This year the once-dazzling White Circus of World Cup ski racing seems to be performing its acts of speed and derring-do in a twilight zone where nothing happens in quite the way it should.
First, this twisted season had its official beginning in August, of all months, with a couple of sparsely attended men's downhills in Argentina, of all places. Then, World Cup organizers laid on a vicious winter schedule of 41 men's and 40 women's events arranged so tightly that when a couple of cancellations occurred, the whole structure fell into chaos. The weather turned perverse beyond belief: In December, race after race was delayed, postponed, canceled because the Alps were almost totally without skiable snow. In early January, torrential rains washed out competition; in late January, snow fell in such monstrous tonnage that more races were called off. There was also pressure from equipment manufacturers who told Serge Lang, 65, the founder of World Cup racing, that he could save the circuit only by reducing the schedule to 24 races held over 12 weekends, with men and women competing in the same place. Lang refused to change the format, even though TV ratings and spectator counts are down all over Europe. Meanwhile, representatives of future pro racing circuits were skulking among disenchanted racers, flashing money and whispering promises of better things to come.
As if all these goings-on weren't bizarre enough, the weirdest element of all turned out to be the identity of some of this season's World Cup heroes. They were not the champions of last season—not Switzerland's Pirmin Zurbriggen, who was both downhill and combined world champion in '85; not Luxembourg's Marc Girardelli, who won the men's overall World Cup; not Switzerland's Michela Figini, women's downhill and overall World Cup champ; and, sadly, not any of the U.S. women who won three medals at the 1985 world championship in Bormio, Italy. None of the above has won a single World Cup race on the '85-86 schedule.
No, the heroes of this strange season are people from another time and place. Ancients such as Liechtenstein's Paul Frommelt, 28, who hadn't won a race for five years until he won the slalom at Kitzb√ºhel, Austria this month. Oddballs such as Didier Bouvet, 25, who won a slalom last week and thus became the first French male to win a World Cup race since the demise of the great French teams 13 years ago. Neophytes such as Italy's Micaela Marzola, 19, who was just about the most surprised person in Még√®ve, France when, on Saturday, she won the women's super giant slalom there, her first Cup victory. Has-beens such as Austria's old downhiller, Peter Wirnsberger, 27, who got a silver medal at Lake Placid in 1980, then suffered a five-year drought but now is on a stunning roll of four straight downhill victories—a feat accomplished by only one other racer, the incomparable Franz Klammer. Legends such as the magnificent old Swede, Ingemar Stenmark, facing his 30th birthday in March, who had gone 22 months without a victory before coming back from over the hill to win a giant slalom in La Villa, Italy in December and a slalom in St. Anton, Austria last week.
February 3, 1986
What's going on here? Well, Zurbriggen was banged up in December when he fell at 90 mph during a downhill in Vald'Is√®re and is just now recovering, while both Girardelli and Figini have been curiously off form. The U.S. women's team has been ravaged by bad luck and bad vibes. Diann Roffe, who won a gold in last year's world championship GS, was stabbed in the left knee by a gate pole in a freak mishap at Oberstaufen, West Germany two weeks ago and had to return to the U.S. Debbie Armstrong, winner of the Olympic GS at Sarajevo, took a downhill spill a week earlier, tore up her knee and went home to be patched up. Eva Twardokens and Tamara McKinney, both of whom won medals in Bormio, are not happy with U.S. coaching and have been lackluster since Christmas.
The sudden triumphs of Wirnsberger might simply be a 10-year-old prophecy at long, long last fulfilled. Ever since he began racing at 18 in 1976, he has been compared with Klammer. But Wirnsberger didn't win a World Cup race until 1979, got the Olympic silver in '80, then fell into such a slough that he didn't even make the Austrian Olympic team in 1984. Now, after winning four very difficult downhills—Val Gardena and Schladming plus two at Kitzb√ºhel—he is being compared with Klammer again. "Franz came back from nowhere to win the World Cup after three bad winters," said Wirnsberger. "But being compared to him didn't bring me any luck back in 1976 and 1977, so I don't expect it will now, either."
If Wirnsberger is the biggest World Cup surprise, then Stenmark is the nicest. Long a glum and moody presence in public, Stenmark has suddenly turned a new, sunny side to the world. He is relaxed and talkative, a changed man who seems most content with his lot as the father of a 20-month-old girl named Nathalie and as the husband of his longtime live-in companion, Ann Ufhagen. Nathalie Was born in April 1984, and in September of that year Ingemar and Ann were married in deepest secrecy in Stockholm. Stenmark spoke of this with a newly acquired twinkle in his eye: "Not even our parents were present, only the priest and a witness. We thought if we invited anybody, we'd be mobbed. A few days later the word spread. I think it was the priest who leaked."
Stenmark's lifetime coach, Hermann Nogler, had an explanation for his pupil's recent transformation. "For the first time, Ingemar had a private life and he didn't know whether having a family and ski racing could be combined," Nogler said at St. Anton. "Then he decided that racing might be fun for a change and he went back to it. He had to search his memory for his best feelings again, the ones he had when he was winning. He had lost some of his snap, his speed, his dynamics. Most of all, he had to recapture his enthusiasm. Now his racing has become more significant to him because of his family. He is no longer the fanatic he used to be."
Fanatic or not, he is still fantastic. The victory at St. Anton was Stenmark's 81st in his 13 years of World Cup competition. The next-closest men's competitor is Phil Mahre with 27. Stenmark has competed in 222 World Cup races in his career, and he has finished in the top three 150 times! This borders on the supernatural.
Plainly, Stenmark is a contented man, at ease with either victory or defeat and quite capable of gushing about family and fatherhood. "My family is far more important to me than winning," he says with a freshly minted smile. "Skiing is a beautiful sport even when you don't win. Now that I have won a GS and a slalom, nobody can say that I am finished. I don't care if I don't win another race for the rest of the season."
The chances are good that he will win not only another race or two or three this year, but also that he will have a shot at winning the overall World Cup: He was second in the standings only to Wirnsberger at week's end—127 points to 130. Two old warriors out of the past challenging each other.
The rest of the men's World Cup field was scattered well below them—and the American men were more scattered than most. The best of the U.S. team this season is new downhill hero Doug Lewis, 22, the cello-playing daredevil from Salisbury, Vt. After stunning everyone by winning the bronze medal at last year's world championships, he began this year with a flourish, finishing second in one of the Argentine downhills. Lewis then had to return to the U.S. for a series of ski team fund-raisers—"I spent the fall renting tuxes and good shoes"—and lost valuable training time. His performances in three December downhills—18th twice, 19th once—are best forgotten. In fact, he says that the best thing that happened to him the whole month of December was that he learned to play the saxophone over the Christmas break.
Then at the classic Hahnenkamm downhill at Kitzb√ºhel on Jan. 17, a snowy, windy day, Lewis produced a strong and courageous race, and finished fifth. On the next day, his 22nd birthday, a second Kitzb√ºhel downhill was being run. "My brother was there and my girlfriend—as a birthday present. I wanted so much to do well, but I tried too hard." Lewis finished 20th.
That same day, another American downhiller, who now wishes to be known to the world as "Billy D." Johnson, came charging out of deep, dark nowhere to finish eighth—a very respectable spot. Since his dynamic year of '84 when he got the Olympic gold plus three other downhill victories, Johnson has fallen on hard times. He had a ruckus with the ski team's management last summer over finances and, as a result, he either quit or was dismissed (Johnson claims the former, team director Harald Schoenhaar, the latter) from the U.S. team for 10 weeks. He said he considered skiing for Monaco for a while. The disagreement was smoothed over in July.
Billy D. was just awful early this season, finishing 49th and 60th in his first two World Cup downhills. For the first race in Kitzb√ºhel, Johnson insisted, over protests of his coaches, that he mix his own wax and used a concoction different from all other racers. He finished 48th—11 seconds behind the winner, Wirnsberger. The next day Johnson agreed to use the wax everyone else was using and got his eighth-place finish.
Though he no longer shouts wildly as he once did, Billy D. still likes to do things his way. He travels with his own masseuse, a lissome brunette from Malibu, as well as with his mother, DB (short for Dale Baby, her childhood nickname), a gregarious platinum blonde who sports a red floppy hat and a much younger, bearded boyfriend. Never close to his teammates, Johnson now has dinner companionship on the road. As for his relationship with the officials who run the U.S. Ski Team, he says, "They need stars, so it was easy for me to get back on the team. But I'm upset about the way they treat their stars. I can get through the World Cup tour on my own as well as or better than they can get me through it."
Possibly so. Given the crazy way the World Cup tour is going this season, it's possible that it will take someone like young Billy D. to bring sanity to the White Circus.