For more than three weeks now, on some of the snowiest Alps in the history of postcards, the world's best ski racers have been trying to drive toward an Olympic peak through blizzard, fog and French confidence. Last week it became clear that the French, dominant for the last four years, have some cause for alarm. The Austrians and the Swiss, who have been out for bratwurst lately, are immensely improved and suddenly there are an awful lot of hungry skiers around. Indeed, the stars of the early season have not been France's Jean-Claude Killy and Marielle Goitschel, although they have not been bad, but an old Austrian campaigner named Gerhard Nenning and a young Austrian girl named Gertrud Gabl and two strong Swiss, Edmund Bruggmann and Dumeng Giovanoli. All but Gertrud have been around a while but have never been any better known than some vacationing curlers from Sussex.
As the racers dug their way out of the snowbanks of Wengen and Grindelwald in Switzerland and moved on to Austria's Kitzb√ºhel and Bad Gastein for the last big pre-Olympic races, the French received some additional shocks. There were Bruggmann and Giovanoli, both leading Killy, and there was Gabl, leading the French girls in the World Cup standings, which are designed to prove the top racers over the season. And there was Nenning, who has been on the circuit so long it sometimes seems he is older than the Arlberg Pass, celebrating a victory in the only downhill that has been run. Nenning won the famed Lauberhorn last Saturday by a stunning three seconds over Killy, who finished 13th and uncharacteristically sulked away.
In that race the Swiss, led by Bruggmann's close third, placed four men in the top six, and this is something they have been doing in recent giant slaloms, too. Then on Sunday the snow changed to rain, and in a slalom that is usually fast and icy, Giovanoli won, while Killy fell and sulked away again.
Whether they are truly worried or not, the French are pretending that none of this matters because of the conditions under which all of the races have been held in France, Germany and Switzerland. It has been snowing like a fairy tale since Christmas, forcing cancellation of some races, a postponement of others, and making Alp-to-Alp travel a deranged sort of thrill for everybody. Practically every race has been staged on heavy, soft courses and Killy and the French are consoling themselves that these conditions have helped make the Austrians and Swiss look good.
Killy, who has still won two races, which is as many as Nenning and more than anyone else, relaxed in Wengen and tried to put it all in perspective.
"The Austrians had to start fast because they have been so bad," he said. "They have been training hard and they look good, but we think they are too good too soon."
Happy to be out of the clutches of the European journalists who have mobbed him and then practically written him off, Killy was in a hotel lobby, graciously signing autographs for children and trying to hide the disappointment he felt at having tripped in a hell-bent slalom run that would have wiped out the field by several seconds.
"I need to win to show them again," he said. "I know what it is with the Swiss. The Head skis they are using are perfect for these conditions, and they have a new training program. But they always start fast, and later something happens to them."
He sighed and said, "My trouble is that I was too good last year. I can never top myself, and yet everyone expects it."
Although Killy still looks superb on a course, he has raced a trifle thoughtlessly so far, almost as if he was so certain that nothing could go wrong that he needn't bother with incidentals like checking his bindings and being sure of his wax. Killy has servants who rig up his skis and boots for him; all he does is step in and ski. They also wax for him, and he trusts they are right. A binding came loose in a race at Val d'Is√®re, and he fell. And he definitely had bad wax in the Lauberhorn downhill. Actually none of the French rewaxed as did the Swiss and Austrians.
But it is silly for anyone to panic about him. He still has two firsts, a second and a fourth in giant slalom to his credit, which is a record most of the racers would give up a pension for.
Meanwhile, Nenning, Bruggmann and Giovanoli are enjoying their glory. After taking the Lauberhorn, the biggest downhill he has ever won, Nenning said, "I was confident because I had the best nonstop time. But I have grown used to being second to someone else. I was certain Killy would win, even though we have worked hard to beat the French. I still think he will come back on top."
Nenning, who is burly for a ski racer, said, "I'm as surprised at the Swiss as anyone. Bruggmann surprises me very much. He has never come up to the big races before."
Bruggmann is 24, an electronics engineer who looks Italian. He is a little surprised at himself, at the first, second and third places he has won. "Beating Killy in the first giant slalom I raced against him gave me great confidence," he says. "It isn't the conditions that have helped us. We've had some money to train with for the first time. Our coaches made a television appeal for money, and the results let us train hard and earn what we've won."
If the Swiss and Austrians continue to look good at Kitzb√ºhel, then the Olympics at Grenoble will be much more wide open than anyone ever imagined.
The men began at Wengen just after the girls finished at Grindelwald, which is about a 45-minute ride away by cog railway with the Jungfrau out one window and the Eiger out another, and over there Gertrud Gabl, who is only 19, continued to prove that she has little regard for Marielle Goitschel or even Canada's Nancy Greene, who won her way up to Marielle's level last year. Gertrud, a gentle, feminine, slender girl, won the Grindelwald slalom and took over the World Cup lead. A brunette with brown eyes and a sweet smile, she is the daughter of Pepi Gabl, an assistant director of the ski school at Stowe. In the six big races the girls have had, she has not fallen once and hasn't finished worse than eighth.
As far as falling is concerned, the Americans have done a fair job of standing up and quietly pointing ahead, even though they haven't exactly shaken the buckles off the French, Swiss and Austrian boots. Billy Kidd has consistently stood up, has placed in the top five in five of seven races, and has convinced Coach Bob Beattie that he has recovered from past injuries. He is skiing extremely well technically. "He hasn't turned on any speed yet," says Beattie, "but he's pacing himself." Jimmy Heuga, who always starts slow, is perking up, but not as rapidly as Spider Sabich, who sped to eighth in the Lauberhorn slalom—starting in the third seed—and wound up seventh in combined. For a first appearance, it was quite a feat.
The American girls, meanwhile, are something else. Except for Karen Budge, an 18-year-old, they had done very little up to last week, mostly because they simply had not recovered from a series of injuries last year. To bolster the squad three youngsters were brought over, all fiery and wearing Levis for apr√®s-ski. They were Kiki Cutter, Judy Nagel and Erica Skinger, a fetching trio of teenagers who are not only pretty but get down a mountain like gunshot.
If at least one of them, most likely Kiki Cutter, does not make the team before Grenoble, it might be the biggest upset of the whole season.