It was a cold day in November when Jean-Claude Killy, creaky and unsure of himself after almost five years of retirement, poised at the top of a snowy slope in Aspen, Colo. and thought, "Well, here we go again." Since then, ski racing's pro tour has bounced along through a season of relative excitement and perpetual suspense and last week came home to Aspen to wind up its fourth and most significant year of dual course, head-to-head competition. And if Killy finally did, indeed, get going again, it wasn't the exuberant runaway everybody had predicted for the old Olympic champ.
Weary and hinting at a second retirement at 29, Killy arrived in Aspen last week ahead on points in his quest for the Benson & Hedges Grand Prix individual championship and the $40,000 bonus that goes with it. It should have been easy. Really nothing more to it than going through the motions. Then Thriller Theater of the Rockies began. In Scene One on Friday, Killy crashed into a gate during his very first heat of the giant slalom and was out of the race. In Scene Two, archrival Spider Sabich, with a chance to gain, fell victim to a 50-mph crash instead. He was not only out of the giant slalom but the subsequent Saturday slalom and possibly a lot of this summer as well. Scene Three was the inspired effort by a lanky Austrian, 25-year-old Harald Stuefer, to overtake Killy for the individual trophy—and then a sudden blizzard swamped the area, postponing the whole show.
Meanwhile, lurking in the wings was the handsomely dour figure of Austrian Skimeister Karl Schranz, who was trying to decide whether at 34 he is ready to join all this mad action.
The drama finally ended on Sunday when Killy, assembling one last burst of energy, won the slalom and with it the season.
If his triumph seemed certain, one other thing also is certain: Killy's presence this winter had brought glamour and competitive spice—even a hopeful future—to a circuit that for two years had been dominated entirely by California's Sabich and populated by a bunch of unknown retreads. The reckless and ebullient Sabich, a bachelor of 27 who flies his own plane and drives souped-up sports cars, who dances on tabletops and attracts beautiful women, has become an exciting ski personality himself. But on the slopes Sabich had left in his frosty wake a pro pack consisting mainly of nameless and forgotten (if talented) Europeans and just plain nameless Americans. It was great for Spider, who earned $70,000 in prize money, but was it good for the Grand Prix?
This was the setting when Killy—catching everybody but his business agent by surprise—showed up for the start of the 1972-73 season. Burning desire for competition may have been one reason he was there, but a more important one was probably economic. Not the pro prize pot, which totals a mere $22,500 a week, but a return to the kind of visibility that had attracted so many profitable sponsor tie-ins and business contracts following his sweep of three gold medals at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble.
In his first four races Killy showed occasional flashes of the old strength and style but won nothing. Then the tour took a five-week break, and when it reconvened in January it quickly became apparent that tabbycat Jean-Claude had turned into a tiger. He had returned to Geneva and skied himself back into physical trim and competitive sharpness. At Mt. Snow in Vermont, Killy won the first day's giant slalom, beating Sabich en route and thrashing Australian Malcolm Milne in the final—and has been winning regularly ever since. Until last Sunday's windup, Killy had not reached any finals of the slalom but he won six of the 12 giant-slalom events.
"The real story is Killy's total commitment to this gamble," says Ian Todd, a dark-haired young Englishman who has been handling skiing affairs for agent Mark McCormack. "He has worked at it unbelievably hard. Instead of resting somewhere pleasant, he goes early in the week to even the dreariest spots on the tour to practice on the course."
"It has not been much fun," agrees Killy, who also has remained somewhat aloof from the rest of the tour group of over 70 skiers. "I've stayed here in the U.S. the whole time, moving from hotel to hotel."
The season has not been much fun for Spider Sabich either, though he blames himself rather than Killy. "Heck, I've been happy to have him on the tour because his presence helps us all," says Spider, who is not shy about admitting he has beaten Killy in three of their five meetings. "As amateurs we all used to look upon him as something in another world we could never reach. But no longer. He's five years older now. Maybe he's lost a little quickness. What I've lost this year is consistency. I started slowly, finally got myself together and went ahead in the point totals. Then I got bored, and since then it's been a real struggle to get back."
The struggle centered on Killy, Sabich and Stuefer all year long. Stuefer is 6'3", with a shaggy tangle of light-brown hair and a sickle for a nose. He won three giant slaloms, one slalom and $45,575 this year, and fellow Europeans watching Stuefer's progress in the States must assume that the pro tour is an easy plum to pick. In his six years on the Austrian national team, Stuefer never rose above mediocrity. He finally had to give up even his best event, the downhill, because a slight malformation of the hip sockets made it impossible for him to hold a tuck position. Two years ago Hugo Nindl, a fellow Austrian who had been sweeping up most of the crumbs that Sabich had left for the others, persuaded Stuefer to come on over and try the Grand Prix, where there is no downhill to tuck for.
"This has been tough," says Stuefer. "I guess two more years will be about enough. When you win, it means eight or 10 fast races in a single afternoon. You get tired and it is hard to concentrate. That's why a lot of good amateurs can't do it. They are used to making only one or two long runs."
Stuefer thinks that the unusual man-to-man, side-by-side pro format might even wean Europeans away from the lone man-against-the-mountain theme upon which the amateur circuit rests. "The Europeans would love this," he claims. "I bet it could be done."
In fact McCormack made just such a bet. Last year he sent Ian Todd to Europe to put together a pro team competition called the Eight Nations Cup. "We spent a tremendous amount of time and money on the project and the FIS [International Ski Federation] approved it," says Todd. "Then Austria and France said no and shot it down."
Now Todd and McCormack are sending up another trial balloon. "It's still in the talking stage, but we are thinking about purely professional downhill races that would take place during the break in the schedule here and would not conflict with this tour at all," says Todd. "We wouldn't have to depend on any of the U.S. pros because none of them are competitive in the downhill. We'd have Killy, of course, and Karl Schranz, maybe some of the other top Europeans. The trouble is that when anyone starts to do something with professional racing in Europe he's going to get into a real dogfight with the FIS."
Pro tour promoter Bob Beattie is skeptical because it might involve a dogfight with his own Grand Prix. "What gap in the schedule is he talking about?" Beattie asked. "We're not going to have any gap in the schedule."
Europe, too, is skeptical. Most skiing observers abroad believe it would be too costly to lure the well-paid top amateurs into the pro ranks. Besides, the average European ski racing fan, many claim, rates pro skiing right up there with a carnival freak show.
All of which prompts a knowing smile from Schranz, who last year was declared to be a paid performer by Avery Brundage and his Olympic committee—but who returned home from Sapporo to a tumultuous welcome usually reserved for national heroes. Schranz thinks pro racing in Europe would not only be a brilliant success but is a desperate necessity as well. One evening last week Schranz, whose future also is managed by McCormack, leaned against a nightclub bar and sipped a Jack Daniel's on the rocks (only, he claimed, to get a preliminary taste of what life in America might be like). He had just finished a lively dinner with Killy and had apparently been convinced that riches were to be earned in pro racing just by stepping onto his skis. He was in an affable and instructive mood, even to the point of allowing casual acquaintances to thump his rock-hard midsection.
"A pro tour could work well in Europe once Europeans are educated to the fact that the pros are really good," said Schranz. "I'll be meeting with Marc Hodler of the FIS later this month and will try to convince him that this is something the FIS must support. Besides, it's essential in order to keep skiing alive."
What Schranz saw in Aspen last weekend was exciting enough to send him off to Hodler in a persuasive frame of mind. Killy's lead over Sabich for the title had been 30 points, quite an edge since only 25 points are awarded to the winner of each race, 20 to the runner-up, 15 for third, 10 for fourth and on down to five for the eight losers in the opening round. Thus, in the unlikely instance that Sabich might win both final races, Killy needed only to average two fourth-place finishes to clinch at least a tie for his title and that $40,000 check.
Then came the first round of the giant slalom. Leading Otto Tschudi in the first heat, Killy soared over a bump and made a rare error. He misjudged the line, crashed into the next gate and was disqualified. Poof! Killy was out.
Sabich scooted eagerly into the opportunity Killy had opened and reached the semifinals. But there, hurtling over the second jump at high speed, Spider caught his arm on a gate, somersaulted onto the back of his neck in an explosion of snow and skis and fractured a vertebra in his back. He struggled up but was too stunned to walk and was led away, destined for the local hospital and at least six weeks of inactivity.
With both Killy and Sabich snuffed out, Stuefer sailed smoothly through to the finals where he easily outraced Nindl in both heats, earning 52,500 and his 25 points. He then stood only 13 points behind Killy for the season. "Yes, my chances are good," he said after the race, "but I am not exactly confident. Jean-Claude is probably just a little bit mad and intends to be very fast in the slalom tomorrow."
Tomorrow was delayed for a day by the sudden blizzard but Sunday came up sunny, and the racers assembled for the finale. For all the cheering, it was a touch anticlimactic: Stuefer's last chance vanished when he lost to Tyler Palmer. Off to one side, Killy raised his arms, grinned that "I can relax now," and went on to victory.
The pro racing season is over but the suspense lingers on. Will Karli Schranz, the great downhill specialist, join the tour as he indicates he will? And will he do well if he does join? More vitally, will Killy soon confirm the rumors of his retirement, in spite of winning a grand total of $68,625 this season?
"Oh, he'll be back," said Stuefer, who doesn't really know. "Racing is the thing he loves best."
"We'd like him to come back," said Ian Todd, "but what we say has about a 5% effect on his decisions. No one knows what he's been through to win this year. He won't stay on."
Jean-Claude, of course, had the final word, such as it was. "I had been getting stronger and stronger each week, but now I'm just so tired," he said. He indicated he would think it over for a couple of months. "This has been the toughest, most exhausting season of racing I've ever been through. If you ask me now whether or not I'll retire, I'd have to say yes, I'll never come back."