They are serious people, the Swiss, and they are not drawn easily into life's flightier pursuits. Think what Swiss means. Banks. Clocks. Cheese. Not the stuff of lightness and air.
However, these days, at least a breath of something fresh and airy must be penetrating even to those gnomes counting francs in Zurich's stygian bank vaults. For all of Switzerland is contemplating the precious metal that waits to be collected by the Swiss Alpine ski team at the Winter Games.
Never in the history of Olympic ski racing has a nation's team promised to be as devastating as the one from Switzerland. Collectively the Swiss could—with a lot of luck, mind you—walk away with 23 of the 30 medals that will be awarded in the five men's and five women's events.
Individually the Swiss skiers are even more devastating than the team. Only two racers, Austria's Toni Sailer in 1956 and France's Jean-Claude Killy in 1968, have won three individual gold medals in a Winter Games. On this ludicrously talented Swiss team there are no fewer than four individuals who could each win four gold medals in Calgary. And one of them, Pirmin Zurbriggen (page 46), could conceivably win five gold medals.
January 27, 1988
Now it is true that the odds do not favor such results by one team or one person in this or any other Olympics. There is almost no limit to the variety of things that can go wrong when a skier charges down a precipitous, ice-covered mountainside at breakneck speed while cranking sharp turn after sharp turn through perhaps 75 slalom gates. But no matter what happens on Mount Allan in February, this Swiss team is the best the world has so far seen. Its victories in the last four years are unprecedented. At the world championships held in their home mountains of Crans-Montana last winter, the Swiss won eight of 10 possible gold medals. No other team had ever done so well. In the final World Cup standings last spring, Zurbriggen stood No. 1 in the overall listing for men; a Swiss skier, Maria Walliser, stood No. 1 overall for women; and a Swiss man, woman or gnome stood No. 1 in every one of the 10 individual World Cup disciplines, with the single exception of men's slalom. And this isn't just a team with a thin gilt surface. There is also great depth.
Consider this: In the men's overall World Cup standings, there were five Swiss in the top 12, and in the women's overall standings the top five were all Swiss. The success of the Swiss women was almost incomprehensible: They held three of the top six spots in super-giant slalom (Super G), five of the top eight in giant slalom, four of the top five in slalom, and all four in combined. So overwhelming were the women that Ski Racing magazine noted that if each Swiss female were a country unto herself, the final standings among nations for the 1986-87 season would have looked like this:
1. Austria 739.2 points
2. Germany 502.3
3. Maria Walliser 344.4
4. Vreni Schneider 292
5. France 241
6. Erika Hess 214
7. Brigitte Oertli 213
8. Canada 197
9. United States 191
10. Michela Figini 181
So who are these people and how did they get to be so extraordinary?
Although they are all Swiss citizens, with all the seriousness, imperiousness and austerity which that implies, it turns out they possess a thoroughly mixed bag of languages, outlooks, traditions and cultures. That, of course, is a reflection of Switzerland's historic place as a patchwork of the countries around it. Within its borders, Switzerland is rife with ancient rivalries, old tensions and historic hostilities that continue to exist among different valleys, villages and cantons (states), depending on language, geography, national origin, regional wealth, religion.
Karl Frehsner, 48, the bespectacled little Austrian who has been the Swiss men's team head coach since 1984, says, "Yes, they speak different languages
, and they bring old rivalries from different parts of the country. But at this level of sport, it is good to be different because they learn from each other. They learn to coordinate their differences. It can only be an advantage."
The women's coach, Jean-Pierre Fournier, 40, a French-speaking Swiss who has been with the Swiss women's teams for 17 years, is a little more cautious in his evaluation of this group. "Indirectly it is better now than it used to be because 10 years ago most people didn't speak a second language. It is true that the Italian mentality can be explosive. And the German kind has perhaps a harder head. And the French are more relaxed. But it is not the different nationalities that are a problem, it is the different temperaments."
No one knows this better than Fournier, who has been working the hot spots between two of the toughest female temperaments in all of sports. One belongs to the beautiful and haughty Walliser, 24, the current World Cup overall, Super G and giant slalom champion, who hails from Canton St. Gallen in eastern Switzerland, near the Austrian and Liechtenstein borders. The other belongs to the sweet-faced but quick-tempered Michela Figini, 21, the current World Cup downhill champion, who grew up in the south, in Canton Ticino on the Italian border.
These two women do not like each other much. Last winter, during the world championships, one journalist asked Figini about her rivalry with Walliser. Michela didn't pull any punches: "Between her, a true German Swiss, and me, with my Latin temperament, there is no common ground. We could never become friends." When the journalist protested that he had seen the two exchange finish-area kisses after races, Figini bristled. "It is her who kisses me. I don't ever kiss her, even if she wins. I shake hands."
Walliser grew up in the village of Mosnang, where her father was a wealthy cattle breeder. She began racing on the World Cup circuit in 1980, when she was 17, won her first downhill three seasons later and has gotten better every year. She is a mercurial character. The Swiss call her geziert, which means phony in German. One minute she will transfix a visitor with a gloriously sunny smile and high-voltage sexual charm; the next she will turn cold and scornful, as unapproachable as a snow leopard.
On the mountain, however, she is remarkably consistent. "I always know in the starting gate how I will do," she says. "If I am at my best, then I don't have to urge myself to win. It will just happen." No woman Alpine skier has ever won more than two gold medals in a Winter Olympics, but in Calgary, Walliser could win the gold in any one—or all—of four events: the downhill, Super G, giant slalom and the combined. Asked if she thought this was possible, she entered her dazzling-smile mode and said, "It's a dream. It's something from another universe."
The twist is that Figini will be competing for precisely that same dream from that same exclusive universe. Her best events are the same four in which Walliser excels. They are not identical skiers, however. Figini is considered a more brilliant natural skier than Walliser. Experts say that Figini is probably skiing at about 90% of her capacity, while Walliser has already driven herself beyond her natural abilities. There are those who judge Figini as good as the legendary Austrian Annemarie Moser-Pr‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áll.
Figini started skiing when she was three and went into World Cup competition when she was 16. She won the gold medal in the downhill at Sarajevo in '84, two months before her 18th birthday. Asked if she considered a four-gold medal sweep at Calgary a possibility, she showed genuine surprise. "Four golds?" she said. "Oh, I think it would be too much. But the idea is nice. I love the Olympics. My best day ever was in Sarajevo when I won. It was such a surprise, and I did not even know how to prepare for that race. And Mount Allan is such a funny mountain. I won the downhill there last year, of course, but it was very bad weather, very hot."
And does her rivalry with Walliser help-her to ski better? Figini laughed. "Our rivalry is—how do you say it?—exaggerate. It is difficult for both of us to be trying to be the first skier on the same team."
In the final analysis, the animosity between the two, however "exaggerate" it might be, can be a force for good for both of them. As Fournier says, "The situation with Maria and Michela is dangerous but positive. I must be very delicate in this situation, but it is my job to influence them in a way that will egg them on to win."
If for some reason neither Walliser nor Figini responds to Fournier's egging, there is yet another proven winner in the Swiss stable. She is Vreni Schneider, 23, born to a shoemaker and his wife in the isolated village of Elm, high in the Alps of Canton Glarus. Schneider is a late bloomer who 10 years ago was forced to quit school (and serious skiing) to keep house after her mother died of cancer. She didn't get to her first World Cup races until she was 20. The lost time did her little harm. She won the giant slalom gold at Crans-Montana, then finished second to Walliser for the overall World Cup title, tied for the giant slalom title and scored points in every World Cup discipline, including the downhill. This makes her more versatile than either Walliser or Figini, neither of whom is likely to enter the slalom.
Schneider displays neither the moodiness of Walliser nor the fire of Figini. Her agent, Franz Julen, says. "She'll never be the clever supergirl who sells herself easily. She doesn't want that. Vreni is very popular in Switzerland because, after all, there are many simple people in this country, especially in the mountains. She can be compared to Erika Hess." To be compared to Hess is tantamount to achieving sainthood in Switzerland. Hess, still only 25, retired on a pedestal at the end of last season. Over the previous 11, years she had won 30 World Cup races and six world championship gold medals. Yet so powerful is the current team that Hess's departure did not create a crisis.
Vreni and company are there to fill in. And, for the record, the pleasant peasant girl from Elm could also win four golds—the Super G, giant slalom, combined and slalom. There are also other Swiss women who could win one or two races: Corinne Schmidhauser, 23, won the World Cup slalom title last season, and Brigitte Oertli, 25, now in her seventh World Cup season, has won four races (through early January) in her career. In all, the Swiss women could win 14 of 15 medals in Calgary.
Those are just the female elements of this national juggernaut. The men are equally powerful but not so deep in talent. After Zurbriggen, there are two Swiss men who can win golds and a couple of others with a shot at silver or bronze. Peter Müller, 30, is the epitome of the Swiss: iconoclastic, fiercely stubborn, smart and full of raging pride; a man who early in his career resorted to fistfighting and public denunciation when he thought he was being treated unfairly. He began World Cup racing in 1977 and has won 17 downhills through 1987—including the gold medal at Crans-Montana.
Müller is from the Zurich suburb of Adliswil and is the son of a clothing-chain executive. He speaks German, French, English and Italian and has many interests other than skiing, including photography, collecting wild mushrooms and flower gardening. This sort of gentility would make Müller an odd man out on most ski teams; in Switzerland he also got the cold shoulder for having had the bad judgment to be born away from the mountains. "Since I am from low country. I was not popular when I first made the team," he says. "They told me to get lost. I became a loner, a nut with a hard shell—or rather a snail with a hard shell but soft inside."
Müller is a fiend for physical fitness. His strength and endurance are responsible for much of his success in downhill racing. But he is also very analytical about his technique. "I used to be mostly a good glider, letting the skis run by themselves without putting pressure or setting the edges so that the ski floated downhill. But I always lost a lot of time in turns and jumps. Now I have no problem. I have an ideal tuck. Many racers put out their arms when they jump, I just put out my elbows."
Müller won on the World Cup downhill course at Mount Allan last March by the huge margin of 1.83 seconds. He is favored to win a medal in Calgary. But so are a batch of other Swiss downhillers: At the Crans-Montana downhill, Müller finished first, Zurbriggen second, Karl Alpiger third, Franz Heinzer fourth and Daniel Mahrer sixth.
Then there is Jo‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬•l Gaspoz, 25, the team's best slalomist (second in last season's World Cup rankings in giant slalom, fourth in slalom, fourth in the overall). He is from the French-speaking region of Canton Valais and the tiny village of Morgins, where his parents run a small cafè, called La Bergerie.
Gaspoz suffered one of ski racing's most heartbreaking moments at Crans-Montana when he fell three gates from the finish in the second run of a giant slalom race that he had clearly won. That gave the gold medal to Zurbriggen and nothing to Gaspoz, but the loser was philosophical about it. Sitting at La Bergerie recently. Jo‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬•l said. "I was too euphoric, and at the end I went too direct and sat back a little too much. Another time it will be different, perhaps." Gaspoz's mother, Marianne, added, "We have always thought victory is an important thing but not the only important thing. To race is only a passage in life. Up here we are more French because the border is so close, but we are not really French, we are Swiss. The French are not as serious as we."
Indeed, no one seems as serious as the Swiss about their ski racing these days. Surely not the once-glorious French, who are in a slump that is now going on 15 years old. And certainly not the Americans, who have exactly one consistent world-class performer. Tamara McKinney—and she is recovering from a fractured leg. The traditionally terrific Austrians came out of last winter's world championships with a paltry two silvers and a bronze—their worst showing ever—but they have improved this season. At this point, it may seem as if the Swiss have always been at the pinnacle of this, their national sport. That is not the case. In 1964, Swiss skiers were shut out in the Winter Olympics—no medal of any color did they win. From 1967, the first year of World Cup competition, until 1981 the Swiss did not once win the Nations Cup which is awarded for cumulative team points. Now they have won six of the last seven Nations Cups. As recently as the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, they got a sad total of three bronze medals in Alpine skiing. At Sarajevo in 1984, they won two golds and two silvers, not sad but not wonderful.
They could come away from Calgary with 10 golds, 10 silvers and three bronzes. That's so mind-boggling it might move the Swiss to do something unserious—like close the banks, stop the clocks and break out a million bottles of champagne to wash down the cheese.