For skiers, this winter in the Alps has been the warmest, the brownest and the bleakest in almost a quarter century. The desperate search for snow has kept the White Circus of World Cup racing on the move since the beginning of this year. Such conditions might have been expected to drain the energy and break the spirit of everyone from superstars to also-rans, leaving racers out of shape and out of sorts as they slouched toward the Calgary Games.
Such has not been the case at all. World Cup scouts turned up a frosty valley here, a snow-blanketed mountainside there, and despite a badly fractured schedule, the season has moved along nicely. It has also produced the most promising assortment of bright stars and exciting rivalries the Winter Games will have seen in recent memory.
The super Swiss continue to be super, but they are no longer supernatural. This season other countries have emerged as viable rivals—including Italy, whose ski racing had lagged since the late 1970s, and France. The Austrian team is still hopeless in the men's downhill, the event closest to the hearts of that nation's citizens, but the team is rapidly becoming one of the strongest in the slalom. At week's end the Austrian men led the Swiss 617-559 in World Cup points, while the Austrian team as a whole, men and women, trailed the Swiss by a relatively scant 227 Nations Cup points. Canada is fairly strong in the downhill, Yugoslavia shows promise in the slalom, and the Spanish team, in the person of one woman slalom skier named Blanca Fernandez Ochoa, is doing surprisingly well. Sadly, those seven nations, along with West Germany and Sweden, stand higher than the 10th-place U.S. team, which has been devastated by injuries.
To show how much the overall order of World Cup dominance has changed this season, we need only point out that the brightest star in the pre-Olympic galaxy is not a sober Swiss but an effervescent Italian—the much-celebrated and self-proclaimed "new messiah of skiing," Alberto Tomba, 21 (SI, Jan. 25). Early last week he won his seventh of 10 World Cup races this season. An absence of snow in Adelboden, Switzerland, caused the site of the race, a giant slalom, to be moved to snowy Saas-Fee, a village 15 miles from defending World Cup champion Pirmin Zurbriggen's remote home hamlet of Saas-Almagell.
February 1, 1988
Zurbriggen, 24, had never been in a World Cup race so close to his birthplace. The crowd roared and rang cowbells to urge him down the mountain. Alas, he fared no better than fourth. Tomba skied the course in impressive style, beating runner-up Günther Mader of Austria by 1.93 seconds.
"I didn't have a chance against Tomba," Mader said after the race, "but I think the Olympics might create heavy pressure and turn him back into an ordinary, normal person."
Probably not. There is very little that is ordinary about this wellborn Bologna playboy. At Saas-Fee he told the crush of finish-line journalists, "I feel a little bit lonely out in front all the time. Maybe the other guys should start training a little more to try and catch up." Thereupon Tomba gently autographed the ski suit—clad fannies of a couple of female admirers, vaulted a fence and sprinted down the mountain to a waiting helicopter while a throng bounded after him. Later he confided, "I like it when everybody loves me."
Zurbriggen, meanwhile, the winner of 11 World Cup races last season and still the best all-around ski racer, seemed dispirited and pessimistic. He had been suffering from a flulike ailment for three weeks, and while he has finished among the top four at least once in each of four Alpine disciplines—downhill, Super G, giant slalom and slalom—he has won only one race this year, a downhill at Val d'Isère, and has finished second in three other downhills. Through Monday, Zurbriggen trailed Tomba in overall World Cup points, 206-186. Tomba does not race the combined event and rarely enters downhills, so the World Cup may not be out of Zurbriggen's reach. But Zurbriggen's hopes of winning five gold medals in Calgary have been dimmed by the emergence of Tomba, the overwhelming favorite in both the slalom and the giant slalom at Calgary. In addition, Peter Müller, 30, Zurbriggen's steely teammate, is still considered the odds-on favorite in the downhill, the first ski race of the Olympics. Müller beat Zurbriggen by 0.27 two weeks ago in a race moved from Kitzbühel's snow-starved Hahnenkamm course to Bad Kleinkirchheim, Austria.
Last week the Lauberhorn downhill was packed off from Wengen, Switzerland—its traditional home since 1930—to Leukerbad. It was the first time since 1964 that a lack of snow prevented both Kitzbühel and Wengen from staging their downhills. The Bad Kleinkirchheim race was a good one, but the Leukerbad Lauberhorn was a stinker—a bizarre affair plagued by changing temperatures and snow conditions that left big-name starters deep in the pack (Müller was 35th, Zurbriggen tied for 39th). As fate would have it in this Tomba-dominated season, the Italians scored their first-ever hat trick. The winner was another Italian dazzler, the veteran Michael Mair, 25, who has legitimate downhill credentials, followed by a nondescript pair: Giorgio Piantanida, 20, and Werner Perathoner, 21.
However, the women's competition has been Swiss, Austrian, French and German, with the Italians running a poor 10th. The overall World Cup leader, Michela Figini, 21, hails from the Italian region of Switzerland, but her three World Cup victories—two downhills and a Super G—are property of the Swiss, as all other women's downhill races have been this season. Figini's nemesis, Maria Walliser, has won two, and Chantal Bournissen and Beatrice Gafner have one victory apiece. Figini and Walliser have been passing World Cup victories back and forth with great mutual distaste for four years now, although both deny there is a feud.
"There is no war between us," says Walliser.
"I don't single out Maria to defeat in a race. I need my energies for other things," says Figini. But those who know them say the two need only glance at each other at breakfast to light white-hot fires of competitive fury. Their head-to-head battle in the Olympic downhill will have historic overtones. When Figini won the gold medal in that event at Sarajevo in '84, she was 17, the youngest Olympic ski race victor ever. If she wins in Calgary, she will be the first ski racer to defend a gold medal successfully.
Even without these two divas, the Swiss women are a mighty World Cup force this year. Another of their stars, Brigitte Oertli, has emerged as the best all-event skier on the circuit and is second to Figini in the Cup standings. Oertli won a slalom in Saas-Fee last week and five days later finished second behind Gafner in a downhill in Bad Gastein, Austria.
That Bad Gastein race, one of the few held this winter at its originally scheduled location, was another nightmare, producing a rash of injuries. Natalia Belosludzeva of the U.S.S.R. broke her thumb and her ankle; veteran Sylvia Eder of Austria tore a ligament and fractured a tibia; Austria's best downhiller, Sigrid Wolf, bruised her leg badly; and an American, Adele Allender, 22, injured her right wrist. Fair or not, it was tempting to blame the course. Amid complaints from skiers about dangerous conditions, the five-member race jury allowed the event to take place, although officials did rush in $60,000 worth of safety nets, hay bales and padding for posts.
The spate of injuries may have been shocking to other teams at Bad Gastein, but for this year's snakebit U.S. skiers, Allender's injury was just splints-and-stretchers as usual. Tamara McKinney, the best American skier and considered an Olympic favorite, broke a bone in her left leg when she hooked a slalom gate in November. She had been expected to be back on the World Cup circuit by now, but Chip Woods, the U.S. women's coach, said last week, "Tamara is still very tender. She is skiing, but not competitively, and the thought of hooking a ski again is unbearable to her." She will not compete in Calgary. Debbie Armstrong, the giant slalom gold medalist in Sarajevo, will be in Calgary, but she suffered an injury to her left knee in Argentina last summer and has not been right since. Eva Twardokens, a promising slalom skier, tore ligaments in her right knee in a slalom race in November and will not be back this season.
Slalom specialist Tori Pillinger suffered "the worst accident I can remember," according to Woods—a broken pelvis, a broken vertebra and multiple leg fractures. That happened in December when she sailed off a bump into a post at the finish line of the women's Super G in Leukerbad. Three weeks ago Doug Lewis, the U.S.'s best downhiller, broke his collarbone—a few days after Mike Brown, the second best, broke his wrist. Bill Johnson, the celebrated public speaker who won the gold medal in the downhill at Sarajevo, hasn't come close to getting in shape after suffering a horrendous knee injury in a fall at Val Gardena last season. And though there have been Top 10 finishes by the likes of downhiller Pam Fletcher and slalom skier Felix McGrath, the U.S.'s hopes for Calgary appear to have been dashed.
However, with the Figinis, the Zurbriggens and the Tombas vying against one another, and the surprise stars who always surface on such occasions, the Games of the XV Winter Olympiad promise to provide Alpine competition as fascinating as any we have seen at the Olympics in a long time.
UP, UP AND AWAY
Jumpers from the upper valley, An area half in New Hampshire and half in Vermont, know the route by heart. You wind through the Green Mountains, through the villages of Bridgewater Corners, Pittsford Mills and Chimney Point, then on to Lake Placid, N.Y., where the U.S. Olympic ski jumping trials were held last week. Jim Holland, 20, who broke his back in a takeoff mishap last March and will miss the Olympics, once made the trip in two hours, two minutes. Another jumper, Chris Hastings, lowered the mark to one hour, 59 minutes.
Holland's older brother Mike, 26, took his time last week and arrived in three hours. Then he swept the overall jumping competition by dominating the 70- and 90-meter events, winning both rounds in each, to establish himself as the U.S.'s only hope for an Olympic ski jumping medal. The U.S. has won just one Olympic medal in the sport—a bronze that Anders Haugen earned at the first Winter Games, in Chamonix, France, in 1924. At Sarajevo, the Hollands' Norwich, Vt., neighbor Jeff Hastings, Chris's older brother, barely missed the bronze medal in the 90-meter event.
"Everyone in the Upper Valley skis," says the elder Hastings, 28, the jumping coach of the Nordic Combined team (whose best jumper, a third Holland brother, Joe, 23, won the Nordic Combined title on Sunday). "None of us would be here if it weren't for the Ford Sayre program."
Sayre was an Upper Valley innkeeper and winter-sports pied piper in the 1930s. The Ford Sayre Memorial Ski Council was created to honor Sayre, who died in World War II. The council's jumping program convenes three nights a week at Oak Hill on the outskirts of Hanover, N.H. There's a T-bar, a snow-pile jump for six-year-olds, and 20- and 30-meter jumps for rambunctious teenagers.
Mike Holland used to schuss right past those jumps. "I was into Alpine," he says. "Then one day Jeff and his dad tromped through our backyard with a pair of jumping skis, old wooden Northlands. They said, 'Use these.' " Mike soon outgrew Oak Hill and started using the 45-meter jump down the road. "The first time I climbed it, I was terrified," he says. "One guy had chickened out and was coming back down. He looked at me and shook his head. That almost made me turn back."
Holland joined Jeff Hastings on a powerhouse Hanover High ski team in the late '70s. He matriculated at Vermont just as the NCAA dropped ski jumping. His only outlet was the national team, and he made it as a walk-on in 1982. Three years later he set a ski flying world record of 186 meters off a 120-meter hill in Planica, Yugoslavia. But Finland's Matti Nyk‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ünen, who is favored at Calgary in both the 70- and 90-meter events, broke the record by one meter 20 minutes later.
In World Cup meets in December, Holland placed ninth in Canada, 15th in Japan, and fifth and sixth in Lake Placid. The circuit then moved to Europe, where he slumped; his best finish was a 24th. "But the form's coming back now," he says.
Also getting back to form is Mark Konopacke of Kingsford, Mich. He has finally recovered psychologically from a 1985 ski flying crash, an agony-of-defeat special. "It took me a long time to shake that off," says Konopacke, 24, the only other American to have scored World Cup points this season. He was the overall runner-up behind Holland last week.
Tad Langlois, 20, of Newport, N.H., placed third, and Dennis McGrane, 25, of Littleton, Colo., who breathed Upper Valley air while at Dartmouth, was fourth, followed by Matt Petri, 28, of Weston, Mass., and Chris Hastings, 23. All made the team, as did Rick Mewborn, 22, of Steamboat Springs, Colo., who missed the trials because of an inner-ear infection but was named as a discretionary pick.
Led by Mike Holland, the seven Lake Placid winners will now take another scenic route—to Calgary.