Up in the gusty mountains above Grenoble it was believed that stubborn old Avery Brundage, who has this hangup about amateurism, would stand at the finish line of the Alpine events in the Winter Olympics with his legs planted and his arms outstretched, and that Jean-Claude Killy and the others would have to plunge through him—blazer, patch, pin, ideals and all—to get a medal of any kind unless their skis were painted, oh, polka-dot purple and pink, with no trademarks visible. Ski racers are pros, suggested Brundage, because the manufacturers pay them to let the world know what boards they are sliding on. Not that anyone would discover it in Grenoble. Fog continually moving in and out obscured everything: skis, skiers and the spectator next to you. Then, suddenly, another problem arose for Killy, the glamour personality of these Games. Could he race well over the scattered bones of the U.S. team? American boy parts and girl parts were being spread across the slopes like Bela Lugosi's favorite buffet. Talking to an American racer almost any time meant bending down and peeking in the snow. Finally, however, out of all of this agony and frustration, down roared Jean-Claude Killy to capture the biggest, most dangerous event of them all, the men's downhill, to add another gold medal in giant slalom and to transplant himself forever into the throbbing heart of France.
Although it was beginning to look like the overall spectacle might have to be renamed X√®mes Jeux Olympiques de Killy, it was impossible for Jean-Claude or any of the medal winners to display lavish joy because of the clack about commercialism. For example, Killy leaped at an opportunity to put the Olympics down by saying, "I raced well because this was a World Cup event." Actually he said Evian World Cup, throwing in the name of the co-sponsor, Evian, which sells bottled water and has helped to organize the World Cup ski circuit, whose races provide an orderly way of keeping up with skiing's leading, uh, money-winners.
Brundage, of course, is correct in saying that European ski racers often struggle toward a camera bearing as many trademarks as an Indianapolis race car, and only the most naive individual would expect them to do this out of pure friendship for hard-working factory employees. What the skiers argue is that Brundage is putting all of the heat on the skis. What about the bindings? What about the boots? What about a Russian ice-hockey team that has been playing together, living together and no doubt getting paid together for six years?
"The Olympic is hypocrite," said Killy.
February 19, 1968
So it was that when Jean-Claude reached the finish of the downhill race on Friday he did exactly as the officials demanded he do. He gently stepped out of his skis while a couple of gendarmes stood by, and then he was allowed to move in front of the cameras. But, aha, what happened then was that his best friend, Michel Arpin, who also happens to be his racing service man, stepped into focus with his skis upright between himself and Killy, almost as if they were Killy's equipment. It was hi there, Avery Brundage, guess who won on Dynamics?
Meanwhile, silver medalist Guy Périllat, who lost by only the blink of an eye, and bronze medalist Jean-Daniel Daetwyler of Switzerland were not quite so fortunate. All of the attention was on Killy, naturally. Périllat shrugged and said, "Oh, well, it is not so important. The pictures with the skis can be taken later."
For the Olympic record books, however, let it be noted that Killy won his two gold medals on French-made Dynamic skis, and in Nevada bindings and Le Trappeur boots; that Périllat used Dynastar skis, Nevada bindings and Heschung boots; and that Daetwyler was on Rossignol skis, in Nevada bindings and Lange boots. There. It is done.
No one had to wonder what the Americans were wearing. It was Ace bandages and plaster casts. In succession, the Americans who crashed either in training or in races and were either physically or mentally twisted by the experience were Dennis McCoy, Wendy Allen, Robin Morning, Billy Kidd, Spider Sabich, Jere Elliott, Jim Barrows and Karen Budge, a total of eight—eight out of 14—with a late report just filtering down the mountain that Kiki Cutter might have fallen into measles. They went through fences, banged their heads on slalom poles, spiraled through the air like tornado wreckage, and, in the case of poor Karen Budge, got blindsided by a foolish Moroccan.
The American tragedy began with Dennis McCoy in downhill training. He caught an edge and took down a fence and came up looking as if his face had been clawed by an angry housewife, something that damaged his confidence even more than the fall.
Then, on another day during training, Wendy Allen barreled into a cluster of slalom poles and put a slice in her pretty forehead, six stitches worth, and it is yet to be decided how this might affect her. But there was no question about Robin Morning on the same day. Going from the chairlift to the start of the ladies' downhill, a mere pleasure ski, Robin fell and didn't get up. It wasn't a tough fall, only the sort we all take. But Robin's right leg was broken and she was out of the Olympics before they started.
Now came the biggest blow of all to America's chances. Billy Kidd was in fine form, oozing confidence. Up in the special Olympic Village at Chamrousse where the Alpiners were hidden, the talk was all about how Kidd and Killy were looking better than anyone on this turny, technical course that was not as fast as it was deceptive, not as steep as it was windy, unpredictable, shadowy and just plain hard.
"In places," said Kidd, "it's like trying to ski on the outside of a basketball."
In the nonstop Kidd burst from the gate and zipped around the first turn and the hairpin as he had no less than 10 times previously. Then came another right-hand turn. As Kidd approached, a 60-mile gust enveloped him, and the wind lashed a spray of white powder over his skis. For a split second he felt a tiny knob, or something strange, beneath him. He jerked back, his tips crossed—at least he believes they did—and in the terrible next few seconds for both Kidd and America, the best U.S. racer was in a grinding spill that twisted his left ankle, one that has been injured before. He could still race while heavily taped, but neither his ankle nor his confidence would be like new. Thus he was a feeble 18th in the downhill, losing to racers he can normally defeat with ease.
On the same afternoon of nonstop training, Spider Sabich took a spectacular tumble that sent both of his skis sailing into the clouds and him into the snow. He escaped serious injury, suffering only a bruised heel, but his performance encouraged Coach Bob Beattie to put young Jere Elliott instead of Spider in the race. Elliott had no better luck. Lunging for speed, he got out of control, went into a cocktail blender routine and took about 30 feet of a snow fence down, slightly injuring his shoulder. This encouraged Beattie to start Sabich, not Elliott, in the giant slalom.
Back at the crash pad, Elliott's fall was nothing compared to that of big Jim (Moose) Barrows. Nobody's fall was—ever. If medals were given for courage, or for wanting to go fast, Barrows would win every one. A friendly hulk of a fellow from Steamboat Springs, Colorado who has played football and driven in jalopy derbies, Jim went out of the starting gate as if he thought he had a chance to chase down Killy. Soon he was nearing the Col de la Balme, a murderous little section. You come into the first bump there from a steep schuss. You kind of go glump and then pre-jump, then hold it, and then prejump the next bump, all of this at about 60 miles per hour, and then you are out of it. Fifteen racers spun out there, and in his fall Barrows looked like three of them.
He came down the steep part obviously out of control, too far to the right, near the little red flags that mark the end of the world. Horribly, he sat back, his skis went out and forward off the first bump, and then up, up and away. Fifteen feet up and into the gray haze he flew, lazily spiraling—a space walker without an umbilical cord. As it happened, Moose seemed to hang in the air for an hour, and you had time to ponder, during your shriek, whether he would land on his head or on another continent. He landed on his right shoulder, upside down, then crashed forward, his skis jamming into the trail, and just lay there. A helicopter rescue later, Barrows was lucky to have only a dislocated hip and was building model airplanes in a military hospital in Grenoble.
"Yeah, I was going too fast," he said. "But you don't win medals cooling it."
Further proof that an American did not even have to be in a race to be injured was soon to follow. Shortly before the ladies' downhill on Saturday, blonde Karen Budge from Jackson Hole, Wyoming was testing wax. Karen, America's best girl in downhill, had just enough time to test on a nearby giant slalom course and then rewax. But as she was running the test a member of the Moroccan men's team, Said Housni, who had been warned once before to stay off the hill, zipped by from nowhere, slamming into Karen. Result: a dislocated shoulder for Budge and a bruise for the crazy Moroccan, which was less punishment than Bob Beattie would have laid on at the moment.
In the face of continuous adversity, Beattie remained remarkably restrained and used psychology. He skirted the subjects of ill fortune, myth and voodoo when in the company of his dwindling troops. He spoke only of tomorrow's job. And he pointed out that this was not a freak Olympics, that the best racers were winning. Jean-Claude Killy had taken a downhill event that was practically tailored for him, and Austria's Olga Pall, a slender, beautiful girl, had churned to the ladies' downhill victory that she indeed deserved on the basis of the winter's prior results, Isabelle Mir of France finishing second, Austria's Christl Haas third.
"Our best events are ahead of us," lectured Beattie.
And so they were. While no one was about to outski Killy in the combined giant slalom runs of Sunday and Monday, especially since he was relieved of some immense pressure after his downhill win, the Americans began to come on. Killy led the first run by 1.2 seconds.
Second to Killy was a stranger to lofty standings, Willy Favre, one of those Swiss who have been surprisingly good this year in heavy snow. But the U.S. had decent runs from Kidd (eighth) and Jimmy Heuga (seventh), and thus some chance for a medal.
On Monday, however, the fog curled up around Chamrousse again, a light snow fell, and it was obvious that the course would be soft—Swiss soft, Willy Favre soft—with poor visibility added. This wasn't good for Heuga's No. 1 starting position, and he wound up 10th. "I wasn't sure what to do, whether to play safe and get down or charge at it," he said. "I was in between."
Billy Kidd, sore ankle and all, started eighth and was slow up at the top. But with a fluid finish on a course getting swifter before ruts set in for the late starters, he posted the fastest run of the day and climbed to a fifth-place over-all finish. He was just half a second—an ankle tweak, if you will—away from a bronze medal, behind Killy, Favre, Heini Messner and Guy Périllat.
All of this cheered up the U.S. and increased the excitement for the slalom which lay ahead, but in Killy country it furnished no more than a pleasant backdrop for Jean-Claude's continuing magic.
For the French ski fan, however, who was being told daily in some of the stickiest, most sentimental prose ever turned out by the European press that Killy was immortal, grand, sweet, cute, legendary, honest and cuddly, there was scarcely anything left for Jean-Claude to prove after the downhill. Of course, by winning the giant slalom he had an opportunity to dangle three golds around his neck as Toni Sailer did at Cortina in 1956. He can do that by taking the slalom on Saturday, probably in the presence of none other than Charles de Gaulle and nine million confused policemen. That would be something else. For most ecstatic Frenchmen, though, Killy did his big number in the downhill.
Killy had not been sensational in the season's early races. He had sulked after losing two previous downhills and had fallen twice in slalom. He had been intimidated by the pressure. Then at Grenoble he had got into the unexpected dilemma of Avery Brundage's complaints about commercialism, which were so blunt that it was honestly felt for a few hours that the Alpine events might be barred from the whole affair. After the typical face-saving compromise was reached, Killy seemed both de-pressurized and a little contemptuous.
"It is all a game," he said.
It was the racers themselves, those in the first seeding group, who canceled the downhill on the day it was originally scheduled. Up on top, the wind howled. The racers gathered in a group and decided they didn't want to battle the gusts and allow a fellow starting 88th to catch a calm and win the big one.
There was wind the next day, but not as much. It was a little warmer, and it looked to Killy, who would start 14th, as if the course might develop ruts quickly. It was obvious that Guy Périllat's first starting position was an advantage. His time of 1:59.93, a record for the slope and two full seconds under the best nonstop time, was holding nicely. Austria's big guns, Gerhard Nenning, an early-season hero on the circuit, Karl Schranz and Heini Messner, all failed to overtake Périllat, a quiet, 28-year-old married man who says he will now retire, finally.
Now was the moment. It was time for Killy, and what could he do with the things on his mind, and with the enormous performance expected by his countrymen below, and with Col de la Balme, which was already shaking even the best apart, waiting for him?
"When I knew I had only to beat Périllat," he said, somewhat undiplomatically, one felt, "I knew I would win."
Never has Killy exploded from a starting gate faster. He absolutely dived out, skating downward and shoving with his poles. "He got one second on the start alone," said Gérard Rubaud, one of his close chums and equipment keepers. Around the hairpin Killy fought for more speed rather than merely holding steady as the others had done. In a series of S turns at the middle, he slashed and carved and skated. He took Col de la Balme with two neat prejumps as if he were giving an exhibition, and by this time he had the race won. He was faster than anyone through the tough part by a second or two, and Périllat had managed to make it seem so close—two ski lengths, let's say—only because of the smoother course he benefitted by.
So there was Killy at the bottom, triumphant Killy—immortal, cuddly Killy—grinning at the world through cameras and saying, "I knew I would win, of course. I used to win the downhills, no? I took the line I wanted and passed very well, no?"
Yes, Jean-Claude. But you ruined the ending for Avery and all the gang. Listen, after the slalom you've got to mention that your Dynamics really held the turns, that your Nevada bindings were super and that your Le Trappeur boots were swell, and—well, everything will be even more downhill after that.