This is the story that asks the question, Can the sweet-looking but occasionally churlish son of an innkeeper from a dead-end valley in the Swiss Alps rise above his rude origins and become immortal by winning five gold medals in the 1988 Winter Games? Or will he win only two or three and be just another moody, nouveau riche superstar?
We begin the quest for an answer in the remote village of Saas-Almagell, which lies in the afternoon shadow of mountains so precipitous that we feel we are looking up at the sky from the bottom of a deep crack in the earth. We seek out the L‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ürchenhof Hotel. The hotel is run by the father of Pirmin (meaning "first") Zurbriggen ("by the bridge"), 24, who may well be the finest male Alpine skier in history and thus the subject of our five-gold-medal question.
We have an appointment with Pirmin, but he hasn't arrived yet. We enter the hotel and ask his father, Alois, when Pirmin will arrive, but the man doesn't answer the question. Instead, he leaps out from behind the registration desk and launches an astonishing diatribe in Schwyzerdütsch. He accuses us—this writer, a reporter and a photographer—of being cheapskates and mountebanks because we have not rented rooms at the L‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ürchenhof as tribute to Pirmin for granting us an interview.
The innkeeper's tantrum lasts a few minutes; then he calms down. A little while later Pirmin arrives in his Mercedes, a European-market 300E with four-wheel-drive, and parks at the rear of the L‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ürchenhof. The unimposing wood and white stucco hotel looks even less imposing beside that big, gleaming, $46,000 machine. Zurbriggen's boyish face darkens when he sees us, but we have an appointment. He says curtly he will allow us 30 minutes. We have come a long way to talk to him. Thirty minutes is better than nothing, but his lack of graciousness is almost as surprising as his father's harsh greeting.
January 27, 1988
Obviously, he is not always like this. There is a Swiss best-seller about Zurbriggen, Pirmin: Human and Champion, and in it Erika Hess, the doyenne of Swiss skiers, writes that, "he has remained the simple, natural, nice, grateful and uncomplicated person he has always been." And Marc Hodler, president of the Fèdèration Internationale de Ski, the ruling body of ski racing, says, "Pirmin is an example for the young. He is well liked by the masses for his simple, serious, considerate and honest character."
In fairness, some of Pirmin's stony front certainly results from his own single-minded and self-punishing commitment to his sport: Once in training, he is jealous of his time for physical conditioning and of his need for privacy to assure proper mental preparation. Also, he is a shy, hard-headed mountain boy by nature, and he tends to turn goatish when pushed into situations he finds uncomfortable or unwelcome.
At any rate, Pirmin, human and champion, sits on a stone wall behind the L‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ürchenhof to pose, with no enthusiasm, for photographs. In the background is the small stone church where he served Mass as an altar boy. Above the church is the brooding rocky face of the mountain where, at three, he learned to ski.
Zurbriggen's hometown, huddled at the mountain-walled end of the Saas Valley, was long isolated. A road to Almagell suitable for automobiles was not completed until 1948. The village had no school of its own until 1958. Construction of the huge Mattmark Dam was a boon to Almagell's economy in the early '60s, but in August 1965 an avalanche killed 88 workers, including Pirmin's grandfather.
There have been mean times in Almagell all right, but now the place is on the map, due in large part to Zurbriggen's fame. Asked about his medal chances at Calgary, he answers, "I have won no Olympic medals in my career, so I would be happy if I win one medal in Calgary. Of course, if I win it at the beginning of the Games, then the next medals might come easier." Does that mean he could win five golds? He shrugs and says, "It is possible."
After the photographs are finished, we go into the inn. Pirmin introduces his mother, Ida, an intense, bright-eyed woman. Zurbriggen has the reputation of being the apple of every Swiss mother's eye. He tells journalists, "Being a champion doesn't mean I have to lead the life of a rock star." And then he volunteers that he always helped his mother do the dishes and that his No. 1 hero is Pope John Paul II.
We ask Alois and Ida if their son was always so perfect. His father blurts, "Surely he did some stupid things." He pauses, but he can't remember any. Alois was a good local ski racer in the 1940s and '50s. But after his brother crashed into a rock and was killed on a training run, Alois gave up the sport for 14 years. Then Pirmin came along. His father recalls, "I had the feeling he had talent when we first put him on skis and he didn't fall over."
The public rooms of the L‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ürchenhof are more or less shrines to Pirmin. Trophies, medals, photographs and paintings are everywhere—but nowhere is Zurbriggen himself to be seen. As we sit down to have dinner, outside, the door of the Mercedes thunks shut, and the car rolls majestically away. When Alois Zurbriggen delivers the bill, he is no longer the furious innkeeper of the afternoon. He is smiling widely, the friendly proprietor of a prosperous inn that will be even more prosperous if his son can win five gold medals.
Many of Zurbriggen's friends and colleagues don't think he has a chance for five. Rolf Hefti, the coach of the Swiss men's team when Pirmin first arrived, in 1979, says, "Five is not realistic. It takes too much psychological pressure. It would mean reaching the limit for him. One must always have an incentive to go on to higher goals. It is better to try for two or three and win the World Cup." Zurbriggen's best friend, Max Julen, 26, the 1984 Olympic gold medal winner in the giant slalom, says flatly, "Impossible. Certainly he can win the downhill and the Super G, maybe the giant slalom. It is impossible for him to win the slalom." Even his agent, Marc Biver, who is paid to polish the Zurbriggen image to its brightest glow, says, "I don't think he can win five golds because I don't believe he can race equally strong in all events. Three gold medals, yes, of that I am convinced."
You have to put this in perspective. Three gold medals would be sensational. To win five, well, that's like Mark McGwire not only breaking Roger Maris's record of 61 home runs but also hitting over .400. In the 11 Winter Olympics, beginning in 1936, that have had Alpine ski racing, only Toni Sailer in 1956 and Jean-Claude Killy in 1968 have won three gold medals—each in the downhill, the giant slalom and the slalom. Because two races have been added to the '88 Winter Games—the Super G (a cross between the downhill and the giant slalom) and the combined (an easy slalom plus a short downhill run)—Zurbriggen is in the first generation of skiers with a chance to win five gold medals. Despite what his pessimistic friends say, it is possible, though not probable.
The first Olympic race, the downhill, will be the key. It is Zurbriggen's favorite event. That race will be held Sunday, Feb. 14, Valentine's Day. Zurbriggen finished fourth in '84 on the relatively flat Olympic course in Sarajevo. He won the gold medal at the 1985 world championships in Bormio, Italy; the silver medal at the 1987 worlds in Crans-Montana, Switzerland; and five World Cup downhills to win the '86-87 season title. This season, through early January, he has had two close second-place finishes in downhills.
Zurbriggen's power in the downhill comes from his hard-charging aggression and his superb technique; he is not a natural glider. The Mount Allan downhill is not perfectly suited to his style. As he says, "The upper part is beautiful for me, steep and difficult, but the second part is a glider's course, flat and not so interesting. It is better for me than Sarajevo. It is like Crans-Montana. I can make up the time at the top that I'm going to lose at the bottom."
If the snow is soft, Zurbriggen will likely not finish first in the downhill, and the hope for five golds will evaporate—slurp!—like a snowflake in a chinook thaw. Even on hard snow, several men can beat him: West Germany's Markus Wasmeier, Italy's Michael Mair. Canada's unpredictable Rob Boyd, or any one of several Swiss teammates, the most likely being Peter Müller, a natural glider who won the 1987 World Cup downhill on Mount Allan while Zurbriggen finished 11th after nearly falling.
If Zurbriggen wins the Olympic downhill, there is no reason why he shouldn't go on to win golds in the Super G, the combined and the GS. He was World Cup champion last season in those three events. He will have tremendous competition from Wasmeier in all of them and from another teammate, Jo‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬•l Gaspoz, who is technically better in the GS than Zurbriggen. Alberto Tomba of Italy, who won five World Cup races early in the season, could spoil Zurbriggen's hopes in the slalom, GS or Super G. But the single greatest threat will be Luxembourg's one-man team, Marc Girardelli, 24, who could sweep all five medals himself (page 50).
If, somehow, Zurbriggen performs with perfection through the downhill, the combined, the Super G and the giant slalom, he then faces the Feb. 27 slalom, a race he could lose to any one of a dozen no-names. Through early January, Pirmin hadn't won a World Cup slalom since 1986, but he is capable of doing it. And if he is riding a crest of four golds, do not bet against him.