It might always be remembered as the week when Liechtenstein emerged from the toy department of nations to become a world power in skiing. Then again, it might not be remembered at all. For as the Fédération Internationale de Ski world championships of 1974 unfolded in blasé old St. Moritz last week it often seemed as if all evidence of ski racing and racers had vanished beneath the busy stream of bored celebrities, ancient millionaires and various nonchalant sybarites who flowed through the town's twisting streets.
Championship or no championship, life went on as always in St. Moritz: the dainty dogs of deposed princesses minced around hotel lobbies, and uncounted countesses kept their daily appointed rounds with hairdressers, masseuses and gigolos. The dashing sled riders of the venerable Cresta run continued their mad morning races and at lunch guzzled champagne from silver trophies. The Shah of Iran was in town with his new personal secretary, the former king of Greece. Here, too, was Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau—with no bodyguards and an elegantly shabby sports coat—plus such jet-propelled types as Zubin Mehta, Prince Victor Emmanuel, Princess Ira von F√ºrstenberg, Tina Niarchos and G√ºnter Sachs.
At first, all the dazzle seemed to have settled at the bottom of the mountain. Nor did it help that a particularly doleful weather front clamped down over the Swiss Alps early in the week, turning St. Moritz into a gingerbread penitentiary and forcing racers to forgo much of their training. There was all the usual swash-buckle of visiting world ski champions—but still the old town failed to stir.
Even beneath the most sparkling of skies it would have been hard to infuse much personal radiance into a champ like Gustavo Thoeni. The 22-year-old Italian, three-time winner of the World Cup, unquestionably is the best ski racer on earth today, one of the finest in history. At St. Moritz he won the giant slalom with a display of intelligence and power. Then on the last day of the meet he turned in a memorable performance in the slalom to seize another gold medal. Starting the second run in eighth position, he attacked the course with astounding ferocity, yet always under control, beating the field with flair. But for all his dash, Thoeni has the charisma of an apprentice pasta maker; there is simply no hero visible in the boy for a wishful public to worship.
February 17, 1974
One gray morning he appeared for a very brief private interview at his hotel on the outskirts of St. Moritz. He had a slightly runny nose. He looked pallid, tired, utterly phlegmatic. In answer to questions in German (he speaks no English), the world champion said, "I don't know if I will continue until the 1976 Olympics. I don't know if I will be training today. I don't know if I will go to watch the women's race. I don't know if I will get married soon." Asked if it was true that he was engaged, Gustavo said, "So, so," and returned to his room.
Later his more talkative coach, Mario Cotelli, added that Thoeni is officially employed as an Italian customs inspector and also as a brigadier in the Italian army, that he likes mountains and forests and animals, that he sleeps a lot and never goes to parties.
Naturally, around St. Moritz that sort of personality could not upstage so much as the least princess at the Palace Hotel bar. But so it went last week, on and on through this oddly uninspired meet.
In the men's events an enormously strong Austrian team dominated as predicted. The pleasant veteran David Zwilling, 24, won the downhill—first of his life—and he placed second in the slalom. Promising young Franz Klammer, 20, finished second in the downhill, then scored high enough in both slaloms to win a gold medal in the combined. In the giant slalom Austria's Hans Hinterseer, 20, finished second and almost pulled off a bronze in the slalom—but was later disqualified for missing a gate.
Among the women, Austria's Annemarie Moser-Proell, 20, thundered over a dimly visible downhill course and finally won the first world event gold medal of her otherwise brilliant career. Elated, she promptly took a hearty swig of grappa from an admiring Swiss soldier in the finish area. Later she told a press conference that she would definitely be racing in the Innsbruck Olympics, but then would probably retire and "give birth to two babies." Second to Mrs. Moser-Proell was the vivacious Canadian, Betsy Clifford, 20, whose racing career recently had seemed all but finished by bad luck and injuries.
Meanwhile, the fortunes of France suddenly grew brighter. A devastating series of early-season firings had sent the team's finest racers into exile for commercialism, but in St. Moritz pretty Fabienne Serrat, just 17, won the giant slalom, then went on to do well enough in the other two events to capture the gold medal for combined performances. Mich√®le Jacot, the 1970 World Cup winner, came back from a series of injuries and won a silver in slalom, while Jacqueline Rouvier got a bronze in the giant slalom—all of which gave the French more medals than they have won since their halcyon days of supremacy in 1970.
But every ski meet needs something special, and certainly it came. Ah, yes. There was the small but lovable magnificence of Liechtenstein to contemplate. Never before had this gentle principality experienced the exhilaration of winning medals in world ski racing. Never. Last week it was twice blessed. Hanny Wenzel, 17, a little dumpling of a child who was born in Germany but now lives in Liechtenstein, made two finely tuned assaults on the slalom course and beat the veteran La Jacot. Hanny's victory was delightful enough, but perhaps not stunning since she had already won twice this year on the European circuit. But then one day later even the rich denizens of St. Moritz were a little touched when Hanny's unheralded teammate, Willi Frommelt, suddenly roared down the course to edge out Austrian Karl Cordin for a downhill bronze medal.
Tall, dark, smiling, Willi took his triumph in stride, though he acknowledged the difficulties facing any Liechtensteiner who wishes to become a ski champion: "We have no organized training camps and we have no national programs of any kind, so unless a racer joins one of the big countries' teams he has great difficulties to improve." Hanny trains with the Swiss team, Willi with Austria. Ironically, the men's downhill race was one in which the mystical art of ski waxing was all-important. Willi Frommelt said, "I do not know exactly who waxed my skis, but in any case they were in the Austrian ski room." When he was asked if the Austrians might decline to wax his skis next time since he stole a medal from Cordin, Willi grinned and said, "We must wait and see, mustn't we?"
When the racing ended, little Liechtenstein had done better—astonishingly—than the Swiss team that had dominated the Sapporo Olympics and was trying desperately to reach a medal-winning peak for these home-country championships. The Swiss wound up with a single bronze. Liechtenstein also left behind the racers of America. Indeed, at this point it was not entirely impossible that some other odd and wonderful new entries in world skiing—such as Turkey, Iran, Lebanon or Nationalist China—might soon overtake the U.S.
As the American team left St. Moritz it was in a state of disarray worse than anything it had experienced in decades. The team had been jarred by a shakeup in the coaching staff last January; and while spirits are said to be high, the skiing is clearly too slow. Surveying the shambles around him, the new coach, Hank Tauber, grinned stiffly and said, "I like being where we are now. We can build something. I'm not predicting any pies in the sky, of course, but we have goals set and we are going to meet them."
Perhaps the first such goal might be to keep the American ski team ahead of Lebanon. The second: to someday attain the heights of Liechtenstein.