For a few turbulent days in Grenoble last week it appeared that nothing would top the opening show staged by Charles de Gaulle. He gathered 1,291 athletes around him in a costly temporary stadium, and for a few crazy moments rockets went off, jet planes drew circles overhead in colored smoke, parachutists landed in Olympic rings and 50.000 perfumed paper roses floated out of the sky. Then it rained, snowed, fogged and smogged, disrupting the skiing and sledding schedules and at one point snuffing out the big ceremonial Olympic torch. But then, while the U.S. skiers were outdoing one another in calamity, four American girls, just plain, average, sparkling, leggy, coltish American girls, finally gave our side something to shout about in Grenoble. In the space of 36 hours Peggy Fleming (see cover) collected her gold medal in figure skating—the first U.S. gold of the Games—and our speed skaters made such a sensational run on silver that France had to send out for more medals. And with everyone still digesting this situation, one of the girls came back to win yet another medal, a nice little thing in bronze.
The skating successes restored some bounce to American morale, proving that, though the U.S. was fresh out of Squaw Valley-style miracles in hockey, though we are still bumpy and snakebit in Alpine skiing, and as far as the Nordics are concerned we might as well stay home, we are again a world power in skating.
By Friday, Peggy had gone through the compulsory school figures and had run up such an overwhelming lead (77.2 points) that she could have left a note on her dresser saying just send the gold medal along home sometime after the Games. The willowy Colorado brunette reinforced a widely held illusion that she is delicate and super fragile by moving out of Olympic Village. There was a rumor that the whole place was aswarm with French flu bugs, and the nights were full of the sound of queasy athletes shuffling down the halls.
Peggy moved in with her mother, Doris Fleming, in a shabbily genteel hideaway hotel across the street from the Grenoble railroad station, because, said Mrs. Fleming, "Peggy has a touch of sore throat and she is so nervous with all this pressure, you know." Actually, despite her 109 pounds and translucent-china look, there is every reason to believe Peggy could break the Oakland Raiders' Ben Davidson in half with one quick body block.
February 19, 1968
But for the three other girls, who decided to stay in the Village with the germs, the going was far tougher. Sixteen-year-old Dianne Holum, the pride of North-brook, Illinois and Regina Dominican High School and the hope of America in the women's 500-meter race, was the first to falter. Early in the week she lay doubled up in the girls' dorm, stricken by some sort of ferocious germ, gradually growing so weak she was unable to attend practice.
As if that were not bad enough, teammate Mary Meyers, 22, was not only uneasy about assuming the leading role in tackling the Russians but also was in love, engaged and ready to quit skating and get married, in that order. But there was more. The other member of the threesome, 18-year-old Jennifer Fish, in addition to being stuck with a hometown organization with the impossibly corny name of the Towne 'N' Country Speed Skating Club—of Strongsville, Ohio—was an alternate with scant hope of making the team.
Next thing you know, in this old B movie plot situation, team regular Jeanne Ashworth—a 1960 bronze medalist—fell in a time trial. U.S. Coach Ken Henry looked around and there was Jenny, skating like a dream, naturally. He told her to lace up, kid, and get out there for the good old U.S.A. and race.
It had to be a rickety team. On Wednesday, two days before the 500 meters, Dianne was sitting on a bench near the dressing rooms, her hair tumbled down around her shoulders and her eyes full of frustration and tears.
"Boy, I dunno," she sniffled. "I was feeling swell when I got here, but now I'm just sick. My legs hurt and my stomach hurts a whole lot and I can't even move."
And then there were the Russians. This year they sent an advance team of Red press agents to town, spreading the word that they had a mystery racer trained solely for the 500 meters and warning that she was about the biggest thing since Pavlova. And there was the very real presence of Ludmila Titova, who had won medals in everything but knitting sweaters at the recent world championships in Finland, taking both the 500-and 1,000-meter awards.
Friday morning came up like any other winter Friday in Grenoble: with a wet, gray chill that hung in the air like puree of fog. There was Dianne warming up, with a look of pure anguish, in bulky sweat pants and with her early-Joan Baez hair all jammed up under her knit cap. She was half leaning forward as though her stomach hurt. Which it did.
Then the Russian mystery woman appeared, wearing a look of beautiful blonde innocence, in a coat lined with white fur. She turned out to be Tatiana Sidorova, who had been training at altitude in secret for a year.
Speed skating at 500 meters is quick and torturous, a race run in pairs, and Meyers, skating in a low, powerful crouch, provided the first hint of what was to come. But why not? She had approached the race with just the proper U.S. attitude. "I was numb," she said.
She came winging across the finish line in 46.3 seconds, certainly not an Olympic (45.0) or a world (44.4) record, but not bad for skating against a wind that, not far away on top of the hill at Chamrousse, was blowing skiers off the trail. It put her in first spot and, stunned, she went over to a nearby bench, plunked down, stared moodily into the smog and listened for the other times.
"Speed skating," Mary said, "is a sort of love-hate relationship. I like the skating part but I cannot stand the get-ting-in-shape part. I can never go through it again."
Minutes later Russia's mystery girl skated with a touch too much Mitzi Gay-nor and not enough Jim Ryun and finished in 46.9, which effectively hid her away back in ninth place. It also caused a stir in the Russian press corps, whose members had been loyally following her around.
"So what happened to your mystery woman?" one photographer was asked.
"Bad ice," he explained loftily. Then Titova stepped up. She is a big, rangy girl, the sort who would be an instant hit in a Chicago roller derby. "I was preparing myself to beat Meyers," she said. She did, of course, in 46.1, scrambling around the rink with long strides, looking vaguely like Fran Tarkenton coming up the middle, and she moved into an unshakable lead.
Full of magic blue pills from the little black bag of Daniel F. Hanley, the team doctor, Holum added her bit to history. "I think Titova is the nicest and prettiest of all the Russians," she said, "but...," implying that it is just a matter of time until the two meet on some future ice rink in a duel to the death. This time it was close, at that. Dianne took off and came zinging in, skates flashing, in 46.3.
"Look, two Americans are tied. Isn't that cute?" everybody said. And that left it all up to Jennifer Fish.
She wheeled around in another 46.3 seconds, a clever move, since it knocked the French supply of silver medals all out of kilter and put three wriggling girls on one little step of the most crowded award stand of the Grenoble Games.
A picture of calm at the postrace conference, Jenny told the European press about the incredible tie. "We planned it that way," she explained. And then she tugged off her skates and wiggled her toes in her chartreuse sweat socks.
Meyers changed into something more girlish and slipped back to the Olympic Village. She left her mother and father standing impatiently in the lobby—they thought they had a date for lunch—and called her fiancé, Michael Berger, collect. It was then 5 a.m. in Minneapolis.
"'Guess what?" she said.
The next morning, still feeling none too sprightly, Dianne gave the 1,500-meter race a try. Skating in the same heat with the ultimate winner, Kaija Mustonen of Finland, she was well beaten and finished 13th. But by Sunday Dianne had finally got the bugs out of her system and the color back into her cheeks. She awoke early and, taking on 28 other girls at 1,000 meters, she skated sturdily—a long-striding figure in Yankee blue, both arms flailing at start and finish, one arm behind her back on the long middle haul. Her reward was that little bronze.
But it was the triple tie, of course, that had people talking; the French love weird sports situations and pretty girls. It put everybody in the mood for a big Saturday night. The town dressed up and went out to the figure skating show in the Stade de Glace, the Metropolitan Opera of the Winter Olympics.
It wasn't that Peggy had to worry—well, except perhaps about which costume to wear while she was beating everybody silly. Mom Fleming had whipped up six skating costumes in one week, working through most of the nights sewing on sequins and beads, and Peggy finally settled on a little mini-number in frothy chartreuse chiffon. It goes well with gold medals, for one thing.
For another thing, chartreuse is the local liqueur and a color dear to Grenoble's heart. It is bottled at a monastery, and Mom thought the color would be a nice touch. "'I mean, because of those monks and all," she said. She had picked out the material at Macy's on the way through New York. "It sort of hit me as soon as I walked into the fabrics department," she said.
And if it hit Mom at Macy's, it positively dazzled everybody at Grenoble. There were 32 skaters in the event, and the first 21 of them went through a long evening of going out there and warming up the crowd for Peggy.
Still, for all the abandoned applause that greeted her, it was the meanest night of her career. Just as Peggy stepped out on the ice she caught the rhinestones on her sleeve against her beige tights and skated out with the uneasy feeling that she might break into an impromptu striptease in the middle of her number. Further, the Olympic pressure was beginning to get to her.
Peggy followed Czechoslovakia's Hana Maskova, she of the stunning long legs, who calmly put together a routine full of high, floating leaps and spins.
For a solid gold bet, Peggy's finale was shot full of crises. By the time she was halfway through her routine she had already faltered a few times, and her coach, Carlo Fassi, had taken to hiding his eyes and groaning on the sidelines. And when she came off the ice, Peggy burst into tears. But she had won handily with a total score of 1,970.5—which was 88.2 points better than the figures for that chunky East German dish, Gabriele Seyfert, and 141.7 better than Maskova.
"Boy," said Peggy. "It was all rougher than I thought. I mean, up until tonight I had figured the worst part of the whole thing came a week ago when I came out to practice. All my competitors came around and sat on the edge of the rink and just killed me with piercing looks. I got through that all right, but this was something else."
There was an almost-weepy award ceremony right on the ice. They ran up the U.S. flag and a tape recorder played that unfamiliar Winter Olympics song, The Star-Spangled Banner. And after that was over, at a conference attended by European journalism's top girl-watchers, Seyfert and Maskova sat and glared icily at Peggy. She did not seem to mind. Amid the Alpine disasters the girl skaters had come through.
When the Olympic ice arena emptied Saturday night and the first week of the 10th Winter Games was almost over there stood Peggy in fluffy chartreuse and wearing her new gold medal. In the crowd were those wild ones—Holum, Meyers and Fish—with their haul of silver, plus one bonus bronze.
Said Peggy to a friend: "How do you like my new little necklace?"