Now it was ending, this strange World Cup ski-racing season that had seemed to span an eternity. On a chill and shadowed course above the gentle valleys of Voss, Norway, the magnificent old Austrian, Karl Schranz, came to one last cold challenge, the race that could win him the combined trophy—and the grand distinction of being the best all-round ski racer in the world. He lived up to his legend, of course, as he did last year, as he always does. But skiing's Young Turks might find some comfort in the fact that it did not come easily and that the King is finally going to take all his gold medals and go away.
All through the deadening marathon tour of 28 races over the winter, the 31-year-old Schranz had, with few exceptions, dominated Alpine racing. First, everybody had a run at him in downhill—and he beat them all to tie up that particular title. But giant slalom was another game, and through the season Patrick Russel, 23, the fine new French stylist, had skied Schranz almost to a standstill. An Italian teen-age upstart, Gustav Th√∂ni, was close behind. Thus, going into this last giant slalom in Norway, young Russel stood just three World Cup points behind the King—145 to 148. And under the labyrinthine scoring system that rules ski racing, there was still one way Russel could win the World Combined Cup. One way: he had to finish first—nothing less would do. Anything else and the cup automatically went to Schranz.
Giant slalom races are decided over two runs, and, first time down, Russel did fairly well—ending up tied for sixth but just .59 of a second off and within striking range. Schranz' talented teammate Werner Bleiner set the pace, Switzerland's Dumeng Giovanoli came next and Schranz finished third. The final run was not held until late afternoon, when the sun had fallen behind the mountain and the course lay deep in shade, making it all but impossible for racers to pick out ruts and bumps along the way. And although there were no more than a few dozen spectators at the finish gate, tension was thick, even among the usually stoic Norwegians. Bleiner was one of the first men down and, while his time was excellent (3:19.32 for two runs), he turned and glared stonily back up the hill. "I have no luck," he said. "I do not ever win."
Then came Schranz, powerful as ever and charging each gate. He finished a fraction of a second behind Bleiner and he, too, stared intently up at the hill. And Russel suddenly came into sight. He was skiing with immense grace, fairly floating down the course, but even before the Frenchman hit the last 200 yards Schranz' face relaxed. He could sense that Russel was not attacking enough, that he was perhaps too much at ease. And it was true: Russel missed Bleiner's time—and the gold medal—by .95 of a second. He was, when it was all over, in fourth spot. Schranz was in third but ahead of everybody in points.
Schranz broke into a huge grin and leaped upon Bleiner with a great bear hug. "Thank you, Werner!" he shouted. "Thank you!"
Russel stood a few yards away, his face blank and slack. In one race he had seen an entire season of brilliance undone, and all he could say at first was, "I am sorry." Next day Russel got in the last lick, winning the slalom and clinching the World Cup title for that event. It gave him, when everything was added up, the combined silver behind Schranz.
Well, the old man had won again, and perhaps everybody had known that he would. Sensational though they were throughout the season, the young hot-shots—Russel, Jean-No√´l Augert, Alain Penz of France and Th√∂ni of Italy, the combined bronze winner—simply could not bring down the King. At 31, Schranz reigned again. And though he was once renowned for his sour manner, Karl was all sunshine now. What was this World Cup title worth? "Well, we are amateurs, you know. This is what they say we are," Schranz smiled. "So I tell you that this cup is worth great prestige to me, great pride."
Proud though he was, Schranz said this was his last season. "I have been married to my skis and my equipment and to the slopes and to the World Cup for years now," he said. "So it is quite true that I have decided to stop amateur racing. Maybe the young racers need an old man like me to chase, and maybe the press needs an old man to write about. But I must stop some time, and now that I am on top, I think I will do that." Then he paused and grinned. "But, of course, you never know." But whether or not Schranz departs, the world of ski racing can never be the same after this year.
The sounds of commercialism have become so loud that they can no longer be ignored, the Winter Olympics of 1972 are in jeopardy and a whole new set of amateurism definitions are in order, or all of the best ski racers on earth will have to be disqualified. There is a new pro tour hatching that could hit with considerable impact if it prospers. Already Billy Kidd has gone off to be a pro, complete with star-studded helmet and America's first gold medal in half a generation, and more change is coming. Next season there will be new names in the headlines and new challengers on the hills.
Still, one thing that is not going to change in ski racing is the fantastic dominance of the French girls. In an incredible display of power they won every single championship available in World Cup competition this season. Michéle Jacot, just turned 18, won the combined title two weeks ago by finishing first in the giant slalom in Vancouver. She is a shy, strangely beautiful girl with soft brown eyes, but she skis with an almost desperate determination and is superb in every event. Then there is Fran√ßoise Macchi, also only 18, tied with Jacot in the giant slalom final standings. France's Ingrid Lafforgue, 21, led the slalom rankings—and Jacot was second. And in the ladies' downhill season, Jacot placed fourth, while Isabelle Mir was first, Annie Famose second, Florence Steurer third and Macchi fifth. "It is like a female Maginot Line that works," said one veteran observer. "I don't see how they can be beaten—maybe for many years."
Naturally, the fillies of the French Republic were predictably excellent in Voss. Lafforgue won the giant slalom going away, and in the slalom Steurer and Lafforgue were two-three behind Germany's Rosi Mittermaier.
But frisky though the French ladies seemed, most everyone in Voss last week was exhausted. The season had been all but interminable, dragging on over 13 weeks in a crisscross pattern back and forth over the mountain roads of Europe, across half the world for three frantic weeks in North America, then back for this last race in Norway. There is strong sentiment growing for cutting down the tour next winter. "Everyone is half-dead," said Dennis Agee, coach of the U.S. girls' team. "We all feel as if we've been carrying a ton of stones around all winter. There was one 30-day period in January where we raced in seven different places and some girls had 15 different races—which is one every other day. That's inhuman."
Whether or not a shorter schedule will help remains to be seen, but the fortunes of the American ski team can certainly stand all the help available. Except for Billy Kidd's combined medal spectacular at the world championship in Val Gardena, the men have had little to boast about. There have been critical morale problems on the team, and the men's coach, Don Henderson, has been rather a controversial figure from the start. Whether Henderson will return next year is problematical (he was not even in Voss last week). But if he does not come back, there are no obviously qualified replacements currently demanding his job—which pays $16,750 a year. One reason is the Byzantine politics and squabbling that have long marked the administration of the U.S. Ski Association, the governing body for the American team.
At the moment Agee is caught up in a typical USSA hesitation waltz. Although he would very much like to continue as women's coach, he has been told that it is all but certain that he will not be offered a contract until after the association holds its convention in June. The reason: if the delegates vote out the current administration, the new officials may prefer someone besides Agee. All of which does not make for security.
Nevertheless, he has high hopes for next year: "It was kind of hard for me this first season to follow in the steps of guys like Bob Beattie and Chuck Ferries. They had such great rapport with the girls that it wasn't easy for anyone to replace them. It took me quite a bit of the season just to get adjusted to each of the girls' temperaments and to get used to the rat race of moving around all the time. Next year I'll be prepared to really coach them. I don't think we had a really disastrous year, but it sure wasn't great. Next year it'll be different. We'll really have something going next year. If I am hired again, things will be different."
Things should be different all around the World Cup tour next year. Perhaps it will be diminished for a time without the Kidds and the Schranzes. But the new faces will soon shine bright enough, and if the commercialism so rampant this season can somehow be brought under control, it can't help but be a better time for all.