When the FIS World Ski Championships finally departed from Portillo, Chile last Sunday night, France, which 10 years ago was a ski threat the equal of Chile itself, packed up six gold medals, seven silver and three bronze—16 out of a possible 24, the most any country had won in the history of world Alpine competition. For Austria, which is accustomed to winning most everything, for the U.S., which always seems to be full of promises not quite realized, and for the rest of the ski world, the gauntlet had been cast on the snow. The French now go into the next world championships—the Grenoble Olympics, only 18 months away—as the ones to beat on their own home mountains.
The French began beating the thermal socks off everybody around on the opening day of competition. First, Annie Famose and Marielle Goitschel had wriggled into their new superclinging, superstretch, shiny blue racing uniforms, and had won first and second place in the women's special slalom. The highly promising U.S. women's team was in four of the next six places (SI, Aug. 15). Then Jean-Claude Killy, France's slalom and giant slalom specialist, won the first international downhill of his life. Teammate Léo Lacroix was second, and the French medal collection began to make a very loud clink. The following day, Monday, was the only really bright day for Austria. Eighteen-year-old Erika Schinniger, an Austrian milkmaid when she is not skiing, won the women's downhill, and her normal placidity erupted into a daylong smile. But who was second and third? Why, Marielle and Annie, bien sur, and the French team was hugging and kissing everybody all over again, including a few Chileans who had climbed down out of the bleachers and got in the line because it looked like so much fun. America's 19-year-old Suzy Chaffee won some kisses of her own when she came in fifth.
It was the sort of performance guaranteed to forestall handsprings in the snow by the other 21 nations, who had never intended to serve as a supporting cast to the French in Portillo. The attack on France's supremacy began to take on a desperate air. And as their challengers grew more tense, the French seemed to become even more relaxed, gliding toward more medals down courses that were as good as any ever prepared for a world ski meet. Battalions of Chilean mountain troops in white caps and puttees, their arms locked, marched and lurched up and down the hills from dawn to dusk to foot-pack the snow.
On Tuesday and Wednesday the men's giant slalom was run in two heats for the first time. The courses snaked like wide, hammered-out bobsled runs down the steep Nido de Cóndores (Condors' Nest). The first day's run, 4,702 feet long, with a vertical drop of 1,573 feet, was nothing to worry about—if it didn't jar the fillings out of your head—and the results were familiar. Killy, skating most of the way, arms and poles flailing wildly, crossed the finish line and flopped down on his side, one arm propped under his head, and began to munch on pieces of snow. His lime was 1:37.22, best of the day, followed by teammate Guy Périllat and Austria's fading superman, Karl Schranz.
August 21, 1966
The second day's run was something else again—the steepest giant slalom in FIS history. The run took racers down a 52-gate track, hairpinning around a narrow gorge in the rocks called The Garganta (The Throat) and hitting a 37° pitch. "When you come to The Garganta," said Austrian Egon Zimmermann, "suddenly the course goes straight down, and for a few moments you feel as if you are falling. You are falling." From the bottom you could see the racers come flying through the Throat, wheeling into the next gate like miniatures of men trying, not for speed, but to keep on their feet. When it was over, Killy had faltered at the top and was in fifth place. But, never fear, France was there, all right. Guy Périllat, perhaps the most stylish racer in the world, with a vast collection of second-and third-place medals, had, at 26, won his first world championship. A teammate, Georges Mauduit, was second, Schranz was third, and Jimmy Heuga, with best American time, was 13th.
Thursday was women's day once more. And, on Thursday, the perfect sunny weather that had held for the first week of competition was gone. Winds began to blow filmy puffs of snow off the tops of the Andes, and by race time at noon the light was so flat on the women's giant slalom course that you couldn't detect a mogul two feet high.
The slope was as steep in places as the men's course, and there were plenty of spills—including that of America's Jean Saubert. Canada's Nancy Greene came in fourth, her right arm, banged up in a fall in the downhill, so full of Novocain that her pole had to be taped to her unfeeling hand. Florence Steurer, baby of the French team, was third; Heidi Zimmermann of Austria was second; and Marielle Goitschel was first, winning two gold medals for France—one for the event and one for the combined, a feat she says she will duplicate at Grenoble in 1968. Penny McCoy, only U.S. medalist, was sidelined by a sprained ankle.
As a storm brought fresh snow and an air of apprehension that there might be a duplication of a roadblock that would maroon the teams, as one had done in the pre-FIS races last year (SI, August 23, 1965), another storm broke within. The FIS had established an innovation in world Alpine competition: elimination slaloms held the day before the official special slalom to cut the field in half and give the youngsters with fewer FIS points a chance to come from behind. The Europeans, with plenty of FIS points, complained loudly—and, on a day when winning brought no medals, saw such favorites as Killy and Schranz playing it safe and barely squeaking into the finals.
Despite the complaints, the shake-up system worked. Sunday brought out the sun, the first real throng of spectators—and a slalom victory for a little-known Italian named Carlos Senoner, who finished the two courses in a combined time of 1:01.56. The Italians, with their first victory, proceeded to give even the French a lesson in finish-line kissing. Guy Périllat was second with 1:02.25, and yet another Frenchman, Louis Jauffret, third. Jimmy Heuga, with the best U.S. men's race of the meet, was sixth, earning him fourth place in the combined standings as well. Schranz fell, and Killy, cooling it, came in eighth, winning the men's combined world championship.
On Sunday night the greatest Portillo downhill of all began as the cast evacuated the scene of the most remote world championship in the annals of sport. By army trucks, Jeeps and taxi fleets they raced down the switchback road, back under the treacherous tunnels at the end of the downhill, back to Santiago. From there the jubilant French took off for the beaches of Rio: the Austrians, anticipating perhaps the kind of stony reception given to losing World Cup soccer teams, started for home the long way around—with Australia as next stop. And Bob Beattie and his Americans headed for the snow fields of Bend, Ore. for a work session in the late-summer snow that will—hopefully—give them a head start on next year.