The downhill ski race, fraught as it is with derring-do and danger, is the centerpiece of winter sports competition and no Olympics would be worth its medals without one. But when the world's best Alpine racers came to Lake Placid from Europe last week, they were skeptical. They had heard that the 1980 Olympic runs on Whiteface Mountain were flat, boring and less than technically perfect, and that the machine-made snow was undependable. As a Swiss coach noted archly to a U.S. official, "We hear that this course is best raced on cross-country skis."
It took just one day of training to change those views. When the pre-Olympic World Cup downhills were over, nearly everyone agreed that what had been fashioned among the craggy rocks and old stumps on Whiteface were two downhill courses that rank among the fiercest in the world.
This grudging acceptance came in spite of the weather, a continuation of one of the weirdest winters in north country history. The snow ranged from rock-hard ice to mashed potatoes—often a bit of both on the same day.
For last Friday's women's downhill, it was warm and damp. A light layer of mist drifted down the mountainside and an inch of wet new snow blanketed the course. The doughty Cindy Nelson, now 23 and in her eighth year of world-class racing for the U.S. team, had clocked consistently impressive times in practice. She needed them: just a week earlier she had been beaten by West Germany's Irene Epple for the U.S. national downhill championship on the same run. But now Nelson seemed to be at peak form. Her training times were far better than those of Annemarie Moser-Pr‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áll of Austria, the perennial downhill queen. But Moser-Pr‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áll, 25, had won five of six downhills (Cindy won the other one) going into last week's competition, putting her career total at a record five World Cup championships, a record 58 World Cup wins and eight Olympic or world championship medals.
March 12, 1979
On Friday, Moser-Pr‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áll started 11th, swinging smoothly through the tight turns on the top third of the run in 40.34 seconds. She picked up speed in the less technical second third, then settled into a constant tuck to maintain the pace down the flat, wet lower slopes to finish in 1:43.07. At that point, no one knew if the time would stand, but when Nelson pushed herself out of the starting gate 11 racers later, Moser-Pr‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áll was still leading on the board.
Nelson slammed down the intricate top section, her form perfect and her line better than the others'. Her interval time was a superb 40.14, two-tenths better than Moser-Pr‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áll. It looked like Nelson might be primed for an upset. Then, suddenly, she slowed. And slowed again, almost visibly. The cause was clearly a waxing problem. By the time she was moving across the flats to the finish, her skis were running so badly that she lost a full second to Moser-Pr‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áll in the last 33 seconds of the run. If the two had run that section side by side, the Austrian would have gained 25 yards on her. Nelson finished in 1:44.25, good for eighth place.
When the race was over, the incomparable Moser-Pr‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áll had won yet again, followed by Marie-Theres Nadig and Bernadette Zurbriggen of Switzerland. The next-best U.S. finisher was Roxanne Toly, Park City, Utah, in 12th, with 11 other U.S. racers buried even farther in the snows. "I don't think Annemarie did anything better than I did," Nelson said. What the Austrian obviously had done was wax better for the conditions.
Certainly the weather was erratic. In the weeks before the World Cup circus came to town, Lake Placid had been besieged with temperatures as low as—40°. It got so cold that the four feet of snow on Whiteface turned as hard as concrete. To soften up the courses for racing, officials trundled out Snowcats and dozens of volunteers attacked the runs with metal-toothed garden rakes. Most of them wore crampons, and the smarter ones tied themselves to trees to keep from careening down the mountain if they fell.
If such courses are dangerous to workers, they are death-defying to racers. Particularly the men's run, a frightening slash of turns and drops that falls from the wind-blasted peak to one point called Victoria, where racers have been officially clocked as fast as 87 mph.
But no sooner had the workers chopped up the ice than the weather struck again: Saturday dawned warm and radiant, turning the men's course to mush. As a result, the application of ski wax became more important than the application of the skier. The winner turned out to be Peter Wirnsberger, 20, an Austrian who was 19th in last year's FIS world championship at Garmisch and has won only one other World Cup downhill in his career. He gave full credit to his skis. "I have Fischer this year," he said. "Last year I raced on Kneissl. My Fischers always want to go fast; my Kneissls, never." Lest that sound like just another commercial from just another highly paid young amateur, consider the case of Franz Klammer.
Celebrated around the world after his stunning gold-medal race at the Innsbruck Olympics, Klammer has fallen upon hard times—his best downhill finish this season has been fifth, his worst, 40th. And Klammer just happens to have switched from Fischer to Kneissl skis. He shrugs it off. "Others use them and they are in the top five," he says. "No, it is me. At the beginning of the season, I thought, 'This can't be! I can't be this slow!' But I was so slow and now, all the time, I am thinking, trying to remember what I did when I skied so fast. And nobody can tell me. So I just tell myself not to feel concerned. Stay happy. Go out and have a good time. There are worse fates in the world than one of being a slow ski racer." Klammer's fate did not change at Whiteface: he finished 19th. Behind Wirnsberger were Peter Muller of Switzerland and David Murray of Canada. Again, the U.S. racers were buried.
In the men's giant slalom on Sunday, there was more at stake than a pre-Olympic medal. The overall World Cup championship was still undecided and the Whiteface GS could be crucial. Last season, Sweden's nonpareil Ingemar Stenmark had wrapped up the championship before the end of January. This had sent the busybody bureaucrats who run these races back to their calculators to devise yet another kind of scoring system to penalize Stenmark and bring back the vaunted three-event performer a la Jean-Claude Killy or Karl Schranz. They created a set of rules that rewards skiers for entering all three disciplines—downhill, slalom and giant slalom. Stenmark, who refuses to consider the downhill as an event for civilized men, was thus cut off from another overall world title, despite the fact that he is the world's best racer.
Enter unheralded Peter Lüscher, 22, of Switzerland, who had never won a World Cup race before this season, and America's Phil Mahre, 21, second to Stenmark on the circuit last year. Both Lüscher and Mahre run the downhill willingly, though with little success. Neither has finished better than 12th this year—and at Whiteface Lüscher was 26th and Mahre 38th—but they do pick up a few points from time to time in the combined. Going into the GS, Lüscher held a fairly good edge over Mahre, 181 World Cup points to 155. However, the mathematicians who devised the new scoring system had given extra weight to the late-season events.
As it turned out—violently and sadly—there would be no need for any kind of scoring system to settle the contest between Mahre and Lüscher. In the first run of the GS, Phil swung into a turn about two-thirds down the 1,300-meter course, caught a ski on the gate and crashed. It was not a particularly fearsome fall, but the result was clear from the first examination: he had broken the tibia in his left leg. His season and his rivalry with Lüscher was over.
The race went on, and Stenmark produced yet another of his patented victories. Trailing in third place by .5 of a second after the first run, Stenmark turned on full power in the second to finish with a 2:38.93 total, more than two seconds faster than anyone else. No man deserves the overall World Cup title more than Stenmark, but as the powers would have it, it will go to Lüscher, who finished third in the GS to wrap it up.
That done, the World Cup circus packed up and moved on. There are four more meets to go, but whatever might happen, the events at Lake Placid last week proved that at the 1980 Olympics there would be no shortage of thrills on the courses of Whiteface. And certainly no shortage of spills.