The Pembaurhof is a small Tyrolean hotel stuck on the mountainside overlooking Innsbruck. Ordinarily it serves hiking-minded tourists who want fresh air and peace, but for the past four weeks it was SPORTS ILLUSTRATED-East, headquarters for our eight staffers covering the Winter Olympics. The echoes of their visit to the Pembaurhof may rumble around those rocky ledges for years.
The Winter Games were staged at a variety of venues in the Inn Valley, which meant that merely covering the action called for a certain amount of organization. But even the careful plans of Senior Editor Bob Ottum, who coordinated staff activities, were not designed to accommodate the sort of unforeseen events that seemed to occur regularly.
First came the rescue of speed skater Sheila Young, who discovered that her Olympic racing suit was too loose at the neck and across the top of the hood. She feared she would lose critical seconds because of wind drag. When Young could not find a tailor at Innsbruck, Writer-Reporter Anita Verschoth stepped in. U.S. speed skating fortunes may not have been at stake, but Young's peace of mind certainly was. Verschoth skipped the opening ceremonies, went to her hotel room and altered the suit. She raced back to the Olympic Village where Young tried the suit on and found that it fit perfectly. She wore it while speeding to three medals. "Very fast stitches," Verschoth said.
Soon thereafter the Pembaurhof caught fire. While a maid yelled, "Somebody call the fire department," Ottum and Senior Writer Bill Johnson ran to investigate and found the outside of the building aflame. Figuring the fire was not that serious, they organized a human chain and began to put out the flames with saucepans of water. Just as they were getting the blaze under control, the firemen arrived, wearing dress uniforms with shining brass buttons. They watched the fire being extinguished, never getting a speck of soot on their spotless togs. Ottum and Johnson then cleaned up and went off to cover women's speed skating.
February 23, 1976
Midway through the second week Ottum decided that it was time to take the traditional staff portrait. The staffers piled into two cars and rushed to the Bergisel ski-jumping stadium. As Photographer Neil Leifer focused his camera, one of the group glanced at the restricted area far below where Photographer Helmut Gritscher had parked one of the cars. "Helmut, half the Austrian army is standing around your car," he said. "It looks like they're trying to flip it over."
Sure enough, a platoon of soldiers was carrying the car away. End of portrait sitting. Gritscher sprinted off, with the rest of the staff in pursuit. The encounter that followed had its tense moments, but the car finally was surrendered after the officer in charge promised to issue the severest possible parking ticket. Everybody cheered and hopped in the car, its suspension system wobbling from being slammed down too hard by the soldiers. Another crisis had passed. Despite a couple of loose springs and a little smoke damage, the SI staff was still on the job in Innsbruck.