Feb. 29, 1988
Feb. 29, 1988

Table of Contents
Feb. 29, 1988

The Winter Olympics


Strong gusts—and Marina Kiehl—blew away the favorites in the women's downhill

By William Oscar Johnson

The great rivalry for medals in women's ski racing was supposed to be pretty much confined to teammates from Switzerland, with skiers from other nations battling to pick up the odd bronze or silver. In the first week, Michela Figini would either win the gold in the downhill or lose it to teammate Maria Walliser; the combined would be a duel between Swiss misses Vreni Schneider and Brigitte Oertli.

This is an article from the Feb. 29, 1988 issue Original Layout

Neither race followed form. In fact about the only result that was not entirely unexpected was the most recent catastrophe to befall the jinxed American team. Scarcely an hour before the scheduled start of the women's downhill, Pam Fletcher, 25, the U.S. team's best and feistiest entry in the event, broke her right leg when, after loosening up on a training run, she collided with a volunteer course worker. Fletcher was only the latest in a succession of U.S. racers crippled and crunched by injuries this year. Though Fletcher was at the finish line—on crutches—within two hours of her accident, determined to cheer her teammates on, wild winds forced a day's delay of the race.

The next day brought strong winds, too, but the women raced, and the big news was that neither Figini, 21, the defending gold medalist from Sarajevo, nor Walliser, 24, the 1987 World Cup overall champion and the 1984 Olympic silver medalist behind Figini, won medals of any color. Figini finished an unimpressive ninth, and when someone asked her how she felt being beaten by Walliser, she laughed and said, "Maria didn't do so much either, with fourth place. In fact, fourth place is worse."

For once Walliser didn't disagree with her nemesis. "It is true, fourth place is not something to make one happy," she said. "If I looked happy at the finish, it was only because the pressure was off." Both Figini and Walliser privately complained about the gusty winds, and their coach, Jean-Pierre Fournier, told SI's Anita Verschoth, "The race should not have taken place. If it were a routine World Cup race, the conditions were at the limit where they were still acceptable. Since this was the Olympic Games, we should demand good conditions. A race that happens once every four years should not have been started on a day like this."

The gold medal winner, West Germany's Marina Kiehl, at 23 a seven-year veteran of World Cup competition, skied a flailing, melodramatic run that put her in the lead by a fairly substantial .75 of a second. Oertli got the silver after a run laden with mistakes as well as excitement. In for the bronze, a mere .01 of a second behind Oertli, came the most loudly applauded and endlessly praised medalist of the Games—Karen Percy, 21, from nearby Banff. Hers was the first medal of any kind for her eager home country after a series of disappointments and mediocre results.

Kiehl's victory was about due. She had accumulated a not-so-glittering array of fourth-, fifth-and sixth-place finishes in recent world championships and in the last Olympics. She has long been known as a maverick member of the West German team, given to roller-coaster bouts of high spirits and low moods. Said Gerd Holzbach, a German journalist who covers the team, "I call her the Chinook. She's friendly and warm one moment, but then comes the storm, and she drives everybody around her to the limit of their patience."

Kiehl has never won a World Cup downhill, although twice she occupied first place in a race until some no-name roared from far back in the pack to beat her. After her run—the eighth—at Mount Allan, Kiehl stood firmly at the bottom, refusing to celebrate or even smile much until the last of the 35 racers had skied. Later she said, "I think it is nice that the Argentinian racers are here too. They have to fight their way down the hill as hard as I. So I waited for them to finish before I celebrated."

In the women's combined, Switzerland's marvelous slalom specialist, Schneider, 23, was the odds-on favorite after she finished a strong seventh in the downhill portion. However, during her first slalom run she slid off course and missed a gate, thereby leaving the gold medal for Austria's splendid all-around racer, Anita Wachter, 21, a blossoming power in her fourth year on the World Cup circuit. The silver went to Oertli, who was particularly delighted to receive her second medal, inasmuch as she had just won her very first World Cup race, a slalom in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, on Jan. 19, after going seven full seasons on the circuit without a victory. And there to take the bronze was the beautiful, haughty Walliser. Still angered by her blah result in the downhill, she had skied a furious downhill portion of the combined, followed by a careful, if artless, slalom. Asked how she felt about finishing third, Walliser said, "It is much, much better than fourth."

PHOTOCARL YARBROUGHKiehl, who's given to stormy moods, throve in the raw weather to collect the downhill gold.PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERFrance's Carole Merle took first in the combined downhill but missed a gate in the slalom portion.PHOTOJERRY COOKEFor Fletcher, America's best hope, the racing was over an hour before it was supposed to start.ILLUSTRATION