Here are the main elements of the script for the 1978 world ski championships at Garmisch: Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden will be disqualified when FIS doctors discover that he was secretly assembled with steel bars and rubber bands at a cost of $6 million. And Franz Klammer of Austria will thank everybody for a downhill that is exactly his kind of course: he will lose it through all the tricky bumps and gates at the top—and he will win it back at the bottom by doing 385 mph on the last straightaway. Between these events, the competitors from 18 nations will carry on the business of racing among mortals.
Garmisch is determined to stage a meet stirring enough to hold ski-racing enthusiasts until the 1980 Winter Games at Lake Placid. The setting some 50 miles southwest of Munich should be free of distractions since, as one U.S. racer says, "There's not a whole lot of boogieing at Garmisch." But what the little village lacks in bright lights is more than offset by a brace of first-rate competition sites in the shadow of the Zugspitze.
The men's slalom course, for example, is more than just a snaky, flag-punctuated line down a mountain. The experts who laid it out have installed special problems. The opening section of the course falls away so sharply that the start will be a bit like kicking the competitors off the top of a building. "The first six or eight gates are absolutely straight down," says Hank Tauber, the U.S. alpine director. "After that, the course really starts to pitch and bump and roll. The winners will be the best racing technicians. Then will come the survivors. The rest will be off the course, trying to untangle themselves from the Ovomaltine stands."
Tauber and other team directors already know the best technician among the slalomists. So does the rest of the world. Stenmark will go to Garmisch having already locked up the overall World Cup title with six wins in seven slalom and GS starts, a record unmatched in ski-racing history. Stenmark is a blond 21-year-old of such impenetrable cool that a faint smile represents a wild emotional outburst, much as with countryman Bjorn Borg, and there is a tendency among his opponents to sidle up to him occasionally to see if he's still breathing. Which means handicappers set aside the gold medal for Stenmark, then move on to the rest of the field. "There was too much pressure on him at Innsbruck in '76 when he crashed in the slalom," Tauber says. "But Garmisch represents an intermission in a season already won. He'll probably be entirely relaxed." Either way, nobody but Stenmark will know, and he'll never tell.
January 23, 1978
Still, with each nation permitted to start four racers in each event, there will be a concentrated attack on the lonely Swede in both slalom and giant slalom from the Austrians, the Swiss—even the Americans. Tops among the technicians capable of beating Stenmark at the right moment is 20-year-old Klaus Heidegger of Austria, who out-skied the Swede twice last year on his way to second overall in the World Cup. Heidegger, who finished second in two and won one slalom this season, has been surging ahead since advancing from the B team two years ago and is that rare racer in the Jean-Claude Killy mold, an all-events man.
Carrying the weight for the U.S. men will be Phil Mahre, 20, of White Pass, Wash., Stenmark's opposite in temperament, a stamper and shouter who is building his best season ever, finishing in the top four six times in seven races. Mahre, famed for his dive-bomber descents on the second run of a slalom event, is more and more frequently within split seconds of the leaders. "We're hoping for a medal of some kind from Mahre," Tauber says, cautiously aware of past history in predicting U.S. victories. In truth, however, Tauber is betting so strongly on Mahre in the slaloms that he is considering the risky strategy of turning him loose in the opening event, the downhill. The instructions to Mahre would be something like "Save your Klammer imitations for the party; just finish the race so you can be eligible for the combined title," a little number that Billy Kidd pulled off for a gold medal at the 1970 world meet.
The men's giant slalom course is relatively flat but also fast, a run in which the racers can stay in a tuck, head down and tail up, most of the way. Heidegger won the GS at the championship trials in Garmisch last year and would be a solid favorite this time but for Stenmark, Mahre, Andreas Wenzel of Liechtenstein—and the smallest spoiler of them all, tiny Heini Hemmi of Switzerland. In addition to posing as a Munchkin, Hemmi wins giant slaloms. He took the gold medal at Innsbruck and won three races last season to tie Stenmark for the World Cup GS title.
The little people also are poised to strike in the women's slalom events. Pushing hard to upset overall World Cup champion Lise-Marie Morerod of Switzerland is Perrine Pelen, 17, of France, who makes Steve Cauthen loom like Darth Vader. Abbi Fisher of the U.S., not much bigger, is expected to place well in both slaloms and to make a strong run at the combined. Among the bigger folks will be Liechtenstein's Hanni Wenzel and Cindy Nelson of the U.S., who is picking up steam as the season rolls on.
Meanwhile, back at the downhill courses, here come Klammer and Annemarie Moser-Proell, Austria's finest. If the men's course is ideally suited to Klammer's style—he won there last year, naturally—any old course seems to suit Moser-Proell, the five-time World Cup champ who retired for 20 months but grew weary of not having anybody to intimidate. Handicappers have plenty of candidates to finish behind these two, but they're all Austrians, too. If someone else wins, who knows, there may be a bit of boogieing in Garmisch after all.