This is the centerpiece of the Winter Olympics, the most electrifying, dangerous and in many ways the most beautiful event of them all. More than any other Olympic sport, the downhill pits racer against nature in a calculated gamble with sudden disaster. It matches a mere mortal—frail and breakable and brave as hell—against God's most overwhelming terrain, a steep and rugged mountain in winter.
There goes the racer, tiny as a flea against the mountain, rocketing down the course at more than 60 mph, sometimes close to 90. Down the skier hurtles, across two miles or more of shattering bumps and curves. The course snakes through skull-breaking rocks and trees, down drops as precipitous as the side of Boulder Dam—and the racer's only meaningful armor is the crash helmet that makes him look faceless and oddly sinister. The rest of his body is vulnerable. Surely, at these velocities a sense of fear rides along.
No way. Indeed, something quite mystical and soothing seems to take over during a downhill run. Jean Vuarnet of France, who won the gold medal in the downhill at Squaw Valley in 1960, wrote of the way it was when he burst out of the starting gate: "I am now in another world—alone with trees and mountains. I've left fear behind me to find solitude. Crowds flit by, yet I am not concerned with them. I must think fast.... Watch it.... Now there's a slight shade, now total darkness. I can't see a thing.... Hang on. Stay low.... Now a schuss toward the left and a last bump at 65 mph. The course has disappeared under my ski tips.... The crowd cries out at the finish: I see trees, flags. I am back in the world again."
Otherworldly? Ah, yes. The perceptions are quite unexpected. One would imagine that the shriek of speed would dominate everything, immerse the racer in pandemonium, keep him on the razor's edge of barely restrained panic. But, no. Andy Mill, 27, a world-class U.S. racer for seven years, speaks of the downhill as a kind of lovely karma: "I watch from inside my helmet and the outside world is nothing but a blur. And it is quiet. It's not that I can't hear anything at all from inside my helmet. There's a sense of sound, but mainly just an idea of sound and it's coming from inside my head. I guess it's the sound of my mind rushing. And I have a kind of tunnel vision from inside my helmet. At the end of the tunnel I see a red gate where I'll make my next turn. Peripheral vision is almost completely gone—just blurs along the edges, and I assume they are probably people or trees. When I leave the start, I leave my mind behind. Conscious thought is too slow; I have to rely on subconscious realizations. Everything is coming so fast, such a torrent of impressions. I'm bouncing and the skis are moving so fast, and I'm aware that somehow my head knows what my feet are feeling on the ice or snow. My whole being is exploding down the mountain, but my main feeling as I look out of my helmet is, believe it or not, contentment."
And is the race different for women? No. Minnesota's Cindy Nelson, 23, winner of the bronze medal in 1976 at Innsbruck, speaks with affection of the experience: "It's exhilarating to work with the forces of speed on a mountainside, to control them, to use them. I like the thought patterns that arise. I also like the surprises. We train on a course, so we have a thorough anticipation of every nuance, but there are still surprises in every race. Some are very good. If I make a turn that is surprisingly good, I'll scream—it makes me that happy."
Racers who find peace and happiness at 70 mph are a breed unto themselves, although of the genus that includes bullfighters and cliffdivers. And like them a downhill racer may be plagued by an old or new injury—Mill, for example, has had no fewer than six knee operations, two broken legs and a fractured arm. Nelson has had two broken ankles, a dislocated hip and a broken shoulder. And the pressures of a big race—the Olympic downhill is, of course, the biggest of all—keep mounting, threatening to thaw the icy control a racer must hold.
Then there are the technological factors. Boots must be precisely tightened, bindings exactly tuned, skis waxed correctly, edges perfectly sharpened, racing suits fitted to the skin so there isn't so much as a flickering ripple to catch the air. All that equipment must be employed to maximum effect if there is to be any chance for victory. The downhill is an event in which each second is split into 100 parts. The mistaken press of a ski edge that creates unwanted friction against the snow for a distance of no more than 10 yards over a course 3,500 yards long can drop a racer from first to 10th place. And then come the most critical factors of all: the weather and the mountain. Nothing matters quite so much as the way the course has been carved into the contours of the slope. Each mountain—and each downhill—has its own personality, its own quirks and beauties, its own peculiar way of testing a racer. Each descente is unto itself, but there are some grand qualities that are imperative for a course to be a classic. Jim (Moose) Barrows, the U.S. downhill coach, says, "There are four major elements in a good course: 1) high-speed turns; 2) a section where a racer proves he can take high speed in a prolonged tuck position; 3) a demand for endurance; and 4) a moment of truth, a difficult situation that requires extremely precise technical ability and that also demands that the racer show mental discipline and courage."
The most honored mountain face of them all is the Streif at Kitzbühel in Austria, the site of the celebrated Hahnenkamm race that has been held for 40 years. The day of the Hahnenkamm is practically an Austrian national holiday, drawing more than 25,000 bellowing spectators. The vertical drop is 2,830 feet over 3,510 meters, almost two and a quarter miles, and there is no greater test of the downhiller's derring-do. Racers speak of competing in the Hahnenkamm as if it were a religious pilgrimage. The coach of the Austrian team, Karl Kahr, carries the sobriquet Downhill Charlie, because he has both raced in the event and coached others in it for years. When Downhill Charlie speaks of the course at Kitzbühel it is with both awe and affection. "It can be compared to no other," he says. "There is the Mausefalle [Mouse Trap] at the start. It requires incredible willpower to jump off into that void. The turns are not round, and the course is not rhythmical. It is fast. It is spectacular. To win at Kitzbühel is the dream of every downhiller."
Next to Kitzbühel in the hearts of downhill racers is the Lauberhorn at Wengen, Switzerland, a cruel and almost un-endurably long course—about two and three quarter miles. Downhill Charlie speaks of that one with reverence, too, saying, "In the upper third there is the Hundschopf [Hound's Head], where you enter between two rocks, a very narrow way. And then you jump into a void. The course is very steep all through, and very fast. It has many difficulties—and some of these you must negotiate after you have been racing for a full two minutes and you are so tired and have hardly any strength left."
These are the two best downhills, but there are perhaps two dozen other really good ones, each with its own character. There is Val Gardena in the Dolomites of northern Italy, with its deadly fast start and its Kamelsprünge (Camel Jumps) in the middle. There is Val d'Isère in the French Alps, with its icy chutes and its infamous compression, a sudden floor at the bottom of a high-speed drop that compresses the racer into himself. There is tough and turny Patscherkofel above Innsbruck, site of the 1976 Olympics and the magnificent victory of the Austrian Franz Klammer in a performance that is considered the best single downhill run ever made. There is Schladming in Austria, where crowds of 30,000 or more stand along its wild drop-off schuss to the finish. And there is Ruthie's Run in Aspen, Colo., with the hair-raising Strawpile Turn that some down-hillers call the single most difficult maneuver in racing.
And now, for the 1980 Olympics, there is a new downhill course in upstate New York—and though it has considerable charms to go along with its warts, it is not one that warms the hearts of downhillers. It runs down the bleak countenance of Whiteface Mountain, a 4,867-foot-high wind-beaten heap of stone and earth. Whiteface is almost always wreathed in a cloud that lays a mean, chill mist over the summit, even on days that are clean and golden across the rest of the region. Whiteface can be a cold and surly place, but it can also be absolutely stunning.
On the right kind of day, the men's course begins its 3,028-meter run at a small brown start-shack that looks out over a vista of woods and lower Adirondack peaks, over miles of foothills and river-sand flats to Lake Champlain and Vermont to the northeast. Seven miles away to the south are the tiny, clean structures of the Olympic ski jumps and the toy village of Lake Placid. This vista is all the more impressive in that one views it down a stark wasteland known as Hurricane Alley, which makes up the first 100 meters or so of the Olympic downhill. The sides of the Alley are lined with the snaggled stumps of old trees broken off by the hurricane-force gusts that often bludgeon the mountaintop. But all too often this splendid vista—and Hurricane Alley—is smothered in cloud cover. If either gusting wind or fog occurs on the day of the men's downhill, Feb. 14, the start will be dropped down the hill about 300 yards to a more protected spot.
But if Whiteface decides to smile on Valentine's Day, the Olympians can count on a memorable run. Franz Klammer, who couldn't do better than 19th at a 1979 World Cup downhill on White-face and who failed to make the Olympic team, is not wild about the course. "The top is like Kitzbühel—you must ski like a daredevil," he says. "In the middle it is like Val d'Isère, with average turns, but still very fast. Then at the bottom it is, unfortunately, quite flat. Also, it is a bit too short overall—about 1:45 [it takes two minutes to ski most downhill courses]." U.S. Alpine Director Bill Marolt, a 1960s-vintage downhiller, is more positive, saying, "The only unfortunate thing about the course is that it is very extreme: very steep at the top and relatively slow and rolling at the bottom. If the terrain were more varied all the way, it could be a truly classic downhill."
But even if it's not a classic, the Whiteface run presents a demanding Olympic test. As Mill puts it, "The winner will have to be a very competent downhiller—not only technically good, not only a glider, not only a person of high courage—but all of those things."
For a racer's-eye view of the Whiteface course, here's Mill talking his way down the route: "You start through Hurricane Alley on a fairly intermediate slope for 75 yards to a left-hand turn. You are on ice and, right off, you hit 40 to 45 mph, and you can see only 50 yards ahead. Then you turn slightly to the right. This is the entrance to Sno Field. You reach a drop-off, getting slightly airborne and hitting a left-hand turn as you land. You can't see the rest of the slope now. It's a blind, fall-away turn. This stretch is very technical. As you're turning, you pop over a rise and there is an immediate right-hand turn. Then immediately a left-hand change. And suddenly the slope opens up in front of you. The snow is usually hard. You get into a tuck to carry your speed across the exit at the bottom of Sno Field; you should be doing close to 70 mph. You hold the tuck through a traverse to a left-hand turn called Dynamite Corner. You are now almost a quarter of the way down.
"Then comes another slight drop-off. You see safety nets in the trees, and now you're coming into the section called Niagara. You come to a very demanding sharp right-hand turn, and that drops you off the headwall of Niagara. Here is where you must build up your speed for the flats. You should hit 70 mph at the bottom of Niagara. It goes suddenly very flat, sort of a depression. You carry the 70-mph speed over a small platform onto Victoria [after the mammoth waterfall in Africa]. It's steep. You hit over 80 mph here. There is a fairly large jump right at the bottom. You have to maintain your aerodynamic position, your tuck, over this jump so you can carry your speed as far as possible.
"Now you cut across under the chairlift, maintaining 65 to 70 mph through a long direction change to the right. You hit a slightly flatter section that is maybe 400 meters before the last jump to the finish. And that jump is the biggest on the course. It is very difficult because you don't want to go off it and fly very far. If you don't manage to either absorb it in your knees or pre-jump it, you go almost 120 feet through the air. You lose your speed, and you can't get it back because you land on the flat. From here you go under the chair-lift again, past the restaurant, and it's really flat from here to the finish. All you can do from here on in is hope that you had a good run." (The winning time at the 1979 downhill on Whiteface was 1:42.88, by Peter Wirnsberger of Austria.)
The women's course, which snakes down 2,694 meters from a start in the trees, is set in similar, parallel terrain and has roughly the same overall strengths and weaknesses as the men's run: steep and tough on top, flat and slow on the bottom. Annemarie Moser-Pr‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áll of Austria won the race on Whiteface last year in 1:43.07. Swiss champion Marie-Theres Nadig, 25, winner of both downhill and giant slalom gold medals in Sapporo in 1972, has taken six of seven downhills in Europe this season. She finished second on Whiteface last year, and the course does not please her. She says, grumpily, "At the top you really have to shake off your fears. It is very narrow there, the woods are very close, and right through the middle is a chairlift. You can't afford a mistake. The whole thing depresses me. The lift towers confine me."
Nelson describes the course with no hint of Nadig's depression; indeed, she makes it sound fairly exhilarating: "It starts turny, difficult and steep for the top one-third. You really have to work very hard for speed. It's technically very difficult at the top for the first 30 seconds. The first major turn is Cloudspin. Then the course falls away. In the second turn—Crossover—you make a long, sharp turn left that leads you onto a small catwalk. At the end of it, you drop off into a very sharp 90-degree turn to the right, then left. Here you go into a series of small turns, which could be called high-speed giant slalom turns. You have to carry all your speed into the flats, and you have to worry about wind gusts on the flats. Sometimes they come across, sometimes from behind, sometimes up the slope. There is one bump, nothing major, in the last quarter of the course. You have to stay on the ground as much as possible or you lose speed; let your skis glide and carry that speed down into the flat. When you come into the Ziel Schuss in the lower section, you have to stay low and relaxed. You can't be bothered by the bumps there. If you're stiff, you'll open up over a bump. That will cost you at least two-tenths of a second."
Two-tenths of a second. A mere blink of the eye. Everything good or bad, a triumphant future as a national hero or a life as a ski bum, can happen to a downhiller in two-tenths of a second. So precise is this sport that two-tenths of a second is a career.
And saving these fractions of a second ultimately boils down to something mundane: success or failure in the downhill is a question of friction. No matter how thrilling a race may be, it ultimately is nothing but a matter of which racer generated the least friction between his skis and the snow or between his body and the air. When Nelson speaks of losing time by opening up in a jump, she is talking about how much her momentum is slowed by her body slamming against a wall of air resistance. And it is slowed a lot. Thus, the great downhillers are powerfully built people, with strong thighs, who can stay in a tuck for a long time. Though a leap excites spectators and photographers, any downhiller knows that he has failed when he catches air too often. The latest talk is about the joys and importance of being a good "glider." Here, it seems, we may be dealing with something that is strictly God-given instead of man-made, something nicely beyond technology. As Hank Tauber, ex-director of the U.S. Alpine program, puts it, "The 'glider' is a racer who can keep his skis absolutely flat on the snow. It's a kind of sixth sense, I guess, and people are probably born with it. I sure don't know how you teach it. But when you see a good glider coming at you, it will seem as if his skis are actually floating over the snow. It calls for flexible lower extremities—and a kind of feel for the snow."
Downhill ski racing has been analyzed and categorized and hybridized and technologized so much in the past few years that it is hard to realize what a nice, simple game it all started out to be. Long before it became a science and a life-style, it was a mere pretty run down a snowy meadow somewhere in Norway, perhaps half a dozen centuries ago. No one is quite sure when it first got going—but obviously, the relative lack of mountains in Scandinavia meant that the downhill was a fairly limited event. It took the rollicking miners in the American West to create the first of the down-the-hill danger runs, and, amazingly enough, their technique was almost as aerodynamically sound as today's. As one miner-downhiller wrote: "We pole for dear life.... When the highest attainable speed is reached, we squat low on our snowshoes [skis] to prevent retarding speed and to offer as little front as possible to the resistance of air...."
One of the European pioneers in organized downhill racing was Mathias Zdarsky, an Austrian skier/inventor known as a grandfather of modern skiing because of the heel-fixed spring-cable bindings he originated around the turn of this century. He also invented a version of the downhill that involved running eight gates strung over a long haul down a mountain. Skiers carried rucksacks of food and wine on their backs. They also carried a single pole, known as a Ski-stock, which they straddled for braking and direction change. Zdarsky's dramatic, if quaint, advice to downhill racers went like this: "The ski runner leans back on his stick and darts downward, eyes closed. He continues straight as an arrow until he can no longer breathe, then tosses himself sideways into the snow. And when he regains his wind he hurtles himself once again toward the valley below."
Early racers in Europe were required to run downhill courses without knowing anything about their layout. In a 1910 Austrian ski novel, Flight Without Wings, the hero stood waiting to start: "One thing had puzzled him: about one minute from the start, the spectators always burst into loud laughter down the course. Evidently something particularly awkward lay in wait." The hero flung himself down the hill, saw a road and a stone wall ahead and decided to leap them in a single Gel‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ündesprung—"but just as the wall flashed beneath him, he saw to his alarm that he was heading straight into a large open water hole. Now he knew what had made the spectators laugh."
In U.S. racing early in this century, "downhill racing" didn't always mean quite what it sounds like. As Charles Proctor, a member of the 1928 U.S. Olympic ski team, pointed out, although regulations called for a downhill race to be at least a mile long, "usually there was no terrain with a hill long enough to give a full mile. What usually happened was that the race started from the highest point possible, went down, then up to the top again and finished at the bottom. This gave more downhill than up, but there was more time spent in climbing than in downhill running, so the race was usually won or lost on the climb."
There was another, more elegant form of the downhill known as "the proficiency contest" in those days. It involved judges who scrutinized the form of contestants as they made two Christiania turns, two Telemarks, an "S" turn and a snowplow stop. Perfect form for this slow-motion event required standing on the skis with the back perfectly straight, the knees slightly flexed, one foot slightly ahead of the other and the hands held at the sides. When poles were carried, the skier was disqualified or penalized if they touched the snow.
It's hard to believe, but all this was gradually leading to the kind of hell-for-crash-helmet downhill racing we have today. The first international downhill events came in the late 1920s, the first U.S. championship in 1933, the first Olympic medals in 1936. It didn't take long for the men's downhill to become a headlong super-sensationalized, race-with-death kind of event. As early as 1937, Dick Durrance, a clean-cut Dartmouth student who was then America's best ski racer, wrote an angry article about the "maniacal mountain diving" that the sport had turned into, and he decried the "headline heroes" who sought publicity by plunging down ever steeper trails.
Despite the fact that the downhill was a macho test for men, it was from the start an event for women, too, though much gentler. One of the best racers was a British woman named Audrey Sale-Barker, and a description of her from a contemporary account (1929) is fascinating—if only to see how this rather pale and ethereal young thing contrasts with the sturdy, hard-schussing women downhillers of today: "Audrey Sale-Barker was very tall, extremely slim...with pale honey-colored hair, a vague, dreamy expression, and when she skied I can only describe her as a sleepwalker. She stood very erect with both arms slightly lifted in front of her. She had little or no reserve strength in a race, gave everything she had and often collapsed and fainted when a race was over...."
But things were changing for both men and women. In the late '40s, Bill Beck, now 50, was the U.S.'s No. 1 downhiller; in fact, his fifth-place finish in the 1952 Olympics in Oslo is still the best for an American man: He recalls that "those were simple days—wooden skis, long-thong bindings, and the courses, well, you'd just get to the mountain and ski on whatever was there. There was no grooming in those days. A little shoveling maybe by the Swiss army before the Lauberhorn. There'd be ruts up to your rear end, potholes. You were at the mercy of the weather. You'd have to find your line down the course through the moguls made by recreational skiers the day before. There were no such things as safety nets or snow fences. There were no helmets—although some of us experimented with those tubular brown leather things that bicycle racers wear. But the downhill was still the event for ski racers, it was the prestigious race to be in."
It was also a dangerous event: despite primitive equipment, racers were bombing those ungroomed slopes at more than 60 mph. There were no nets, not even hay bales or fences to keep flying racers from zinging off the course and running into trees, rocks—or worse. There were fatal crashes every year and dozens of serious injuries. Then came the day that may have been the worst ever.
It was January 1959. The race was the 24th Kandahar, staged on the Kreuzeck above Garmisch in West Germany. It was not a particularly long course, only 3.4 kilometers, nor was it particularly difficult, though one rocky section was called H‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√álle (Hell). At race time, the sky was overcast and the light was flat. This is a common enough condition in ski racing—an eerie half-world in which there are no shadows, and bumps are impossible to spot.
Three forerunners were to test the Kreuzeck before the race started. Two crashed and never got to the bottom. The third made it, but he had fallen four times. The rest of that bleak day was chronicled by Curtis Casewit in a 1963 book called Ski Racing. Casewit had been at the bottom of the course as the racers came down. First came Anderl Molterer, the great Austrian. Casewit wrote: "He was white like paper and when he pulled off his crash helmet, his blond hair remained glued green to his forehead. He summed up this Kandahar with one word: 'Madness!' " The next racer, Willy Forrer of Switzerland, was shaking when he finished, and he could only mutter, "Oh, God, oh, God." Then came the winner, Karl Schranz, a babe of 21 at the time. He was pale, too, and he said only, "I'm alive." And as the race went on, things got worse. In all, 89 men started, 39 cracked up and, as Casewit reported, "There were altogether six broken bones, two broken ribs, and one ripped-off nose—cleanly sheared to the upper lip, bone and all."
But the worst was yet to happen. Racer No. 44 was John Semmelink of Canada, only 20 years old. He had made it halfway down the course in "perfect form, on legs like steel," wrote Casewit. "He was still sliding through the chutes at high speed, jumped down the 'Ice Cliff,' sped hotly through the narrow H‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√álle, and then entered the Himmelreich, the 'Heaven.' Witnesses later reported that he took a turn too fast. One of his bindings opened: he fell high through the sky and crashed into a 300-foot-deep gulley. It was icy and studded with rocks, and Semmelink fell on his head." It took a while for the ski patrol to reach the young skier, but the man who reached him first later said, "He was still screaming. His helmet had broken like an eggshell. His head was bleeding. His nose was smashed. His jaw hung askew." Semmelink died three hours later.
Death was not unusual in the downhill in those days. The same year Semmelink was killed, Toni Mark, a promising Austrian skier, died when he fell and somersaulted into the rocks along a downhill course. Those rocks had already so badly injured another skier that both his legs had to be amputated. These tragic occurrences were accepted as routine in this deadly game, and the victims were idolized. In Italy, a racecourse was named for a young Italian who had died there, and photos of him were given out at the start of races there, bearing the caption:...YOU MET YOUR INEXORABLE FATE, COLD AS THE SNOW UNDER YOUR SPEEDING SKIS. YOUR EYES ARE CLOSED FOREVER, BUT IN OUR EYES, YOU HAVE WON.
Safety devices have been installed along every FIS racecourse now. On Whiteface there are $300,000 worth of nets hung like massive red lace curtains along the woods and rocks to scoop up speeding skiers gone awry. Hay bales and padding and snow fences line courses, too. Indeed, the FIS even has a rule that sets speed limits for downhills at 90 kph (55 mph) for men and 80 kph (49 mph) for women, but no one pays any attention to these restrictions.
Glamorous though it seems to the spectator, and as peaceful as today's racer may find it, the downhill is still an explosive event. True, death has been rare lately. The last racer to die in a World Cup race was Michel Bozon of France in January 1970 at Mègève. But Leonardo David of Italy fell at the bottom of the Whiteface downhill last March and has been unable to speak or move his limbs since. It is likely that the head injury that caused his condition was the result of a much more jarring fall in the Italian championship two weeks earlier. One of the worst accidents involved the 19-year-old brother of Franz Klammer. Young Klaus Klammer was hurt in a fall three years ago in a B race, a downhill at Lienz, Austria. He has not walked a step since, and nowadays is confined to a wheelchair.
There are those who think that Franz Klammer's relative lack of success since 1978 may have been the result of haunting reflection about his crippled brother. Franz, a gentle and intelligent young man, does not agree with this theory, though he does admit that fear—or a form of it—does affect a downhill racer's performance. "I used to think when I was young that there was no such thing as fear," he says. "But it does exist, of course. Let's call it respect, not fear. Say there is a difficult jump on the course. I don't fear it, I respect it. I can't remember ever having actually felt fear during a race. Respect for the course means that you know what is necessary, you know that you can go so far, but no farther, you know that there is a limit. It makes no sense to go too fast and crash."
Whatever the cause, Klammer's fall from being Austria's celebrated "Astronaut" to being a constant also-ran is shocking. In 1976 he won six of nine downhills, including the Olympics, and in 1977 he won six of 10. Yet his best finish in the past two seasons was a fifth at Val Gardena, his worst a 40th at Villars. Why? Franz himself is puzzled, though eternally hopeful. "Last winter, I suddenly had no feel for the turns anymore," he says. "I may have done too much conditioning work, and I may have used my strength to brake. This year I have done less strength training and more skiing. When your feeling is gone, your confidence is gone."
Klammer's coach is Downhill Charlie Kahr, and Kahr is philosophical about his star's descent. "Franz has become a calmer person," he says. "He is no longer as spectacular as he was at Innsbruck. But he dominated downhill racing for years, set new limits that no one else could reach. He took more chances than anyone. He held his tuck longer. But then others came and dominated Franz. They skied to the same limits he had been setting, and right now many are skiing that way. That's why we have such depth at the top and that's why we have no Klammer as Klammer once was."
No one has ever ruled the men's downhill with quite the èlan and confidence of Klammer, but Toni Sailer of Austria and Jean-Claude Killy of France, the two Olympic triple-gold winners, were splendid at the event, and Schranz, the Austrian master of the 1960s, was magnificent—perhaps second only to Klammer. Marolt was a contemporary of Schranz, and he said, "Karl's career was up and down, but he had the knack for finding a way to change either his style or his attitude or whatever to keep himself at world-class level. During his career, equipment changed, styles of skiing changed, but somehow Karl was able to keep up."
The first of the great downhillers was Zeno Colo, the Italian who won the world championship in 1950 and the Olympics in 1952. Says Downhill Charlie of Colo, "He was racing on wooden skis with cable bindings, and considering the equipment, his performances were extraordinary. The speed wasn't as high then, but the equipment wasn't so good, either. You had a hell of a time skiing icy turns in soft boots. They'd collapse at high speeds. To compare times, Zeno Colo won at Wengen in 1948 in 4:16 when the course was a quarter mile shorter; then in 1969 Schranz was doing the longer course in 3:01 with good equipment. In 1975, with the equipment we have today, Klammer did the same course in 2:35." This year Peter Müller of Switzerland won in 2:30.
Great downhillers have come and gone for decades now. And what has separated them from mere mortals? What made them what they were? The Swiss coach Rolf Hefti offers this profile of the consummate downhill champion: 1) he must have courage; 2) he must have a feeling in his feet like a piano player has in his hands, a feeling for gliding; 3) he has to have strength and athletic ability; 4) he needs a feel for speed and distances, and he must have instantaneous reactions; 5) he must enjoy taking risks. Kahr agrees with the physical attributes—the superb coordination, the instinct for gliding, the quick reflexes—but he also cites a couple of less tangible characteristics: "I can say that the ideal downhiller must be a little uppity, a little arrogant," Downhill Charlie says. "I love that type. He has to have guts, and he should always be plenty nervous before the start. And then, too, it doesn't hurt if he is born poor, because when a skier's born poor it is in his nature to want to get ahead. Yes, take the poor ones—Klammer, Moser-Pr‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áll, Nadig, Wirnsberger—they all came from tiny villages, from poor parents, and they wanted to prove they were someone through performances on the mountain."
And Mill, viewing his own breed from the nice, silent place inside his helmet, says, "I see us as thrill-seekers. We enjoy our adrenaline rush. Every year, when spring comes and the racing season ends, I realize we are adrenaline junkies because all of a sudden there is no thrill, no downhill to run, and we don't know what to do with ourselves. It's crazy. You feel crazy. You have anxieties when you don't have that speed, that rush of adrenaline."
Among other things, it blots out thoughts of pain. Mill was hit with an entire package of downhiller's woes at the Innsbruck Olympics. The pressure of the race was bad enough, but he was also suffering from an incredibly painful injury: "I was up on top, waiting for the first racers to go. It was sunny and there was a light breeze. The tension was terrible—and on top of it I had this huge bruise on my shin and around the calf of my right leg. It was exactly where the pressures of my boot would be the greatest during the race. So I was sitting on my skis and my right foot was bare. I had it stuck deep in the snow up to mid-calf. I wanted to make it all absolutely numb, like a piece of lumber. I also had three pieces of cardboard taped together and I was going to insert them in the back of my ski boot to distribute the pressure there over a larger area—hoping that the boot top wouldn't press directly on the damned bruise.
"There was a roar when the first racer went out. I wanted to get up and move around and watch, but I stayed where I was, letting my leg freeze. It finally went numb. When I got in the starting gate, I couldn't feel anything in the leg from the knee down. I was trying to go fairly fast from the very start. I thought I was doing O.K. I couldn't feel any great pain. Then, I wasn't quite halfway down when—wham!—a terrific pain shot up my leg. I had never felt anything close to it. I hurt so bad, I started looking for a place to pull over and stop.
"Then I decided I just had to remove my mind from it; I had to think about something else. All this while the gates were flashing by and I was going like hell. I decided to concentrate with all my intensity on going faster. It was the only idea in my mind. Then the pain left me. Just went away. The whole last half of the race, I didn't feel it. I crossed the finish line and felt great. My time was great. Then it hit me. I thought I was going to faint." But Andy Mill had finished sixth in the Olympics—the best he had ever done in any major race and the best any American had done since 1952.
All right, then. To adrenaline, add courage. The Austrian women's coach Alois Bumberger says it loudly, "First of everything, you need courage. Without it, the most dazzling skiers won't ever get near the top. You have to enjoy speed, enjoy risks, search for risks. It's like a game with death, and the racer must delight in it. Downhillers are tough on themselves. They possess a certain brutality when they are on the course."
Well, it is an interesting concept. But perhaps courage is not automatically beneficial for the downhiller. Nelson, for one, thinks it can be overdone. "If you have strength, coordination and a pretty good head to concentrate on the course, then courage is not so important. In fact, if you have only courage, you'll probably end up in a hospital. Personally, I feel I don't have a whole lot of courage. I have fears about getting hurt. But I have a whole lot of confidence when I'm on the mountain—and I'll take that over courage."
Nelson may have something here. The development of the downhill has perhaps gotten to a point where raw human bravery and a willingness to risk your life are not so imperative as technique and technology, as basic engineering. Moose Barrows is a former racer from quite another era; he was a rah-rah, all-out runaway-horse kind of racer in his day, and because of it, he took one of the meanest, most spectacular multiple somersaulting falls ever seen, during his run at the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble. His most serious injury was a dislocated hip. Barrows today views the incident with a certain nostalgia, a certain melancholy, even a certain bitterness. He feels the game has gotten so dangerous that a true high-risk skier can't succeed. "It is a science now," he says, "and there are a whole lot of engineering elements in ski racing that have removed a lot of opportunities for individual judgment and personal risk by the skier. Downhills are faster, the danger of serious injury is higher, but taking risks as an element of race strategy or as an opportunity to defeat your opponent has probably decreased. There is so much danger on the hill now that it has affected the personality of the racers. They are still going all out, but the intense pressure of racing on such dangerous courses, coupled with the political and industrial pressures, combine to make it all a more mechanical operation. Consequently, there are a lot of people at the top who are all about as good as one another. And what you have today is a computerized downhill racer."
But, of course, there are no true automatons in the downhill, not really. They may be splendid technicians, products of engineering breakthroughs and high-tech imaginations. But whatever their motives and whatever their mechanics, the really good downhillers of today are far more a product of their own personal heritage, their own physiques and their hearts than they are of any laboratory ski scientist or computerized profile.
Indeed, there is no profile that fits all the first-class downhillers of the day. Here is Nadig, apple-cheeked and broad-shouldered, who says shyly, "Sometimes I lack courage and sometimes I ski too much with my head instead of my heart." And here is the haughty queen of them all, the best in history, the undaunted Moser-Pr‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áll, who laughs and pours free champagne in her hometown cafè after she wins. And here is the stocky, blond Nelson, who would rather backpack and fish in the north woods beyond her Minnesota home than anything in the world.
Peter Müller, 22, the wildly uncontrolled Swiss racer who won the downhill World Cup last year, is known as an odd and lonesome fellow, given to quarreling with his roommates, yet he loves to collect mushrooms and wants nothing more than to be a gardener when he quits skiing. And the 21-year-old Austrian Wirnsberger, who won the World Cup downhill at Whiteface last year, is as handsome as Sailer ever was, is the son of a mechanic, grew up in a remodeled parish house, is a member of the police force in his village and skis with classic aggressiveness and superb control. And Ken Read, 24, a member of the brilliant, if madcap, Canadian downhill team, is the son of a well-to-do doctor in Calgary and is known on the racing circuit as being absolutely fearless—indeed "too daring," as Downhill Charlie sees him.
Whatever they are like, they are the downhillers of 1980, and there will be no one quite like them at Lake Placid next week. For they are indeed a special breed, they have a special calling. They see the world from inside a helmet where the periphery is nothing but blurs, and straight ahead is a red gate and a turn that they must negotiate at 80 mph. And they don't see death and they don't see fear and they don't see anything down that hill—except peace and quiet and contentment. One can only assume that Mill is quite right when he says coolly, "You see, downhill racing becomes like a religion to us. It never leaves our minds."
Bobsled and Luge