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OPENING UP THOSE GOLDEN GATES

Feb. 23, 1976
Feb. 23, 1976

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Feb. 23, 1976

Las Vegas
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College Basketball
Motor Sports
Golf
Mr. Clarke
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over
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OPENING UP THOSE GOLDEN GATES

Slalom gates on an Innsbruck mountainside were portals to fame for a West German "granny" and skating rinks were icy avenues to gold medals for two Americans at the Winter Games

By William Oscar Johnson

So good were the Games of the 12th Winter Olympiad that a visitor might be forgiven for concluding that all Winter Olympics to come should simply be staged at Innsbruck, over and over, in a setting of maximum efficiency and good spirit. Everything worked. Indeed, the only casualties were those felled by the flu. As always, some tried to measure the value of ideologies by the numbers of medals won, and, as usual of late, the Communist states finished first: Russia won 27 medals, East Germany 19. Next came the very rich, the U.S. and West Germany finishing with 10 each. Far more inspiring was the fact that Liechtenstein, population 23,000, won two Olympic medals.

This is an article from the Feb. 23, 1976 issue Original Layout

But counting medals was not the way to judge Innsbruck. If there was a symbol for these Games it was Rosi Mittermaier. No one was so charming, no athlete so refreshing as the 25-year-old West German ski racer who last week became the most decorated 1976 Olympian of all.

The night before she won the downhill at Axamer Lizum, Rosi dreamed that she would get a medal. Before she raced the next morning, she chided her subconscious, "Don't produce such nonsense." It did seem like nonsense, for never in her international racing career—10 years of World Cup competition and three Olympics—had Rosi Mittermaier won a major downhill race, although she had won 16 German national ski titles and is the leader this season in World Cup points. She has been around ski racing so long that her teammates call her "Omi" (Granny). But at Axamer Lizum, Granny beat them all.

Now, suddenly, she was famous. Flowers were strewn across the bed in her hotel room. Soldiers guarded the stairway. From time to time she would step out onto the balcony and favor the crowds with a dimpled smile and friendly wave.

The excitement spread. Rosi might win another gold medal in the next event, the slalom. She might, all right, but she could scarcely be favored. Six times in World Cup races this season Rosi had finished second to Lise-Marie Morerod of Switzerland, and Morerod was odds on to win.

The slalom course was far meaner than it looked, spilling 1,312 feet down the hillside at Lizum. There was one particularly tricky gate two-thirds of the way where a chain of fairly simple turns suddenly changed to a wrenching series of long, sharp curves. It was there, on the first run of the required two, that More-rod skied off the course and was disqualified. Rosi was second with a 46.77 run, .09 of a second behind teammate Pamela Behr. One more run to come.

Rosi's mother Rosa and her father Heinrich were in the crowd. Frau Mittermaier wore a fashionable black Bogner ski outfit, father was dressed in a suit and brown overcoat and looked as if he had accidentally happened onto the course while on the way to the office.

Rosi's second run was slashing and strong and she finished in 43.77 to lead the field. Her coach jumped up and down, shouting, Sieg, Sieg, Sieg (victory, victory, victory).

When Rosi came off the medalists' stand she went directly to her mother, handed over the bouquet of roses she had been given, and said, "Mummy, I can't help it. I have to cry." Then, crushed in the mob of police and officials, she was swept away to meet her public. In the relative calm behind Rosi's departure, her mother said, "She is a lion. She is quite tough. Today I have seen tears in her eyes for the first time."

And now talk of three gold medals for Rosi began. It was an exciting possibility to consider, something no woman skier had ever accomplished. But as anticipation swirled around the German racer, she kept spinning a kind of grandmotherly wisdom. She said that an Olympic medal won in a race or two was not half as important to her as winning a World Cup title, which signified excellence and consistency. Rosi even managed to speak of the fun of her sport. "Everybody should enjoy skiing," she said. "One should not take ski racing too seriously. I have had some very bad results in my career from doing just that."

On the day Rosi went for her third gold medal, the long, steep giant slalom course at Lizum was thickly flanked with spectators. Perhaps 35,000 were on hand, most of them Germans who had been pouring across the border since long before dawn. They chanted, "Rosi, Rosi," sometimes spontaneously, sometimes at the prompting of an ABC-TV director. There were so many people on the mountain that dozens decided to climb trees to view the race. The public address system announcer finally shouted, "People up in the trees. Achtung! Please come down. It is in your own interest. It is in the interest of the other spectators, and it is in the interest of the trees."

The first one down the course was a Canadian, Kathy Kreiner, 18, a strong but heretofore ordinary racer. Her time of 1:29.13 represented an unknown quantity; there was nothing to compare it with. The next two racers were more than two seconds slower. Then Rosi charged out of the gate, recording a slightly better interval time than Kreiner. The mountainside heard the report and burst into excited sound. Her next interval was considerably better than Kreiner's and the crowd at the bottom began to bellow. People heaved forward against the slats of a restraining fence, bulging it. When Rosi skied into the lower third of the course, perhaps she relaxed a bit, possibly her concentration eased up. She attacked two gates straight on and she had to skid slightly to get through them. She lost the time edge—and she also lost the race, finishing .12 of a second behind Kathy. Still, she had a silver medal to go with the golden pair, and no woman skier had ever done that, either. Given the immense pressure, it had been a spectacular achievement.

As for Kathy Kreiner, she may go down in history renowned only as the woman who beat Rosi rather than for her own accomplishment. While she has been racing on the World Cup circuit for six years, she had won only one race (in 1974) and this season had never placed better than ninth. If it seemed an injustice that she beat Rosi out of her third gold, it could only be said that this was the luck of the Olympics.

After Rosi's performances, the men's slalom races seemed anticlimactic. Franz Klammer, the mighty downhiller, had a go at the giant slalom and bombed out. Heini Hemmi, 27, a tiny, bearded, unknown Swiss racer won, and stood at the bottom to suffer the surprised stares of the crowd. ABC's Bob Beattie, groping for just the right searching question, stuck a mike in front of Hemmi's beard and said, "Tell me, do you think you won the race because you are so small?" Hem-mi blinked in confusion and said, "Please?"

The slalom gold went to Italian Piero Gros, flashing home ahead of his countryman and four-time World Cup champion, Gustavo Th√∂ni, and the male half of the improbable Liechtenstein one-two punch, Willy Frommelt. In the first run, American Geoff Bruce set a breakneck pace and had the world beaten—until he crashed into a gate like a tumbling windmill some 20 yards from the finish line.

But if the U.S. team was less than perfect on skis, it excelled, for the second week, on skates. Peter Mueller, 21, is a slim and handsome speedster from Mequon, Wis. and the best in the world at 1,000 meters. Racing in Europe since January, he had lost eight pounds. "I don't feel strong," he said. "I'm not in my best shape." He didn't race particularly well in the 500 meters, finishing fifth, and the night before the 1,000 he was doubtful of his chances.

The next morning Mueller was slated to start early, and he drew a weak partner in his heat, an unfortunate circumstance since everybody behind him could shoot at his time and his slower opponent could not press him to extraordinary effort. But Mueller broke away neatly and powered through, striding out in 1:19.32. The most worrisome threats were two Russians, Valery Muratov and Alexander Safronov, and both made the same mistake: they sprinted too fast at the start and thus had too little left for the finish. When it was clear that Mueller had won, by the very decisive margin of 1.13 seconds over silver medalist Jorn Didriksen of Norway and 1.25 over the veteran Muratov, a longtime skating pal, Muratov said repeatedly, "I'm so happy." And obviously he meant it.

Another Wisconsinite, 20-year-old Dan Immerfall, added the 500-meter bronze to the U.S. speed skating medal pile and so the final count, including Sheila Young's gold, silver and bronze and Leah Poulos' silver from the week before, added up to a gratifying six.

Then came the most glamorous gold medal of the Games. Dorothy Hamill, 19, the lovely U.S. figure skating champion from Riverside, Conn., had been unbeatable all week, scoring high in the disciplined school figures, then adding more points in the compulsory short program. The final event, the full freestyle program, is the Olympic equivalent of a night at the opera. It draws an audience like no other at the Games, sleek and fashionable, spectators who sleep and shop by day and never set a Gucci-loafered foot on a slalom run. So it was in Innsbruck.

Hamill drew the 14th starting spot, as befits a star; other competitors would warm up the audience. And warm them up they did. Soviet sprite Yelena Vodorezova, at 12 the youngest Olympian of them all, swept into a leggy, darting, butterflylike program that drew hearty applause. The response was warm, too, for lithe Wendy Burge, 18, of Garden Grove, Calif. But as expected their scores did not reflect the sparkle of their skating. Then Dorothy came on and the crowd settled back. She skated cautiously, with perhaps less flair than she might have shown had she not enjoyed such a commanding lead. There was no standing ovation, but the crowd obviously thought her dazzling, and when she finished enthusiasts littered the rink with flowers.

The last woman up was world champion Dianne de Leeuw of Paramount, Calif., who, having dual citizenship, skates for The Netherlands. She had beaten Dorothy in 1975 for the world title, but this night was to mark her dethroning. For a moment there was a look of resignation on her face that indicated she knew it. She skated bravely into second place.

Dorothy Hamill took her gold medal to dinner, pausing occasionally to look at it in satisfaction. At 5 a.m. she took it to bed, putting it under her pillow. Next day at breakfast, when someone asked where her medal was, she reached into her blouse and pulled it up on its red and white ribbon. "Right here," she said.

Of the Games' exercises in courage none was more affecting than that of Bill Koch, the 20-year-old Vermonter whose 30-kilometer cross-country silver medal in the opening week had been a rare surprise. In the second week, running the third leg of the 40-kilometer relay, he sprinted from eighth place to put the U.S. temporarily, and astonishingly, in third as he touched the anchor man. And finally he essayed the punishing 50-kilometer run. That he came in 13th was entirely honorable—it was the best U.S. finish ever in the 50. That he finished at all speaks of his determination.

"I began to get suspicious at about 25 kilometers that I was going to run into a brick wall," said Koch. "I was afraid of losing consciousness out on the back end of the course and just lying there in the snow. There's nobody to pick you up. I don't know how or why I finished. Maybe a little bit of pride. When I came across the finish line I just couldn't see anymore. I couldn't do anything."

Attending physicians said Koch was suffering from cerebral hypoxia, an insufficiency of blood reaching the brain. That added to his chronic "exercise-induced asthma" made Koch's journey into pain excruciating.

Until the final event of the Games, the Austrians, en masse, were hurting almost as much as Koch. Their performances had been disappointing, with only Klammer's pressure-cooker gold medal in the men's downhill to satisfy their high hopes. The natives were so angry at the ski team leaders that Coach Toni Sailer said, only half-jokingly, that he might soon need police protection. The women skiers had only Brigitte Totschnig's silver medal in the downhill to wave about, and bitter spectators had taken to shouting obscenities at Austrian skiers as they raced. But on Sunday afternoon, in a gray fog that blanked out the Alps, two young ski jumpers, Karl Schnabl, 21, and Toni Innauer, 17, came through.

Innauer went first on both jumps. When he had finished he stood in first place ahead of a pair of East Germans. Now Schnabl was up for his last jump. He fidgeted interminably, adjusting his goggles again and again. The Bergisel stadium, packed with a crowd of 70,000, was hushed. At last Schnabl pulled himself over the edge, sped down the incline and sprang off the lip of the jump. He soared and soared, and landed with a clean clap of skis. Then the stadium erupted: Schnabl had edged past his teammate to win the gold medal. The crowd surged around him. On the final day Austrian athletes had performed capitally for the nation that calls itself the world capital of winter sport, and for visitors who had come to view Innsbruck as a jewel among Olympic cities.

TWO PHOTOSRosi Mittermaier hurtles down the slalom course to her second gold medal, then rejoices.THREE PHOTOSPeter Mueller started fast in the 1,000 and finished fondly with his fiancée, silver medalist Leah Poulos. Kathy Kreiner, the Canadian upset winner in the giant slalom, celebrates with Rosi and bronze medalist Danielle Debernard.PHOTOCharming in performance, demure in victory, Dorothy Hamill was always a winning figure.TWO ILLUSTRATIONS