As the 12th Winter Olympiad opened "in Innsbruck last week, the Games seemed truly reduced to human size for the first time in many years. Gone was the previous aura of monumental ceremony that seemed designed more for popes and angels than mere men. In part, this was because of a mild air of ennui that wafted over the second Olympics to be held in the valley of the Inn River in 12 years. There were empty seats at most events. There was a remarkable lack of traffic jams. And the soldiers and police, though heavily armed, seemed to grow more relaxed as the week went on.
At one point the local daily gossiped breathlessly that President Gerald Ford had slipped into town and was attending the events in disguise. It was not so; the nearest thing to a presidential-style public appearance last week was made by the mayor of Innsbruck, jolly, ruddy Dr. Alois Lugger. One day he climbed into a four-man bobsled for a ceremonial ride down the bob-luge run in the hillside community of Igls. Settled into place, he unbuttoned his trousers to ease his ample belly. He completed the hair-raising ride and then rose triumphantly from the sled, his arms aloft—only to have his pants fall down to half-mast.
Still, if the Games were memorable because of their mortal dimensions, some of the performances notably were not. Indeed, three approached the heroic. First, an Austrian farm boy performed the expected with such flair and daring that men will talk of his feat for years. Then a Vermont farmboy did the unexpected with a performance so surprising that some people called it the greatest American Olympic upset in history. And then a cheery young lady from Detroit accomplished both the expected and unexpected and won three medals.
Few athletes will ever face the pressure that came to bear on Franz Klammer, 22, the world's premier downhill racer. Klammer carried the weight of a nation on his shoulders when he crouched in the starting hut at the top of the course that plunges down the face of Patscherkofel above Innsbruck. A crowd of 60,000 carpeted the mountainside to watch the race in which the man they call the Astronaut had to win a gold medal in order to uphold Austria's position as the world capital of skiing—to say nothing of his own pride as a downhiller. Only a gold would do; a silver would mean disgrace.
February 16, 1976
Naturally, it was Klammer's own excellence that had put him in this terrible bind. Last season he had been amazing on the World Cup circuit, winning eight consecutive downhills and dominating the event as no man had before—not Toni Sailer, not Jean-Claude Killy, not Karl Schranz. This year, Klammer had started slowly, then hit his stride to win four races. All this had made him one of the highest-paid amateur skiers in the world, earning perhaps in excess of $150,000 a year from equipment manufacturers. It was a far economic cry from his childhood in the village of Mooswald, where he grew up mowing hay and milking cows by hand. One of the first things his family bought when Franzi attained affluence was a milking machine. Then they built a hotel with his earnings.
But all the money Klammer had earned and all the races he had won seemed pale compared with the stakes in the balance in the Olympic downhill. Austrians felt that the very fate of their winter tourist industry rested on his winning a gold medal. It has long been demonstrated that the expenditure of millions of dollars hinges on the success of the Austrian ski team. Klammer knew the Patscherkofel course well; he won a downhill there in 1975. Now the run had been changed slightly: a few turns had been flattened out and it was about 10 seconds faster. And the surface was more treacherous as it became increasingly icy—and increasingly rough—during the week before the showdown. By the day of the race, several sections of the course were potholed and corrugated, presenting a murderous washboard quality.
For a downhiller of Klammer's ability, these things seemed to bode no special crisis. Such conditions are common, and the major challenge, as it always is, would be to take the curves, bumps and banging over the ice at 70 mph while still maintaining a low, compact tuck as much of the time as possible. Besides skill and daring, winning depends on the ability to minimize air resistance, to make oneself as clean and bulletlike as possible. The competition is so close—the result is measured in time segments ticking quicker than an eye blink—that any speck of unnecessary resistance that catches the wind might cost a man a race. Thus it was that two days before Klammer's grand test, the makers of his skis, Fischer, suddenly revealed new "magic" skis on which Klammer would conquer the Olympics. The skis had specially engineered holes poked into their shovels. The theory, it was said, was to further reduce wind resistance by letting air flow through these holes. Well, perhaps the aerodynamics of the downhill made this a possibility, but most people saw the magic ski as a transparent ploy either to psych out Klammer's opponents or to gain Olympian reams of publicity for Fischer. Bernhard Russi, 27, the superb Swiss racer who won the gold medal in 1972, declared coldly, "If I had a ski with a hole in it, I would throw it away."
Whatever the magic properties of the hole, Klammer wore his regular old skis on the day of the race, later allowing that "the risk was too great and the snow was wrong" for the experiment.
The suspense was maximized—as was the squeeze on Klammer—when he drew starting spot No. 15, last man in the top seed. This meant that all of his significant competition would go down before him. Although he is known as a racer of powerful confidence, Klammer does not consider the Patscherkofel his best course. During the opening ceremonies the day before, as he held the Austrian flag next to U.S. flag bearer Cindy Nelson, Klammer whispered to her that he thought either of two Swiss—Philippe Roux or Russi—could beat him. Roux was clocked at 1:46.69; the veteran Russi flashed down in 1:46.06. When Klammer finally stood ready to propel himself out of the starting hut, Russi was the man to beat. Italy's Herbert Plank was second with a 1:46.59.
Klammer burst out of the start like a wild man. He took the first third of the 3,020-meter course in desperate fashion, constantly opening his tuck as he was flung into the air like a flailing rag doll over the jumps, his skis clattering over the jarring ice. He ran the first half of the course in 1:13.24, a dangerous 19/100ths behind Russi. He took still more chances in the next section and slipped even farther behind.
Now Klammer flashed into the last 1,000 meters. Ahead lay the Compression, a jump followed by a dip whose G forces were squeezing the breath out of the racers. Beyond that was a savage turn called Johannesweg that had already sent two men flying into spectacular falls. Klammer nearly went out of control again, almost missing the gate above the Compression. But he miraculously righted himself, dropped into a tuck again and took a tighter line on the course than any skier before him. He picked up split seconds. At Johannesweg he sped down the steep drop, the surface hard and rough as corrugated steel, and wrenched his body into a tremendous turn that seemed as much a product of willpower as of strength. Now he flew over the last jump and streaked down the final schuss for the finish. Klammer is celebrated for his daring, but never had he run a race teetering so consistently on the edge of disaster.
Bernhard Russi was waiting. He had buried his helmeted head in his hands, refusing to watch the blinking electronic timer as Klammer flashed under the finish-line banner. The bellow that rose from the mountainful of fans told Russi what had happened. Franz Klammer had performed under inhuman pressure and had won by .33 of a second. His reputation, as well as the immediate future of the Austrian tourist industry, seemed quite literally golden. There was talk of changing the name of the mountain from Patscherkofel to Klammerkofel.
A few moments later there was another performance, less widely noted but almost as courageous and impressive. Andy Mill, 22, a friendly young man from Aspen, finished a remarkable sixth despite the fact that he was racing on a right leg so badly bruised that he had been unable to stand without pain the day before. No one suggested naming a mountain after Andy Mill, but it was the best Olympic finish for an American male downhiller in 24 years.
The downhill for women last Sunday was on a far different kind of course, 17 miles out of Innsbruck on a strikingly beautiful mountainside above the tree line in the village of Axamer Lizum. The run was splashed with sunshine and was far softer on top than the Patscherkofel, but icy in lower spots that were shaded. It was studded with sharp turns but was fairly flat for significant stretches. The favorite was Austrian Brigitte Totschnig, 21, who had become the most consistent force in women's downhill. This was a result, in part, of discussions over the summer with a psychiatrist—the talks had helped ease her fear of skiing fast. She was under almost as much pressure as Klammer—but she could not quite overcome it. She made a series of mistakes at the bottom of the run and finished second. Rosi Mittermaier, 25, of West Germany, won the gold.
The bronze medal was snapped up by Cindy Nelson, 20, of Lutsen, Minn. Nelson had already suffered through nine training runs on the course. She had finished only three of them because of falls or missed gates, and her times were not calculated to stir confidence. But after the race she said, "I figured that I had made all my mistakes before the race and if I just skied well I would win a medal. I really expected to win a medal." Not many others had expected her to: Nelson had skied unevenly through the early stages of the 1975-76 World Cup season. She was so upset by her lack of progress that she had become something of a recluse.
"I decided not to talk to anyone before the Olympics because all they would do would be to ask me about my bad results, and I didn't want to be reminded of them," she said. "I figured that if I won a medal I'd have something to talk about. And if I didn't, I wouldn't."
Now she had something to talk about. A tiny pair of pink earrings sparkling when she moved, she said, "One of the only positive things I could think of before the race was that I didn't have any pressure on me to win because nobody expected me to do well. I suppose that will be different next time."
Earlier in the week, far across the Inn valley from Axamer Lizum, throngs of sinewy cross-country racers labored through the first Olympic events, running exhausting long distances on courses cut through the woods outside the lovely resort village of Seefeld. The cream of this tough crop has always been European, mostly from the bitter tundras of Scandinavia or the Soviet Union. Never had an American been in remote contention for high reward in international Nordic skiing. The best Olympic finish was 15th at the Lake Placid Games—44 years ago. But last week the unexpected took place in Seefeld: Bill Koch, 20, from Guilford, Vt., won a silver medal in the 30-kilometer race, a brutal test of about 18 miles that ordinarily only the most seasoned veterans finish in good competitive time. That Koch did so well came as a total surprise to even the most knowledgeable cross-country racers. The gold medal went to one Russian, Sergei Saveliev, and the bronze to another, Ivan Garanin, both of whom were mumbling in confusion afterward. They had no idea who this boyish racer might be who had joined them in what one observer called "a détente sandwich."
Their perplexity was understandable, because until last week Koch had appeared in fewer than 10 world-class senior races and he had run the 30-kilometer event exactly twice. He had competed well as a junior but there was no reason to expect him to rise to the level of Olympic silver at this early stage in his career. Or any American at any stage, for that matter. Koch is an ascetic, given to classic Vermonter answers to obvious questions. A reporter asked him, "Have you lived in Vermont all your life?" Koch replied, "Not yet."
He began Alpine skiing when he was two, ski-jumping when he was six, and every day raced his classmates' bus to school on skis. Asked if the bus always won, Koch replied dryly, "It depended on the snow conditions." He won some trophies as a jumper, then switched full-time to cross-country racing. Koch's commitment to the sport is now almost Buddhist in its intensity. "There is something very spiritual about cross-country skiing," he says. "It really moves me. Sometimes I see it as an art form."
Koch suffers from a disorder usually disastrous for a racer, a malady called exercise-induced asthma. The tiny air sacs in his lungs constrict when he exercises heavily and it is enormously difficult for him to breathe. The ailment first appeared just 18 months ago. There is no cure, but Koch is able to race because of a drug called chromyl sodium. Before he came to Innsbruck, U.S. officials sent a clutch of letters to Olympic bigwigs to determine that there would be no post-race hassles over the drug that might cost him a medal, as happened to swimmer Rick DeMont at Munich in 1972.
If Koch's silver-medal finish was a thunderbolt, for a time the expectations were even more stunning. At one point he led the field and seemed to have a chance for the gold. But Saveliev burst ahead and finished 28 seconds in front, the equivalent of a split second in the Alpine downhill. Ironically but logically, Koch finished without fanfare—the more glamorous speed skating and the men's downhill races were going on at about the same time. No reporter from a major American newspaper or magazine was there to see Koch; nor was any camera or commentator from ABC-TV. Koch said philosophically, "They'll be there next time."
And indeed they were when, three days later, he ran the 15-kilometer race, an event he is far more accustomed to than the 30-kilometer. When someone asked Koch if his newfound celebrity was burdensome, he said, "If you win a silver, people always expect a gold next." But there was no gold next. He finished sixth—still better than any other American had done for 44 years.
If Americans have never won in Bill Koch's sport, they almost always do in Sheila Young's. Over the years the U.S. has taken more medals in speed skating than in any other Winter Olympic event. And so it was in Innsbruck. In three straight days Young produced a gold, a silver and a bronze in performances that were almost as filled with the pressure of expected victories as Klammer's. Young holds the world record at 500 meters, and she was heavily favored in the event at Innsbruck. She won it with a magnificently explosive run, clocking an Olympic record 42.76 on what the experts called "slow ice." In the 1,000-meter race Young was one of three favorites. After a strange, skate-flailing start, almost like a race car spinning its wheels, she wound up third by .71 of a second. It turned out that the ice had been too heavily watered a few moments before her start. A splendid earlier run by teammate Leah Poulos, 24, won the silver medal behind Russia's Tatyana Averina.
The bonus medal for Young was the silver in the opening 1,500-meter race last Thursday, an event in which she had rarely done so well. Her coach, Peter Schotting, said, "The 1,500 was a wild-card thing. We have had problems with it in the past because Sheila has such a fast start and she can't pace herself. This time she had a slower opening pace and held up through the last of the race." As for being the competitor with the best medal harvest for a time at the Games, Young confided to a friend, "The gold medal is the most important to me. I wouldn't trade four silvers for one gold." On Sunday, Averina pulled ahead with her second gold, in the 3,000. Still, Young had become the most successful U.S. speed skater in the Games since John Shead and Irving Jaffee won two gold medals apiece in 1932.
When Young was formally awarded her gold medallion, she wriggled, giggled and blushed with joy. It was a warm and human reaction to a ritual that is often far too sobersided, too fraught with Olympic pomposity. But, then, perhaps Sheila Young was simply being an unwitting symbol of the 12th Winter Olympiad, where people and sport counted for more than pomp and circumstance.