At one point, it seemed that the tiny Austrian villages of Saalbach and Hinterglemm might be on the verge of hosting the World Alpine Ski Championships from Hell—as in "War is hell." And the way things were going early on, people were beginning to wonder whether Saddam Hussein held the Alps as well as Kuwait.
Barely an hour after the first air strike battered Iraq, the entire U.S. Ski Team was rousted out of its European hotel rooms in the predawn darkness of Jan. 17 and ordered to return home to safety. There were even rumors that French and Italian skiers might be pulled out of competition, too, since their countries were also active in the hostilities. On Jan. 20, the day before the world championships were to start, the organizing committee debated whether to postpone the event. It decided not to, but did cancel the opening ceremonies for fear of terrorism.
Then came the crudest blow: ABC Sports, which had contracted to pay $1.5 million for rights to televise the two-week event, bailed out less than 24 hours before the championships were to begin. The network's excuse? Not the threat of terrorism to its crews, not the pressing demands of covering the war, but a vague explanation that it had been informed that the U.S. Ski Team was not going to participate in "certain key events" at the championships. As it happened, the American team did indeed show up in Austria, though two days after competition began, and ABC's little cable sister, ESPN, stayed to report on the races. But the loss of major U.S. network coverage, as well as the fear that ABC might refuse to pay its rights fee, was depressing evidence of how a war in the Middle East could affect life in middle Europe.
It wasn't until the racers finally moved onto the slopes and started competing that it became clear that, whatever Iraq controlled elsewhere, Austria ruled its own snow.
February 11, 1991
The first race, the men's slalom on Jan. 22, was won by Marc Girardelli, 27, and no gold medal was ever more richly deserved, for he is arguably the finest—and bravest—ski racer of the era. Girardelli was born in Austria, lives in Switzerland, but skis for Luxembourg for reasons too abstruse to explain. He has suffered an extraordinary number of harrowing injuries in his career, beginning in 1983, when his left knee was torn up so thoroughly he was diagnosed as being 80% disabled. But he quickly went back into training and, amazingly, won five World Cup slaloms the following season. In 1987 his left shoulder was repeatedly dislocated, in 1988 he suffered bruised ribs and a crushed left elbow, and in December 1989 he experienced a horrendous fall in a World Cup Super G race, which resulted in internal bleeding that required two operations to correct.
Despite such damage, he has won three overall World Cup titles and seven world championship medals, including two golds in combined events. But the slalom win in Hinterglemm was his first gold in an individual event. Girardelli's mother begged him to stop racing, but he told her, "No, I have lost five years of skiing because of my injuries, so I still have some accounts to settle." Girardelli seemed ready to settle one account by collecting more gold medals at these world championships, but it was not to be. His next-best finish was a fifth in the giant slalom.
In the end, the only multiple gold medalist was an Austrian upstart named Stefan Eberharter, 21, who had never won a World Cup race. Eberharter, who plays the accordion, entertained the crowd by squeezing out tunes at his two victory celebrations—for the Super G and the men's combined. When asked before the Super G who the favorite in the race was, Eberharter looked surprised. "The favorite?" he said. "I thought it was me." He skied a flawless race, blowing out Kjetil Andre Aamodt of Norway, the runner-up by 1.54 seconds, the largest margin in a Super G in five years. He was so hot that Austrian team officials, greedy for more gold, dumped the veteran Hubert Strolz from the men's giant slalom and replaced him with the young accordionist.
The favorite in that race was Italy's Alberto Tomba, 24. This had not been a great year by La Bomba's superstar standards. He had won only three World Cup races and had failed to finish in the last three slaloms before Saalbach-Hinterglemm. When he wound up a lackadaisical fourth behind Girardelli in the world championship slalom, his trainers were puzzled. They knew he was in superb physical shape, so they decided that perhaps Tomba's trouble lay in his mind. They were going to import a motivational psychologist from Trieste to convince their star that he was still a winner, but the plan was scrubbed at the last minute and La Bomba went out on the hill for the giant slalom armed only with his own mercurial motivations.
In the first run, he was superb, finishing a solid .27 of a second ahead of the runner-up, Rudolf Nierlich, 24, of Austria. But in the second run, it seemed both Tomba's mind and body failed him. He took a surprising spin at the eighth gate and did not finish, leaving the victory to Nierlich, who squeaked it out despite a near fall just above the finish. As for Eberharter, he had used up all his songs and finished 17th.
Still, the Austrians had plenty to celebrate. They won an overwhelming 11 medals (including five golds) at the worlds, while Switzerland took six, France three, Italy two, Norway two and Sweden two. Nevertheless, no Austrian worth his Obstler Schnaps could fail to mourn losing the race they call the K‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ánigsdisziplin ("king's event")—known to most as the men's downhill. It was won by Switzerland's Franz Heinzer, 28, who had finished fourth in three world championship downhills. This time, on the slopes of the Zw‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√álferkogel, above Hinterglemm, he made a mistake at the top and trailed the leaders at the first three intermediate timing points. But he burst across the finish line first, .25 of a second in front of Italy's Peter Runggaldier. Austria's Helmut H‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áflehner, the prerace favorite, would cross his ski tails in the start gate and come to a humiliating stop high on the course.
When the world championships began, it was widely assumed that they would go down in history as the private playground of skiing's new queen, Petra Kronberger, a bank clerk from the Austrian village of Pfarrwerfen. She is just 21 and has been on the World Cup tour for only 3½ years, but she won last season's overall World Cup and holds an insurmountable lead, with 276 points for the same title this year by virtue of having won eight of the 16 races she has entered. Kronberger is the first woman in history to win races in all five disciplines, and there were plenty of Austrians willing to bet that she would be the first person to win five gold medals at a world championships.
She began beautifully in the downhill on the slopes of the Kohlmaiskopf, above Saalbach, where the temperatures on the course ranged from 32° in the sun at the top to 14° in the shadowed valley below. Kronberger's chief ski serviceman, Franz Ploberger, asked a computer that had been programmed with simulations of 200 pairs of variously prepared skis which would be the best to use, and got 10 different formulas. So he chose the pair that would run fastest over the coldest snow at the bottom.
And that was how she won: Kronberger was No. 8 at the highest intermediate point, No. 2 at the middle point but No. 1 on the icy bottom. She won by .44 of a second over Nathalie Bouvier of France.
In her second event, the Super G, Kronberger had the fastest intermediate time, but as she sped the last 30 yards toward the finish, where a huge crowd bellowed her name, she caught an edge and was hurled violently across the line. As she lay stunned, the crowd looked on in shock. At last she moved and was helped, limping badly, out of the finish area. After she spent the night in a Salzburg hospital, doctors said that a ligament in her right knee was slightly torn—not career-wrecking, but definitely world championship—wrecking. She did not race again.
The Austrian despair over Kronberger's fall was eased, however, by the young woman who did win the Super G. Ulrike (Ulli) Maier, 23, was a long, long shot who had been put on the Austrian Super G team only as a courtesy due the defending champion. Maier had frequently been injured and she had never won a regular World Cup race, but in the 1989 championships at Vail she had taken the gold in the Super G.
Maier, who had been pregnant at Vail, crossed the finish line in Hinterglemm and burst into tears of joy as she embraced her daughter, Melanie, 17 months old. The baby's father is not Maier's husband but her Lebensgef‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ührte (life companion), a policeman who was in uniform at the finish. Maier thanked him for playing Mr. Mom while she was training. "He has gotten very good at diapers," she said.
Four days later, on Feb. 2, Mama Maier came within a baby's eyelash of winning the giant slalom. She led the first of the two runs by a hefty .64 of a second, but faltered slightly in the next and finished with a silver, .16 of a second behind Sweden's Pernilla Wiberg, 20.
It was in this race, the last women's event, that the U.S. produced its best result. Eva Twardokens, 25, of Santa Cruz, Calif., who had won a bronze in the GS in the 1985 world championships in Bormio, Italy, almost did it again, but finished fifth, .41 of a second out of the medals. American skiers competed in seven of the 10 events in the championships, but their presence was more noticeable off the mountains than on. Both the men's and the women's hotels became tourist attractions because of the uniformed sentries who stood outside the hotels carrying submachine guns. No other teams had such visible security measures.
After the Americans had sprinted for home in the war's first hours, critics questioned whether such dramatics had really been necessary. Howard Peterson, chief executive officer of U.S. Skiing, explained, "We could not guarantee the team's security. We had about 100 people—skiers and staff—spread over seven different locations in five different countries in Europe. We had no way of protecting our people, scattered as they were, so we told them to come home."
But what about ABC's precipitate bailout? Peterson said, "I am furious at the ABC people for blaming the ski team. I talked with them twice and reinforced the fact that we did not intend to withdraw from any events."
Of the 100 U.S. team members who flew home on Jan. 17, only about 20 from the Alpine team returned to Europe. All skiers were given the opportunity to stay safe in the States, and for some it was a tough decision. Heidi Voelker, 21, a slalom specialist from Pittsfield, Mass., was not sure what to do. The war loomed large in her life because her brother Eric, 27, an infantryman in the Marine Corps reserve, had left in December for duty with ground forces in Saudi Arabia. "My parents were neutral about whether I should go back," said Voelker. "They left it up to me. But my older brother and sister said I would be out of my mind if I went back to Europe. So I was in a bit of a quandary. And then Eric called. We talked for 20 minutes, and Eric said, 'Look, your first priority is to go back and ski. The Iraqis know sand, but they don't know snow. Go back and do it.' "
And she did, finishing in an impressive tie for eighth in the slalom—her best result ever in top competition—and proving to the world that, war or no war, the snow in the Alps still belongs to the skiers.