At last the time had come for the unveiling of the much maligned, much redesigned Olympic men's downhill run on Mount Allan, some 50 superhighway miles west of the 1988 Winter Games' host city, Calgary. Since 1982, when it was first floated publicly, the idea of holding ski racing's most glamorous event on a hill notorious for tepid temperatures, savage winds on top and routinely snowless slopes on the bottom had been reviled and ridiculed. At times, there has been good reason for all the complaints.
Two weeks ago, when a World Cup women's downhill was held there, it was so warm that the snowmaking machines, which in the best of times are the primary source of snow for the mountain, were rendered useless until late in the week. Conditions were so bad that a Calgary columnist suggested Mount Allan might best be renamed Mount Mushmore, Mount Maybe or perhaps Mount Closed. Thus, when the World Cup men's corps arrived last week, there was a distinct air of bad vibes and mistrust around the downhill.
Well, if there is one thing you cannot depend on in Calgary's part of the world, it is the weather. Though it was at times dank, misty, windy and gloomy, the snow held, and training runs went well all week. It even snowed—from the sky—on Friday, the day before the downhill, and it became very cold that night. By Saturday morning the course had become a lovely, clean, granitelike trail of packed ice that was lighted by bright, cold sunshine. After coaches and racers inspected the course, they came down wearing looks of benign satisfaction. Switzerland's Peter Müller, the reigning downhill world champion, confided to a journalist in the breakfast line, "I have just seen course. I win."
Now the rebuilt 2,953-meter, 40-gate descent drew high praise from everyone. Veteran coaches said its design made it the best Olympic course of recent decades, with the possible exception of the Innsbruck downhill in 1976. "It is a first-class design—when there is snow on it," said Serge Lang, the godfather of the World Cup.
It begins with a steep, curvy section that gives instant advantage to slalom-trained skiers like the great Swiss generalist Pirmin Zurbriggen over the less technical downhill specialists, such as Müller. After the start, the course opens into a section of very difficult steep fall-away turns, then levels out into a fiat section (great for a gliding skier like Müller) and then descends to the end in a series of jumps and drops. It is a pretty fair challenge for any type of world-class racer.
On Saturday, the super Swiss team, which had swept gold medals in 8 of 10 men's and women's events at last month's world championships back home in Crans-Montana, was as merciless in its domination of Mount Allan as it had been on its home mountains. When Müller started, two Swiss teammates—Franz Heinzer and Daniel Mahrer—were already at the bottom, ranked first and second. Müller was simply supernatural. At one deadly section, where hard turns on a steep fall-away slope had already demolished four first-seed racers, Müller found a creative new line of attack that was a full 15 feet off the path taken by other racers. He may have gained close to a quarter second there. In the flats he shot ahead as if gliding on an airfoil between skis and snow. On the jumps he was in complete control, flying far and landing low.
When he crossed the finish line, Müller had won by the absurd margin of 1.83 seconds, nearly two full seconds. Usually grim as a Swiss banker, he couldn't stop smiling. When asked to describe the run, he chuckled and said, "This is the greatest race I have ever made. I took many risks and I made not any mistakes at all!"
Though the Swiss took the top four places, a mistake prevented the team's greatest skier, Zurbriggen, from making a good finish. Zurbriggen had been running a guaranteed high-finish race when, two-thirds of the way down, he rode too far back on his ski tails, fell and slid along on his back briefly before righting himself. He finished 11th.
The mishap was only a small thorn in Zurbriggen's pride. Before Mount Allan, he had won three of the last five World Cup races—a giant slalom in Todtnau, West Germany, as well as a downhill and a Super G (a cross between a downhill and a giant slalom) in Aspen, Colo. He had wrapped up both the overall World Cup and the World Cup downhill titles, and he needed only to finish in the top 15 in Sunday's Super G at Mount Allan—in fact, he came in second—to put away the World Cup championship in that discipline, too. In this 1986-87 season he has won 11 World Cup races—five downhills, three giant slaloms, two combined events and a Super G. Because the 1988 Olympic Alpine skiing program will include five events in which Zurbriggen can excel (Super G, giant slalom, slalom, combined and downhill), it is at least a possibility that he could Win five Olympic golds.
All of this has put him beyond other competitors of his era. He is, in effect, reinventing the sport of ski racing each time he starts down a course. When European ski journalist Patrick Lang asked Jean-Claude Killy—the 1968 triple-gold Olympic hero and the last man to dominate the sport—what advice he had for Zurbriggen, Killy replied, "He should begin to behave as if he is the manager of a gold medal production company. He must get organized."
Lang passed this on to the young Swiss, and Zurbriggen put himself on an even tougher mental and physical training regimen than he had followed before. Last week he said, "I have much talent, but I know that I must always train an enormous amount, much more than the others. I do slalom training after the downhill when the others have stopped. And I think of nothing but improving and excelling. And winning only, winning always."
Which has brought Zurbriggen to a level of rare excellence and consistency. In Sunday's Super G, he finished just .29 behind Luxembourg's Marc Girardelli. Next week in Sarajevo, in the windup of the year's giant slalom competition, Zurbriggen is favored to win his fourth World Cup title.
And where does this put the 24-year-old Zurbriggen? Among the immortals, that's where. Killy is the only man to win four World Cup titles in one year (1967). And only two skiers, Killy and the seemingly ageless Swedish giant Ingemar Stenmark, have won more races in a single season (12 in 1967 and 13 in 1979, respectively). Stenmark is the only one to have won more races in his career (85 to Zurbriggen's 30). Last week the Swiss was asked if he considers himself the greatest ski racer in history. "No," he replied, "that is Ingemar Stenmark because he has done so much more for so much longer." All right, how does Zurbriggen rate himself against Killy? Is he better? "In a way I am maybe better because the sport is so much more difficult now. And there are more specialists like Müller in the downhill, and there are more events. Killy did all three events, but so did almost all other skiers then, and there were fewer races. It is very different for me today."
Next year, Zurbriggen's competitive world will be far different from that of any other ski racer in history. He will be going for that five-event Olympic sweep, and he will be doing it on the iffy environs of Mount Allan. His attempt to reach such a pinnacle will require superhuman effort from him, great logistical organization from his coaches and supernatural good luck with everything else.
We can only hope that weird old Mount Allan gives him a break. A mountain as bright and hard as it was last week would offer Zurbriggen the best of all chances to attain the impossible. But if the place returns to the soggy shape of Mount Mushmore and, thus, costs Zurbriggen his prize, then none of the revilement and ridicule aimed at it so far will have been enough.