 1933 elegance. Beautiful women abound in Sestriere—they ski by day and reappear each night dressed in Ginger Rogers' old evening gowns. Sestriere is another, an older world. And for the World Games the place was jammed to the ski lifts with hundreds of students from 19 nations, all part of FISU, the International University Sports Federation.
The Russians came in pale-blue parkas and baggy, pre-Bogner ski pants. They were older than everyone else and uncommunicative, as though fearful someone might ask them, "Are you really students? What happened, did you get a late start, or something?" The Europeans came in happy clusters, and the Americans came in cowboy hats and Levi's, nine kids on a State Department ticket, the first Americans ever entered in such an event.
There was a tendency to take all this very big in Europe. Radio and television ran wild with it. Newspapers called it beautiful. There was much banner and bunting in Sestriere, and national anthems were played on a scratchy old tape recorder. All the spectators raved about the quality of the competition, which ought to give you an idea of how out of touch Sestriere really is.
February 28, 1966
To be mercifully brief, the World Games went roughly like this: three women skiers out of 34 split up all the prizes among them. The men's special slalom was won by a Pole—think about that one for a moment—and if you get the impression the race was a wild one you should have heard the Italian announcer try to pronounce Andrzej Bachleda. The Poles were delirious. "Andrzej," his coach said, "hardly ever beats anyone back home."
And over an orangeade in the Duchi d'Aosta Hotel, Switzerland's Theresa Obrecht, most beautiful skiing coed in the whole world, apologized for her sketchy English. But she spoke it well enough to say, flatly, "If you win here, it does not mean you are the best. It means nothing. You Americans describe this sort of thing well. The games are—how you say—the games are Mickey Mouse. But they mean much to international goodwill."
Seen from a Mickey Mouse viewpoint, an attitude that more Americans should adopt overseas to keep their perspective, the games were perfect, staged with a certain innocent, oldtime bravado. "Everything, she is perfecto," one official sighed, standing on a mountainside from which the snow was fast melting away, while racers all around him were executing sweeping turns best described as mud Christys across the finish line.
The Nordic events were running simultaneously in Claviere, a one-street border town down the twisting hill from Sestriere. There, the world student championship cross-country races were staged against a backdrop of less than 70 spectators. Most of them were international newsmen, the rest of them Italian housewives standing there in black dresses and aprons, their arms folded stolidly across their stomachs. The competitors swept along a trail that snaked through the village, occasionally sending a clutch of chickens skittering out of the way.
The ski jump was hacked out of a steep hillside forest, the only jumping hill in the world with a slight dog-leg effect in the middle of it. Below, the runout was canted to the left, a situation that so unnerved American jumper Ron Jacobson, 21, that he fell on the landing and ended up in 20th position when he would have had ninth.
The FISU had a tough time getting established, starting as a breakaway group in 1948 from the old International Union of Students, with headquarters in Prague, which had gradually been taken over by the Communists as more of a propaganda machine than a sports organization. From its early days FISU took on considerable worldly flavor, with both Franco Spain and Communist Yugoslavia as members. Then in 1949 the board invited Monaco to join and—well, you know how translations go—the invitation went to Munich by mistake ("The names looked alike to me," shrugged one FISU officer), and the group began to grow from that point. Monaco finally did make it. Israel came in and the U.S. came in, despite the fact that some congressional critics insisted the group was Red-infiltrated.
"Red-infiltrated?" snorted Adin Talbar, the delegate to the games from Israel. "Saying FISU is Red-infiltrated is like saying the United Nations is Red-infiltrated, since both have members of all political colors."
To get the U.S. team to the event, U.S. National Student Association Sports Director Jim Fowler had gone, ski cap in hand, to the State Department for money. First they gave him a security check, then the $15,000. "And so far I have only spent about $12,000 of it," he said, blinking earnestly from behind horn-rimmed glasses. "We may go back to Washington and give Mr. Rusk some of his money back."
In Sestriere the Duchi Hotel was the swinging spot in town, jammed with collegians who found that they all looked alike in turtle-neck shirts and ski sweaters, that a smile will get you anyplace and that a Watusi is a Watusi in any language. The Duchi is a round, silolike hotel. On the inside there are no staircases, but a spiraling, circular ramp that runs all the way to the top.
"My big ambition in life," said 20-year-old Mike Allsop, Denver University racer, "is to be a desk clerk in this place and tell someone their room is just around the corner."
In the main dining room the European teams were the ones with bottles of Chianti on their tables—"wine makes you go fast," said one of them—and the Americans were the ones drinking Coca-Cola. But all of them, after meals, were the ones rolling oranges down the spiral ramp from the top—a game invented by Jean Saubert, the University of Utah student who won a silver and a bronze medal at the 1964 Olympics, but who had more fun in Sestriere. An orange rolled down the ramp from the top picks up considerable speed, and the main floor often looked as if someone had dropped the marmalade.
At the Club La Genzianella, a place so dimly lighted it seemed as though darkness were being pumped in through the air conditioner, the band hammered out tea-dance tunes. Racers who had told their coaches they were going to take afternoon naps were jumping up and down, furthering world understanding and flat feet.
Any girl who can roll oranges, is pretty and skis well is an instant success in Italy, and Saubert, in cowboy hat and faded tan jeans, caught the Sestriere eye. One handsome young Italian racer, full of white teeth and amorous intent, began sneaking away from his team practice to seek out Jean on the hill. Then he began to seek her out in the afternoon at the dances, and every evening, after the wine.
"If I have learned one thing here in Italy," explained Jean, "it is how to sprint for my room with this guy hot on my heels, and how to open, close and lock my door with one smooth, fast motion. Boy, you have got to be fast." Such is the path of world diplomacy.
"They sort of want to tuck you in at night," said Karen Korfanta, another Utah student, full of spaghetti and oranges, ten-gallon hat tilted sleepily down over her eyes.
In this setting U.S. Coach Willy Schaeffler kept insisting that the students race. In the week's opening event, the ladies' special slalom ("The first half you couldn't ski; the second half you couldn't see," explained Saubert), both Jean and Karen were disqualified. Annie Famose, 21-year-old gymnast student from Bordeaux, took enough time off from play to win the race. Then she picked up her teddy bear and got right back on the phone again, calling people all over the hotel. "We make the crazy jokes," she said. The teddy bear, dressed in its own French ski sweater and T shirt, would say, "Do you love me?" in French.
In the slalom won by Bachleda, All-sop ran fifth—his first run in world competition. Peter Ruschp, son of Stowe's Sepp Ruschp and a student at Colorado U., spilled on the ice and decided not to take a second run. "I need the time to practice for the downhill," he said, sitting at the bar in the Duchi drinking orange juice. "And that slope is so bad it just doesn't seem worthwhile going back up there to run it again."
"If we had our first team here," said Schaeffler, "we could have cleaned up. But cleaning up is not the point here, you see? Our first team—Billy Kidd and the others—was already committed to one European swing, and we could not schedule them for both events. These kids need this international experience."
Two days later, skiing in a stinging Alpine rainstorm, Saubert was a strong second behind Theresa Obrecht and ahead of Heidi Obrecht and Annie Famose. Karen Korfanta finished fifth and American stock came up in Sestriere.
As the week came to an end, it began to snow like the end of the world, so thickly that by midday people were walking over the rooftops of parked Fiats. And racers in the men's giant slalom final event were stopping in mid-course to look for the next gate.
"Is grand," officials exclaimed, then ran the race as though there were still a course. But it fitted in nicely with the mood of the week.
Mike Allsop, who had finished second in the men's downhill, fell. Peter Ruschp fell. Dave Engen, also a Utah student, stayed on his feet, lurching from gate to gate, coming across the finish line like a snow-covered ghost.
By Sunday night's closing ceremonies, with flags being raised on standards nobody could see, officials still were trying to dope out the results. Their best guess: Robert Wolleck of France seemed to have won the race. That is, it looked a lot like Wolleck at the finish. The Pole Bachleda was second and Italy's Luigi Pezza was third.
And Sestriere eased back into its role as an Italian ski hideaway. The music at the Duchi and La Genzianella grew quiet again, as it had been before. At the Principi di Piemonte Hotel on the hill overlooking town, the guests went back to playing bridge at night as they always have, and in one room off the lobby there were movies, with the projector operated by a bellboy. The night the kids left town, the hotel was showing the latest film to come up the valley from Turin. It was in keeping with the surroundings: old Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in Via Col Vento.