Was it Captain America or his good friend Billy? It didn't matter, really. Here he came and that was enough. He could have his quiet ways and his long, shaggy hair. He could race purely for himself, against the world, against the Establishment. He could be old by the modern standards of Alpine competition, a hobbling, decrepit 26. He could feel alienated from his coach and know that a thing called team spirit was lost somewhere back on the ice and bumps of other mountains or in conference rooms where men in blazers run a sport they seem to know little about. This was now, the world ski championships, and here he came, old Easy Rider in a sweater he had designed himself to look like, well, maybe Peter Fonda's motorcycle; anyhow, here came Billy Kidd out of the past to swipe a bit of glory that no American skier had ever known.
As far as the long-suffering fans of U.S. ski racing were concerned, there could not have been a more beautiful way for the 1970 FIS world meet to get under way in Val Gardena, Italy last week. Billy Kidd, who had carried most of the load before, got us a real live medal in the very first event—the men's slalom—and what this feat represented was the following: the first men's medal ever for an American in the exclusive FIS championships and the first time in history that any male had taken medals in world championships six years apart. It was Kidd, some may remember, who sped to second place in the slalom of the Innsbruck Olympics back in 1964, half a dozen seasons ago.
That victory had come up in the cold snow flurries of a little nook called Lizum in Austria. It also had come at a time when the U.S. Alpine effort had purpose, spirit, a sense of organization—and, certainly, uniforms. Last week's success was wholly different. Kidd skied in the sunshine and scenic splendor of a marvelous northern Italian Dolomite resort, and, by necessity, he had skied on his own terms, in his own uniform and for his own satisfaction.
Billy didn't win the race, of course. The winner is always a Frenchman, a Jean Noel Augert or somebody. He wasn't even second. That, too, is always a Frenchman, a Patrick Russel or somebody. But Kidd was third, taking what we call the bronze, and he was close to first—to be exact, .06 second out of first, or less time than it takes to blink. His finish came so unexpectedly that it will be celebrated long after the roads of Val Gardena get unclogged, all of the carabinieri sober up and the wood-carvers go back to their pasta.
February 16, 1970
Aside from the medal that would carry the U.S. cheerfully through the rest of the championships there was another nifty thing about Kidd's accomplishment. It sent him into the other two events, the giant slalom and the downhill, with at least a chance at the combined title. An American probably should not even think in such grandiose terms, for no chance like this had ever existed before. But it did after the slalom, after Billy got his third, after Karl Schranz, the Austrian favorite for the combined, didn't finish and was therefore out of contention, and after it suddenly occurred to everybody that the other good slalom finishers, with only a couple of exceptions, aren't all that swift in downhill.
What it meant was that if Kidd could run a decent giant slalom early in the week, he might very well go into next Sunday's downhill with some hope of capturing the FIS combined medal, which carries with it the modest tag of World's Best Skier. No American in Val Gardena could try that thought on for size without reeling toward the nearest bar.
Hardly any ski race is ever staged without confusion and controversy, and these world championships were certainly no different. Most of the early talk in the three villages that make up Val Gardena was about America's clothing problem first, and about the Great Slalom Protest second. If everyone will remember the last chapter, the U.S. team for some mysterious reason had no uniforms. When last seen, aside from Billy Kidd's sweaters, which a French company hastily provided, the team still did not. And this condition was the highlight of the opening ceremonies.
Into Val Gardena's ice stadium marched all of the teams from the 31 nations, parading to the clank and whomp of an Italian band that wore baggy pants and looked like the retreat from Caporetto—but, at that, looked about as good as the Americans. There they were, the Billy Kidds and Kiki Cutters and all, outlined against the black wet-look coats and dark brown bell-bottoms of the French girls, against the fur-lined suede coats and matching hats of the Austrian men, against the camel-colored coats and white fur hats of the Italians. And what were the Americans wearing? Why, their department-store corduroys and Billy Kidd sweaters, of course.
"How do you feel?" someone asked Kiki Cutter.
"Shabby and cold," said she.
No one knew exactly where to lay the blame for this embarrassment to the affluence of the Western world—Americans not being properly dressed. And everybody ran around Val Gardena blaming everybody else for a while. But the wonderful thing was, it was a racer, Kidd, with support from Spider Sabich, who took matters into his own hands and at least got some kind of sweaters for the gang to wear.
It was Kidd and Sabich, too, who were wholeheartedly in support of the Great Slalom Protest, which turned out to be the shortest protest in the history of revolutions. What happened was all 30 of the top-seeded racers decided they shouldn't have to qualify for the slalom finals with all of those Yugoslavs, Russians, Spaniards and whatever who aren't in their class, who had not proved themselves over a long, hard circuit.
They signed a petition and it was presented to the FIS officials, who promptly ruled that, by God, there would be a race regardless. If the smart alecks chose to sit it out that was their misfortune. When a few racers gave in, yielding to various pressures, they all did. Kidd would not have raced, he insisted, if Schranz and Russel and the others had hung tight. They didn't. What quietly infuriated Kidd more, and just might have given him some extra incentive for the slalom, was when he heard that the new U.S. coach, Don Henderson, with whom he already had very little rapport, was not behind him. What he heard, in fact, which Henderson verified, was that the coach told the FIS that if any American protested he would be sent home. And as we know now, it would have been rather difficult for Kidd to win a medal, say, on the platform of the train station at Bolzano.
Kidd seemed terribly demoralized before the race. Not only had things been going bad with team morale, but he had reinjured his ankle and didn't think he was in good shape. He had no spectacular results from all of the Wengens and Kitzb√ºhels and such. But if he was piqued, he kept it hidden.
"I'm just going to go like hell in every race and see what happens," he said. "This is my last shot and there's nothing to lose."
The scene of the race must have revved him up a little. It was colossal. The slalom courses were set on a sunny hill that fell into a bridge across a rushing creek. Behind the finish line was this magnificent natural theater that held thousands of spectators tiered upward toward the town of Ortisei. Beautiful girls moved through the throngs exhibiting ski wear and giving away gifts; the funny band played, and banners were hoisted among the crowd in behalf of the French stars and Italy's own Gustav Th√∂ni.
The first run saw three French and three Americans among the first nine, all of them within two seconds of each other. France's Alain Penz led by a quick turn over Russel, his teammate; Th√∂ni was fourth, Augert fifth and Kidd sixth but less than a second away. In the midst of them was a startling American named Steve Lathrop, only 18, appearing in only his second major race—and who had a start number of 36. From the third seed Lathrop had spun off a 51.38 to Penz's 50.87. Word quickly circulated that Lathrop, a kid from New Hampshire, was a real talent and that his time was no Italian joke. Lathrop would fall in the second run, naturally, but he'd had a great moment and no doubt we shall be hearing more from him.
Between runs Kidd said, "I guess I ski better in big races. It's tough for the older guys to get up for the smaller ones. My ankle feels good, except I had to tape it and I couldn't wear these fantastic new boots I've got. I'm wearing boots that are three years old. It's gonna be quite a second run. The French'll go like hell."
Everyone did. The home crowd got to ponder briefly the delirious idea of Th√∂ni winning a gold medal. He took the early lead with a fast enough run to put some harsh pressure on the racers behind him. But presently Jean-No√´l Augert came down and the whole valley moaned when the big board computed his result. Augert had beaten him. Then, although Russel later slipped in ahead of him on the basis of his lead in the first run, Billy Kidd's trip down the mountain was the best of the day and pure art. His interval time wrought an explosion from the sun-splashed thousands. It was the best (until Russel beat his interval time by .01 second). And as he continued to curl smoothly through the gates after coming into view—a real technician at work—it was obvious that he was on top of it, as the racers say. With never the scare of a fall or any real difficulty, the old Easy Rider snaked and flowed and sped to the day's fastest run and his bronze medal.
He could not quite overtake the French, but Billy Kidd had come closer to a chunk of skiing gold than any boy-man American yet. He had won a lot for himself and a lot more, inadvertently, for whatever that country is he comes from—the one, you know, without any duds.