It happened in Aspen—a rare and supercharged four-day show staged by ski racing's traveling White Circus and so filled with drama, surprise and derring-do that it was hard to keep it all in perspective. Yet there was one overriding perception: change was in the air, and Aspen, the Colorado resort town, might well be remembered as a watershed in World Cup ski history.
One particularly dynamic change was that Phil Mahre, 23, the finest U.S. ski racer ever, defeated the golden Swede, Ingemar Stenmark, 24, the world's most successful ski racer, in a long and demanding giant slalom race. In so doing. Phil became the odds-on favorite to become the first non-European man ever to win the overall World Cup title. No other American male has been higher than sixth since the World Cup circuit was initiated in 1967.
Another scene of drastic change was the historic downhill victory scored in Aspen by—even now it sounds preposterous—a Russian. Close observers have known for a while that the Russians were coming, but it was almost poetically ironic that the Soviets' first win in a World Cup event occurred in the Rocky Mountains on America's most venerable race course, the Roch Cup downhill, before a crowd that cheered with an endless chorus of cowboy yee-oows. The Russian winner, Valery Tsyganov, 24, looks more like a bartender at Aspen's Hotel Jerome than a native of the Soviet arctic, but this did little to soften the impact of his victory: power was shifting in the tight little world of World Cup skiing.
Besides these cosmic events on Ajax Mountain, there was also a gripping duel in which a hellcat Canadian narrowly missed a chance to become the first non-European ever to win the World Cup downhill title. And a victory by Tamara McKinney, 18, of Squaw Valley, in the women's giant slalom, as well as a stirring performance by the U.S. team in toto—the best squad in a decade or more.
Before the tour descended on Aspen for its annual late-season touchdown in North America, the World Cup circuit had seemed to be schussing along in reasonably predictable fashion. Most notably, Stenmark continued his dominance among the men in the slalom events, achieving his 62nd career World Cup victory (10 this season). Before Aspen, Stenmark also held what seemed to be a comfortable lead in overall World Cup points—260 to Phil Mahre's 219.
The first race at Aspen was a makeup downhill on Thursday that had been canceled in Schladming, Austria in February. It was a clear and radiant day, and the talk of the mountainside was whether Steve Podborski, the Canadian Olympic bronze medalist, would become the first non-European downhill champion by defeating Harti Weirather of Austria. He didn't. Podborski made a horrendous error in a steep upper section of the course and finished a sorry 10th. Weirather was superb—but he was also second. The winner of the race, to everyone's surprise, was Tsyganov, who proved to be a remarkably unstony Soviet, the son of now-retired smelting-mill workers in Monchegorsk, a town 60 miles south of Murmansk. Tsyganov had finished a dismal 68th in overall World Cup points in 1979, but was an impressive eighth in the 1980 Olympic downhill. When he streaked down the course, making splendid use of his skill as a giant slalomist in the tight turns of the bottom half of the run, and finished .26 seconds ahead of Weirather, only the most knowledgeable World Cup afficionados weren't startled. Said Switzerland's R‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√üto Melcher, chairman of the FIS alpine competition committee, who has been watching the budding Soviet skiers for a long time, "They will be a factor in alpine racing from now on."
The chief Soviet coach, Leonid Tyagachev, tells anyone who asks that alpine skiing is sweeping the Soviet Union—indeed, he says, there are now some two million recreational skiers. And he was understandably ebullient over Tsyganov's triumph. "The World Cup is only preparation for winning the world championships and the Olympics," he said. "We want to be in the first rank of World Cup nations. We have reached the beginning of that now in Aspen."
The regularly scheduled downhill was held on Friday. Though he had refused to celebrate his victory unduly in order to be ready to go all out for a second possible triumph, Tsyganov fell near the top of the run, setting up the duel between Podborski and Weirather. The proposition was simple: to win the season's downhill trophy, Podborski had to win the race. Starting first, the Canadian performed brilliantly and led by half a second after a dozen more skiers had descended the 3,170-meter run. But No. 14, Weirather, was better by .28 of a second, perhaps the length of a ski, and thereby won the trophy.
After the dramatic men's downhill came the women's, an event won by 17-year-old Elisabeth Kirchler, a sweet-faced Austrian who, when asked if she was on the "B" team, dimpled shyly and said, "No, I come from the 'C' team. I suppose I may now be put up to the 'B'." In second place was Regine M‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ásenlechner of West Germany, while America's Cindy Nelson, 25, in her 10th year of racing, took third, followed by her teammate. Holly Flanders, 23. It was a typically strong showing for the U.S. women, who have been improving all season. But the real breakthrough for them came on Sunday when McKinney not only won the giant slalom but also took a commanding lead in the competition for the World Cup giant slalom title. It was McKinney's third victory of the season. There is surprising depth in this year's women's squad that bodes extremely well for the future.
This is not the case with the U.S. men. Phil Mahre and his twin brother, Steve, are the only American men in the top 15 in the World Cup standings. Thus the pressure on them is constant—and irksome to the extent that both have spoken publicly about the staggering load they carry. Still, they have delivered handsomely. Steve won a slalom in Garmisch and Phil won one in Are, Sweden, edging out an angrily disappointed Stenmark before throngs of his home-country fans. The Mahres have piled up points with lesser placings, and by skiing some of the downhills that are included in combined-event scoring.
At Aspen there was no combined-event scoring, so the twins decided to pass up the downhills on the theory that full-time concentration on the giant slalom would serve them better. It was good strategy. The first run made it clear that victory would go to either Stenmark or Phil Mahre. Stenmark flashed down the extremely long course (1,029 meters—longest of the season) in 1:35.24, while Mahre was timed in 1:35.43, nearly a second and a half ahead of his closest rival in the field. Steve Mahre finished fifth in the first run.
Steve went first in the second heat and finished with a two-run time of 3:15.22. Still panting from the exertion, he grabbed a walkie-talkie and gasped instructions to Phil, waiting at the top. He warned his brother of a slick spot at one gate up high and told him that the conditions varied greatly from one section to the next. Moments later Phil stormed down the hill. His interval time was 1:07.10, his second-run total 1:37.33, his cumulative time for the two runs, 3:12.76. Stenmark began his run before Phil had finished his. Standing anxiously next to Steve, Phil watched the finish-line digital clock ticking off Stenmark's seconds. His interval was a stunning 1:06.32—more than half a second faster than Phil's. It seemed that the Swede would easily gain his 63rd lifetime World Cup win.
But something went wrong on the lower section. Once, twice, three times over a few yards, Stenmark's edges slid, costing him infinitesimal fractions of time. As he crossed the finish, the clock read 1:37.66. There was a hushed pause as the crucial computation was made, then the crowd sent up a Rocky Mountain bellow that echoed from peak to peak. Phil was first, Stenmark second, Steve third.
The labyrinthine formulae by which World Cup points are calculated is mind-boggling. To keep it mercifully simple: Phil Mahre left Aspen trailing Stenmark 234 points to 260. There are two slaloms and three giant slaloms remaining in the World Cup season, to be run in winter garden spots from Furano, Japan to Kranjska-Gora, Yugoslavia. Under the scoring system, Stenmark can gain only five more points, while Phil Mahre—if he won every race—could add 72 to his total. He won't win every race, but he will probably become the first American ever to win the overall World Cup championship. In this season of change and surprise, that seems only logical—just as logical as it will in a winter not so far off when some young Soviet does the same thing.