For the last four years, starting with the Innsbruck Olympics, the French have been the Green Bay Packers of Alpine ski racing, with that supple, handsome devil Jean-Claude Killy playing the glamour role of Bart Starr, and Marielle Goitschel enacting the part of, well, let us say, Ray Nitschke. Hardly a mountain exists where the French have not bombed everyone off the slopes. Now they are set to defend these laurels on their home ground. In spite of a January in which the Austrians and the Swiss have been threatening the French with renewed strength, it is difficult to find anyone on an Alp who does not believe that Killy and his pals will take away more gold from Grenoble than you would find in any neighborhood bank of Zurich.
As is the case with the Packers, Killy and Goitschel, the French superstars, have a pretty nifty supporting cast. Many of the names ring with almost as much frightening authority, in fact. Backing them up are the likes of Guy Périllat, Léo Lacroix, Georges Mauduit, and those girls—Annie Famose, Isabelle Mir and Florence Steurer. These are the characters who took an appalling 16 of 24 medals at the 1966 FIS World Ski Championship in Chile. Then there are four talented newcomers: Bernard Orcel, a strong downhiller, Jean-Pierre Augert, a slalom ace who looks enough like Killy to sign autographs for him—and often does—another slalom skier, Alain Penz, and Roger Rossat-Mignod, a slightly chubby but quick giant-slalom specialist. It was skiers like these who a year ago, while racing on France's second string, defeated Austria's best in a team race of European nations.
Enjoying all of this more than anyone, with the possible exception of De Gaulle, is a happy little man with a Napoleonic haircut, Honoré Bonnet. Bonnet is France's Vince Lombardi, except he doesn't growl. He has quietly built the most powerful ski team in history and claims to have a national program now with 80 or 90 racers who could compete with the best after a well-timed period of brief but hard training. Killy and Goitschel have become world-famous athletes and a source of almost unbearable pride to their countrymen.
If Bonnet has seemed at times to smile all too wryly about his success, it is not only because winning has become a habit but because everybody keeps trying to figure out the secret, and the French claim there really isn't one.
Technique, for example, is a much abused word in ski racing. Every nation and skier is supposed to have a technique, particularly France. Every one has been talking about a new way of turning and of wiggling through gates. Once, when the French were considered graceful, the Swiss strong and the Austrians clever, there perhaps was a difference in styles. But Jean-Claude Killy maintains that he has changed all this and that the overemphasis on technique has gone the way of the baggy pants in big-time racing.
"I have always skied on instinct," says Killy. "If people say I look pretty in a race, then I know I am not winning."
Killy says, "Before I became a champion, a racer would try to outsmart the course. He would check at turns, control his speed, plan an attack. It was thought that style helped increase speed. But with me, it became a matter of just go—go faster than you think you can on every part of the course. I take all the risks. That is my secret."
Killy does not believe he has a special way of keeping both skis on the snow, which makes for speed, or of driving close to slalom poles or of making valuable time on the dangerous downhill turns. He just goes. One thing he does do, which sets him apart, is shift his weight more quickly, more instinctively, than any of his competitors. On highspeed turns, Killy, earlier than others, will shift his weight to his uphill or inside ski, almost always as the downhill ski is about to wander and slow him down. Instinct again. Then he sits back and thrusts his skis forward, accelerating as he comes out of a turn. This takes superb conditioning and the reflexes and balance of an acrobat.
"If I do that," says Jean-Claude, "I don't realize it." Honoré Bonnet agrees with Killy about technique. "It is passé to dwell on it," he says. "There are many things that come before technique. Foremost, a racer must have intelligence and a good eye. Then he must have courage, confidence and pride. All of this is Killy."
Because he has proved repeatedly that he is the classiest racer in the world in all three events, downhill, giant slalom and slalom (he won 16 out of the 20 races he entered last year), Killy must be considered the favorite in each of the three men's Alpine events at Grenoble. Winning all three would be a trick that has been performed only once before—by Austria's Toni Sailer in 1956. But as good as the Frenchman is, simply because of circumstances, he will need a lot of luck to duplicate Sailer's extraordinary feat.
First of all, there are many more good racers now—three times as many as when Sailer was No. 1.
Second, the Olympic giant slalom requires two runs now instead of one. Third, there now are slalom eliminations leading up to the final. Finally, Sailer was not favored to win three golds as Killy is. In fact, the pressure is building so intensely that Jean-Claude wishes that Grenoble would go away.
Realistically, Killy knows that Olympic success is as important to his future as good vineyards are to a vintner's. In case he forgets now and then, there are a lot of other good racers around to remind him, and they have. In all of the January pre-Olympic races, many of which have been part of the World Cup schedule, Killy seemed far from unbeatable. Austria's Gerhard Nenning, for example, won the only two downhills that have been run. Switzerland's Dumeng Giovanoli won the only two World Cup slaloms, and another Swiss, Edmund Bruggmann, took one of the two World Cup giant slaloms.
At the same time Killy, with the world press wondering if he had peaked too soon—last year—captured the other World Cup giant slalom, placed second in one downhill, second in one giant slalom and third in a slalom. In Kitzb√ºhel he won the Hahnenkamm combined title, and he goes to Grenoble leading the World Cup standings once more. Despite this, he has at times been uncharacteristically irritable, tensed up, sullen and depressed. He has sought every opportunity to scurry out of the spotlight, as if the cloud of Olympic pressure were growing blacker each day. Indeed, how Killy reacts to this hazard in Grenoble will be as interesting as anything that takes place. With or without success, he says he wants to retire and "make money" after Grenoble.
Certainly Killy has far more competition than he had a year ago. Austria's Nenning and Karl Schranz, who Killy says will die on the slopes, and a young slalom ace named Alfred Matt have been right there on the clock.
And there have been hordes of good Swiss—Bruggmann and Giovanoli, Jos Minsch, Willy Favre, Peter Frei, Stefan Kaelin, and Jean-Daniel Daetwyler. They have taken turns littering the top 10 with four and five racers.
Still, Killy has a way of diminishing his odds. He says he believes that at Grenoble there will not be so many clutch racers. He says that in downhill, for instance, only six or seven other than himself have a real chance. Among them are Nenning and Schranz, of course, America's Billy Kidd, Bruggmann and Germany's Franz Vogler, a big fellow whom Killy would make the favorite if the course suddenly turned soft and slow. In the giant slalom, the Frenchman enlarges the list to 12, and in slalom he expands it even more to 20 racers, throwing in some good Scandinavians like Norway's Haakon Mjoen.
Meanwhile, the fact remains that beyond Killy and the young downhiller, Orcel, France's men have not had a good pre-Olympic season. Guy Périllat has skied beneath his reputation. Lacroix is still only partly recovered from an appendectomy and an injury, and there is a question whether those promising youngsters, Penz, Augert and Rossat-Mignod, have the experience to come through at Grenoble. The French say they do.
The French are also trying hard to keep up their confidence. And it honestly must be said that for four weeks now, for whatever reasons the French may give for not winning everything—pacing, too much snow, etc.—the Austrians and Swiss have looked stronger. Maybe the French are hiding something. Bonnet says they are.
The French girls, however, that old front four of Goitschel, Steurer, Mir and Famose, are hiding nothing. They have been extremely good in the face of stiff competition from a rejuvenated Austrian team, led by Gertrud Gabl and Olga Pall, a bushel of spirited American girls, and a lone little Swiss girl, Fernande Bochatay, who has won a pair of World Cup races.
But a couple of the French girls are nearly always up there in the results, if not Goitschel and Famose, then Steurer and Mir, two sturdy dolls who resemble French-blue bowling balls bouncing over a knoll. Marielle Goitschel left Saint-Gervais, the last race site before the Olympics, with the World Cup lead, while Steurer was second ahead of Gertrud Gabl and Isabelle Mir. Canada's Nancy Greene, last year's World Cup winner, has been injured but has remained cheerful and confident that she will be fit for Grenoble.
Of all the good ones, the one still the most feared is Marielle Goitschel, who has actually matured into a semiboisterous lady from a sometimes rowdy girl, one that Bonnet delightfully defends by saying, "A champion is often a little girl." And Marielle has lost no confidence. These early races, she has hinted, have been a charade. "I'm stronger and better than ever," says she. "I've never had such energy, and I will be good at Grenoble."
Honoré Bonnet was a fraction less confident as he headed for the Olympic venues, for he realized it would be difficult. "We will have the newspapers, the families and the clubs on our back every minute," he said. "It is up to us. We know we are good. We simply have to attack and trust in our ability. Everything has been done that is possible. With each racer, I won't know what he or she will do until just before the start. Then, I can tell by their eyes if they will be good. If I see that Killy's eyes are cold and flashing just before the start, I will not have to worry. He will do something wonderful."
That's the trouble with the French. They have been wonderful for four years, and now they have to be wonderful all over again for these 12 brutal days in February.