The event was famed for 20 years among the homegrown ski racers from Kennebunkport to Meddybemps as Maine's own annual Sugarloaf Schuss, but last week the Schuss was no more. In its place upon the white and woody slopes of Sugarloaf Mountain, deep in the bush of Maine, they held something with infinitely more class. It was called the World Cup and Tall Timber Classic, and each day's program commenced with bearded lumberjacks scrambling up 80-foot white-pine poles to post the morning flags. First prizes to the skiers were engraved silver axes. So prestigious was the occasion that the United Methodist Church of Kingfield sought to enhance its Sunday collection-plate take by advertising daily "World Cup breakfasts" at $1.00 each for ski race enthusiasts passing through town.
There were no boomers from Meddybemps entered at Sugarloaf last week. World Cup titles were up for grabs and the full circus of international ski racing had moved in among the woodchoppers. It had been a bizarre and frustrating season in Europe, and there was no superstar to illuminate the field in 1971—Jean-Claude Killy was long gone to far greener pastures and Karl Schranz, winner of the cup in 1969 and 1970, was not in contention. Indeed, although the racing names were vaguely familiar to many, the leading contestants for the Earth's Alpine ski racing championships were a strangely faceless cast.
As events began at Sugarloaf, the men's World Cup list was led by Patrick Russel, France's slalom genius, with 125 points. An Italian with choirboy features, 20-year-old Gustav Th√∂ni; had 115, and next came two more Frenchmen, slalomist Jean-Noel Augert with 107, and downhiller Henri Duvillard with 105. Then, the first men's event was something of a historical and meteorological freak: the classic Arlberg Kandahar downhill—which at 43 years old is Europe's most venerable Alpine race—was to be run for the first time on a mountain of the Western Hemisphere because this winter's snowfall in Europe had been so depressingly sparse. But under bright skies and over quick snow the transplanted Kandahar seemed to be quite at home in Maine.
The 1970 world-champion downhiller, Switzerland's Bernhard Russi, charged down Sugarloaf's short, roller-coaster course and finished a full half second ahead of France's Duvillard. In third place came a small, tough-looking Italian named Stefano Anzi. As things turned out, Russi's victory cinched him the 1971 World Cup downhill medal—and it was well that it did. Two days later, a local employee struck a match inside the trailer where the Swiss team's skis were lovingly serviced and tenderly stored, and—blam!—the place burst into flames; apparently there had been a leak in bottled gas. Some $15,000 worth of skis were reduced to black, gnarled slats before Sugarloaf snowblowers smothered the fire. Swiss racers were forced to run their giant slaloms on unfamiliar, borrowed skis.
Next day of the classic, the men staged the regularly scheduled downhill. It should be noted that the caliber of the downhill course that exists on Sugarloaf Mountain bears about as much resemblance to the murderous terrain of, say, the Hahnenkamm, as a World Cup breakfast with the Methodists of King-field does to a dinner at Maxim's. Many skiers found the Sugarloaf run built more along the proportions of an oversized giant slalom than a truly heart-stopping downhill. Thus, the more delicate techniques of the slalomist counted almost as much as the more daring, aggressive style of the natural downhiller.
At any rate, the men's downhill at Sugarloaf may have proved to be the most surprising—possibly the most decisive—race of the overall World Cup competition for 1971. To most everyone's amazement, the winner of the silver ax turned out to be the rugged little Anzi. To nobody's surprise, Austria's very good Karl Cordin finished second. Then, to everyone's astonishment, an Austrian bomber named David Zwilling flashed into the finish area and collapsed in gales of laughter. When bystanders asked what was so funny, he pointed to his feet: one of them was without a ski. He had lost it far up the course and had streaked nearly three-quarters of the run on a single board. (He was disqualified, which was a shame. But he finished.) And finally, to more wonderment, the gentle Th√∂ni finished third. Until last week, the best downhill finish he had managed was a 12th place.
From his teammate Anzi and other friends around the finish-line fence there came cries of "Bravo, Gustavo, bravo!" Then, in a scene the powerful French have experienced often, but the so-so Italians have only dreamed about, Stefano and Gustav posed arm in arm for photographers—both with their bright lemon-yellow Spalding Formidable skis thrust out for all the world to admire. For that moment, at least, the gleaming, skintight, red race uniforms of the Italian team seemed glamorous instead of just flashy.
Th√∂ni's unexpectedly fine finish moved him into the overall cup lead over Russel. His ultimate victory was by no means guaranteed—there were still the giant slalom at Sugarloaf and slaloms and giant slaloms to be run in Heavenly Valley, Calif, and Are, Sweden before this marathon season ends. Nevertheless, the men's World Cup for 1971—a rather odd-looking crystal sphere the size of a volleyball stuck atop a thick glass pedestal—suddenly seemed nearer Th√∂ni's grasp than anyone else's.
Then, on Sunday young Bravo-Gustavo made another large stride toward wrapping up the trophy for once and all. Before some 10,000 spectators assembled to watch the two-run giant slalom, Th√∂ni pulled off still another Italian Tall Timber coup: streaking to first place down a course that was fairly soft after an eight-inch snowfall the night before. He finished No. 1 in the first run and No. 2 in the second, thus edging out by 22/100ths of a second one of the burned-out Swiss team members, Edmund Bruggmann, who was racing on borrowed skis. And from whom were the skis borrowed? Well, from Gustav Th√∂ni.
The giant slalom victory added still another 10 points to Th√∂ni's World Cup total and when everything was added up after the fine Italian week in Maine, the combined standings showed him with 140 points. Russel, who had gained nothing at Sugarloaf, still had his 125 points but now so did Henri Duvillard, whose third in the giant slalom and second in the Kandahar gained him 20 points.
The women's World Cup seemed due to change hands, too—although it was perhaps a trifle too soon to bet a lot of cash. The 1970 winner, the pretty French champion, Mich√®le Jacot, 19, came to Sugarloaf trailing a lively, 17-year-old, freckle-nosed farmer's daughter from Kleinarl, Austria—Anne Marie Proell—133 points to 142.
The women's Kandahar also had been transferred to Maine from barren Europe and it covered part of the same terrain as the men's downhill—over a Sugarloaf run called Narrow Gauge (for the railroad track once used by Maine lumbermen). The farmer's daughter from Austria finished a strong first. Second came Jacqueline Rouvier, another of the endless supply of fresh French ski-quail who keep rising to the Republic's cause. Third was Isabelle Mir, a French veteran of 21 who had won the 1970 downhill title, and in sixth place was an effervescent American 19-year-old named Susie Corrock. She was so delighted and surprised by her best showing ever that she bounced up and down as she gurgled to reporters, "It was such a freak. I haven't figured out what I did right. I've never done anything like this." And Jacot finished seventh.
Next day, in the regular women's downhill, Anne Marie Proell finished first again. Again Rouvier was second, and Annie Famose, the on-going essence of feminine French skiing competence, ended up third. Jacot raced home seventh again.
The women's giant slalom, last of their events at Sugarloaf, came in the early throes of an all-day blizzard on Saturday. And while the brunette Mile. Jacot finally got her overdue victory, young Proell would not fall back: she finished second. Thus, after picking up two silver axes and a second-place finish in three days in the Tall Timber, Fr√§ulein Proell left Sugarloaf with a solid lead of 177 points to 158 over Jacot. Young though she is, the pretty Proell seemed a likely candidate to become skiing's premier child-champion of the world for 1971, and certainly a strong possibility for a gold medal or two—or three—in Sapporo '72.
Though there were complaints about Sugarloaf's technical deficiencies as a top-class racing area, everyone agreed that Maine had offered excellent snow and exceedingly fine course preparation. "Given the modesty of the mountain," said French Coach Jean Béranger, "they have done all anyone could wish to make these good races. All of Europe this year has been a mal de t√™te, a misery and a milieu of constant nervous tension." Indeed, although a biting chill enveloped the continent most of the season, the shortage of snow was ruinous. Time and again race locations were changed and the full contingent of competitors was sent off on wild, all-night rides to new venues where officials hoped to guarantee a strip of snow. The Lauberhorn men's downhill and slalom were transferred from Wengen to St. Moritz; the famed Hahnenkamm downhill was moved from Kitzb√ºhel, Austria to Meg√®ve, France; the women's downhill at St. Gervais was hurriedly sent off to Pra Loup and, finally, the Kandahar downhills came to Maine.
Then, too, the weather was not the only burden to rest heavy upon the backs of World Cup skiers this season. The usual disagreeable pre-Olympic hassle over the eligibility and good faith of the world's best Alpine racers had once more arisen. IOC President Avery Brundage had called into question the motives of 10 top skiers who had received $50 a day and expenses last summer (with FIS sanction) for participating as coaches in a Lange Co. training camp at Mammoth Mountain, Calif. Beyond that, the irrepressible Last Victorian had hinted that he just might disqualify no fewer than 35 other contestants because they had appeared (also with FIS sanction) in advertisements for ski equipment.
The folly of Brundage's insistence on Puritan amateurism in skiing has long been obvious if for no other reason than it is an attempt to force an essentially aristocratic sense of values upon a sport that is—for European competitors, at least—a matter of flat economic necessity. While American racers may be willing to compete without promise of steady pay or a better career, Europeans are not. As the cool, young (33) Béranger put it: "For most man racers from Europe, a future career depends on how well he skis. Most French skiers are from the country or the mountains and they do not have great opportunities to fulfill their peak ambition unless they can ski for France. Skiing be comes a social promotion for them. In France, the ski industry is very important to the economy, but in the U.S. it is only a tiny portion. Thus our racers are perhaps more important to the fate of their country than the American ski competitors are. And we feel—as the FIS has recognized—that skiers should benefit from the sacrifices they make to race. Our federation pays them according to their FIS points, ages, training time and whether or not they are married. It is only realistic. And if any single one of our racers is ruled ineligible for the Olympics because of some misunderstandings between M. Brundage and the FIS, the full French team will forgo the Olympics. Our racers have come to think the World Cup is perhaps more important than an Olympic gold medal."
Late last week at Sugarloaf, it seemed that the critical impasse between Brundage and world-class Alpine ski racing just might be coming to a point of decision. On Friday night FIS President Marc Hodler arrived suddenly in the Maine woods from Berne, Switzerland and was met there by FIS Vice President Dr. Amos (Bud) Little of Helena, Mont. With extraordinary candor, the two discussed the state of affairs between the IOC and the FIS.
"As we say in Montana, 'I broke my pick' on this thing in January after we met with IOC people in London," said Bud Little. "I was led to believe things were looking better for a realistic settlement, then Avery threw it all up in the air again by sending out a questionnaire to all the national Olympic committees asking for a vote about Alpine skiing."
Hodler said, "I think the poll was just a procedural thing that Avery did because he felt things might not be going his way. The questions were perhaps a trifle, ah, loaded. First, he asked the committees to vote on the question of the Mammoth Mountain payments. Second, he asked if an Olympic contestant should be allowed to wear advertising on his uniform. Third, he asked if the committees thought that a chap who earns $50,000 a year from skiing should be considered an amateur. And, fourth, he asked if they thought the FIS plan to allow 5½ months broken-time payments for training is realistic. The replies have been coming into the IOC office in Lausanne, but the people there are not allowed to open any of them. That is for Avery himself to do. Perhaps he is going to be judge, jury and district attorney all by himself. But this thing may be working against him. Already I have received word from many IOC members who oppose the validity of this mail vote. They have refused to vote on the grounds that they do not have any facts available on which to make a decision."
"Frankly," said Bud Little, "I think we've gotten to the point where Avery's hypocrisy is greater than ours. Unless we reach some point of understanding, we have no choice but to withdraw from the Olympic position."
Hodler added, "We don't want our people to lie when they are forced to sign an amateurism oath before the Olympics. It has gotten to the point where FIS members are pressuring me to get out of the Olympics, to let it go. Oh, there are many points where we can come to agreement with Avery, I'm sure. We do not favor bizarre commercialization of the sport and we don't like the exploitation of individuals as advertising symbols. I suppose we might even find a way to agree on broken-time payments—although Avery is very set in his views on this. But one thing we cannot compromise on is the Mammoth Mountain situation—that was based on a principle we agreed on with the IOC many years ago. We cannot back down."
Quite bluntly, Hodler said that he was "essentially cautious" about the entire controversy and he added ominously, "If the worst happens, we can hold an Alpine World Championship for 1972 in a matter of weeks on the courses at Val Gardena, Italy. Perhaps it won't come to that."
Perhaps not. Two days after he arrived at Sugarloaf, Marc Hodler along with Bud Little flew to New York and drove to the country home in Pound Ridge, N.Y. of Bj√∂rn Kjellstr√∂m, another FIS vice president. There, at a "little family lunch" on Sunday, the FIS brass sat down with none other than Avery Brundage himself. When Brunage left it was long after dark. And Hodler said, "I believe we did something constructive today. We have at least agreed on a basic cooperation."
Whatever progress was made in Pound Ridge, there is one sad but certain fact: If Alpine skiing is forced out of the XI Winter Olympics, the games in Sapporo next year will take on approximately the same appeal as the former Sugarloaf Schuss.