They came to Hokkaido for the XI Winter Olympiad, to an alien island the size of South Carolina where the dancing crane migrates in from Siberia for the winter and smiling people decorate their snowy streets with bouquets of fresh flowers frozen into blocks of clear ice. There were 1,128 athletes from 35 countries assembled for the first Winter Games ever to be held in Asia, and they came wearing rich sealskin uniforms from East Germany and swirling red gaucho capes from Argentina and leather hats from Sears Roebuck.
They had no idea what to expect of Hokkaido and Hokkaido was not certain what to expect of them. But soon after the Games began in Sapporo, the chill, snowbanked capital of the island, it was clear that the liaison between northern Japan and the Winter Olympics was a thing born of charm and good fortune, a union made at "the horizon of the rainbow," as the lyrics of one official Olympic hymn said. Perhaps that song, a sweet and moving melody titled The Ballad of Rainbow and Snow, best symbolized the mood. It was sung by massed choirs and played by cabaret pianists and danced to by go-go girls. It was rendered in every style from Mozart to. Motown to the Muzak piped down into subway platforms and through department store aisles. The song hung like sunlight over the city all week.
Not everything came up rainbows, of course. Sapporo, with a population of 1.03 million, was the largest metropolis ever to host the Winter Games, and though every lamppost, taxicab and curbside rubbish container glimmered with some kind of bright pennant or decal that cried yokoso (welcome), the size of the city all but swallowed up the Olympics.
And there was a depressing list of casualties among Alpine skiers. Fran√ßoise Macchi, France's finest coming into the Games, smashed her knee, and West Germany's Christian Neureuther, a slalom favorite, sliced his hands putting them through a glass door. Then the promising American downhiller, Eric Poulsen, took a bad spill in practice and broke a wrist and battered a knee. There was also that uninjured casualty, the ageless Austrian Alpinist, Karl Schranz, who was a favorite to win his first Olympic gold medal after 18 seasons of world-class competition.
February 14, 1972
In an arrogant performance touched with cruelty, Avery Brundage and the International Olympic Committee kept their polite but desperately anxious Japanese hosts dangling for more than a week—along with dozens of uncertain Alpine skiers—while they harrumphed over the issue of which racers might be disqualified for commercialism. Ultimately Schranz alone was sacrificed for all of the others.
The sourness was deep for a time, but at last the days of sweetness came with the opening ceremonies beneath radiant skies in the glistening oval of Makomanai Stadium. The Emperor of Japan looked on with inscrutable bemusement as the fashion parade of Olympic teams marched past. Mostly it was colorful, and even chic, but Brundage looked as if he had been clothed by Army-Navy surplus in his black parka, dark gray ski pants with baggy knees and low boots with tan socks worn outside his pants.
The ceremony itself was breathtaking, a combination of beauty and precision, and a sigh like a gentle gust of wind rose from the 53,924 in the stadium as the torchbearer appeared on the glassy oval. As the Olympic caldron was lighted, the stadium thundered its cheers. Moments later the ice was alive with hundreds of Japanese children, skating unsteadily, carrying gaudy balloons which they released into the sky like specks of colored sugar candy.
The next day, in the same stadium, Sapporo began draping gold around the neck of its special hero. Every Olympiad produces one. In 1968 it was the Gallic gallant, Jean-Claude Killy. At Sapporo it was the Dutchman Ard Schenk, the tallest windmill out of a flat and flowery land. The morning sky was the color of pewter and a thick, fluffy snow was falling when the men's 5,000-meter speed skating event began. The luck of the draw put Schenk, the world's finest skater, on the course first, when the snow was the heaviest. Schenk is 27 and the holder of six world records. He is also strong and handsome, with chiseled features and intense light blue eyes, a striking latter-day vision of Hans Brinker.
Schenk was not pleased at starting so early in the 5,000 because he would have no other times to pace himself against. But he charged away with powerful strokes, flinging his arms in mighty arcs. The snow was blinding by then, but there was no wind. Ghostly in the stands, a cluster of Dutch imports chanted, "Heya! Heya! Ard Schenk!" The big Dutchman came driving home in 7 minutes 23.61 seconds, 11.61 seconds slower than his own world record—and nobody congratulated him because nobody knew how the weather would affect the others.
For more than three hours Schenk waited. In the last pair was his teammate and one of his greatest rivals, the powerful Kees Verkerk. By the time Verkerk raced, the snow had stopped but the wind was up and Verkerk could manage only 7:39.10. First gold for Schenk. When he appeared with the medal dangling around his neck, someone asked if he was disappointed at failing to break the Olympic mark. Schenk looked surprised and then grinned widely. "I don't even know what the Olympic record is," he said. "All that is important is this gold medal. Breaking records is not important at all."
Through the week, as Schenk's gold rush gathered impetus, he was Sapporo's magnetic center. For the 500-meter sprint, a bursting, intense race that is not his best event—but one he is always capable of winning—Schenk drew with Neil Blatchford, 26, one of five U.S. skaters from Northbrook, Ill. and the only American given any real chance of winning a medal. It was considered a most promising pairing, on the assumption that the two would drive each other to a super effort. Instead, it merely proved that Schenk was human and fallible.
The starter for the 500 was a high-strung chap who kept firing false starts—dozens of them—and Schenk and Blatchford suffered through one. When they did get off the line Schenk ran only four steps before a blade caught the ice and he sprawled ignominiously on his stomach. He scrambled up as coolly as a hero can under the circumstances and skated on to finish 34th. Blatchford, unnerved beyond recovery by the starter, finished 15th.
The winner of the 500 was that good old skate, Erhard Keller, 27, a dark and cocky West German dental student who won the gold medal in Grenoble and recently held the world record. Though Schenk was now down to only three possible gold medals, he was unperturbed. He donned a white cowboy hat and pranced about pantomiming fast draws on the other competitors.
From time to time Schenk yielded center stage to other clamoring Olympians. The West German two-man bobsled team of Wolfgang Zimmerer and Peter Utzschneider won a gold medal faster than you could pronounce their names. The ecstatic Japanese swept all three medals in the 70-meter ski jump. Austria's Beatrix Schuba cut a fancy frozen rug toward the women's figure skating championship. And America's apple-cheeked Susan Corrock flashed in from Ketchum, Idaho to pick up a bronze in the women's downhill.
The field for the downhill gathered shortly after noon Friday at the top of the course on Mount Eniwa, 25 miles out of town. Susan's chances for a medal were considered no more plausible than the parentage of that home-country Western animal, the jackelope. Outside her own tight little world she was all but unknown. The course was rated tame by girls who like to ski fast. Hank Tauber, the U.S. women's coach, called it "not scary or dangerous, not full of super-sharp turns." In fact, during the nonstop training run the day before, the 20-year-old Susan had bombed down the mountain to score the best unofficial time of the day. Even so, few took her seriously—until she turned it on again in the race itself. She charged across the finish line in 1:37.68, the best time for the first 10 racers. She showed a great sunburst of a smile, hugged teammate Marilyn Cochran, and then fidgeted while waiting to see who might be able to beat her.
It did not take more than a few fidgets. Another racer almost as unheralded as Susie Corrock swept across the line in 1:36.68. She was Marie-Theres Nadig, 17, a powerful dumpling of a Swiss girl. Susie was now in second place and fidgeting some more, but again not for long. Down came the favorite, the big Austrian farm girl Annemarie Proell, 18, rocketing the course like a runaway Viennese pastry. She slipped into the finish area and the crowd gasped in disbelief. She had lost to Miss Nadig by an all but invisible atom of time—32 hundredths of a second.
Grim and suddenly sullen because she had not collected her expected gold, Miss Proell stalked away and refused to appear at a postrace press conference. Not so the effervescent Miss Corrock. "It's unreal," she said. "Up until now I've always been the underdog. Now I'm in a new class—a definitely new class."
There was quite another mood at the Mikaho skating rink, where the women's competition in compulsory figures was proceeding amid uproar and excitement approximately equivalent to the daily changing of newspapers in a Christian Science reading room. The arena held a few hundred people, and in sober silence each of the contestants did a series of figure-eight variations. The nine judges peered intently at the designs cut into the ice.
Rightly were they intent, for the champion was almost certain to be selected on the basis of the school figures rather than the free-skating jumps and turns that most folks assume is the essence of the sport. When the figures were over, Trixi Schuba, 20, a hefty, stoic lady who has no hint of Tinker Bell in her, held such a commanding lead over her nearest rival, America's Julie Lynn Holmes, that everyone assumed she could not be overtaken in the free-skating event two nights later—even though Trixi resembles a robot when the wraps are off.
When asked if she was worried about the freestyle competition, Trixi Schuba said coldly, "Never. I win the gold medal, I think." And, as long ordained by the powers that be, so she did—Austria's first in figure skating.
Had glamour and excitement been the rule of the affair, Fraulein Schuba would have been hard put to place anywhere near the two firefly beauties who won the silver and bronze medals—the lovely Canadian Karen Magnussen and the pixie American from Rockford, Ill., Janet Lynn, 18, who started the freestyle competition in third and fourth place. Miss Holmes, who skated unsteadily, took a fall and finished fourth.
When asked if she anticipated an ice revue contract after this Olympics, Trixi said,' 'No, my mother has a lumber shop. I will help her in the lumber shop."
Leave the lumber to Trixi. By all odds the most electrifying event of the week—and indeed of many Olympic days past and many to come—occurred before the happy crowd that packed the slopes along the Miyanomori 70-meter ski jump hill. No other venue had attracted such a jam of spectators, for this was the contest in which the Japanese stood a better than fair chance of winning a medal.
The crowd's favorite was a slender, ascetic jumper named Yukio Kasaya, 28, a stylish competitor who had already done well this winter on the European circuit. Since Kasaya is from Hokkaido, the carpet of people clustered at the bottom of the hill was speckled with the flags of Yoichimachi High, carried by those who had been his school chums.
There were two other hometown Hokkaido boys on the Japanese team: Akitsugu Konno, 27, and Seiji Aochi, 29, and during their practice jumps the crowd chortled and exclaimed. Konno and Aochi came off the hill ahead of Kasaya in the first jump of the meet, both producing long, graceful leaps that placed them at the top of the scores—ahead of every Russian or Norskman in town.
Then Kasaya came to the platform. He gazed intently down at the lip of the jump far below, bowed his head, looked down at the hill and bowed his head again. For at least a minute he seemed immobilized; then he launched down the run and rose high against the trees, hanging poised above the crowd in perfect form. When he landed, the noise burst over him like a waterfall. Yukio Kasaya was in first place. Konno and Aochi followed him. Nobody could believe it had happened.
Women wept, men danced with each other and children turned somersaults. Japan had just one medal to show for its efforts in all the Winter Olympics ever held before—and now it had won three in a single event at its very own Games. When Kasaya's skis rapped onto the snow after his winning jump he clasped his hands over his head, then fell into the arms of his brother, Akio, and Konno. The Japanese coaches were weeping with happiness. They looked as if they had just come back from the horizon of the rainbow.
After this glittering moment the only emotion left for the men's downhill was relief that it came off with no more hitches. The favorite was Bernhard Russi, 23, a slender Swiss lad from the goatherd mountains near Andermatt who was the World Cup downhill champion last year. Russi had said of Mount Eniwa: "In Europe you are afraid to go straight, but here there is no place to take an extra risk that will win the race."
There was, however, one sharp, precipitous turn near the top of the run—a tough spot which the Japanese call "a steep where even the bears fall down." Of course, no boy raised in the goatherds is about to be troubled by any turn that terrifies bears. Russi attacked that spot savagely, gained a precious fraction of a second and flashed across the line in 1:51.43, a comfortable winner. Only his teammate Roland Collombin and the Austrian Heini Messner came within a full second of Russi's time, and Switzerland had its first Olympic gold medal ever in the men's downhill.
But above all the rinks and slopes of Sapporo loomed the 6'2" presence of Ard Schenk. On Sunday he captured the 1,500 meters with icy command. In Monday's cheerful sunlight he set sail for a golden triple. But it would be hard to imagine a scene more in contrast to Japan's outpouring of ski jump joy than the Dutchman's 10,000-meter venue. The fire had changed to ice; emotion to cool perfection. Schenk started last in the pairings and by the time he was off he knew that the man he had to beat was his teammate Verkerk, who had finished nearly two hours before in 15:04.70. In describing his two skaters Dutch Coach Leen Pfrommer said, "They are both excellent competitors, but the difference is that Verkerk skates from his heart, while Ard is logical and skates from his head."
And so it was. Without expression, Schenk drove himself around and around and around the rink—25 times, ghosting along with a graceful, deceptively lazy-looking stroke that was in fact immensely powerful. He paced himself perfectly and crossed the line nearly four seconds under Verkerk's time.
A tiny claque of Dutchmen went wild. They waved orange hats and unfurled scarves and put up a sign that said HUP ARD. They sang a song called Ard Is Always World Champion and some of them took off their wooden shoes and beat them together in glee. Schenk waved to them, accepted a backslap from his coach and a few kisses from women skaters. As befitted a man who skates from his head, he remained calm, even though he had just become the sixth man in history to win three gold medals in a single Winter Olympics.