There was never any doubt: The star of the Olympic downhill would be the course. It plunged down La Face de Bellevarde above Val d'Isère in a cascade of hard cranking turns, near vertical drops and narrow rock chutes that tested ski racers in ways they had never before experienced. As Franz Klammer, the Austrian downhill hero of the 1976 Games in Innsbruck, put it, "There are about 20 turns on the course. In a very good run, a man can do three or four of them perfectly. On the rest, he will make a mistake of some degree."
In fact, when this centerpiece event of the Albertville Games was over on Sunday afternoon, that is exactly how the winners and the losers were selected—by the degree of their mistakes. Yet much about this race was more exhilarating, more melodramatic, more inspiring than such a negative standard might suggest. The day was warm and stunningly sunny, which is not a common condition in the Alps of France in February. Likewise, the crowd of 20,000 was made up in large part of uncommonly lighthearted Frenchmen, all clearly basking in the glory of the Games.
The winner of the downhill added nothing to the glory of France—although, oddly enough, he might have. Patrick Ortlieb, 24, is a huge (6'4", 216 pounds) blond Austrian who happens to sport the prominent nose, ruddy complexion and lantern chin of a classic Strasbourgian Frenchman. Ortlieb's father was born in Strasbourg. He moved to Austria and settled in the resort village of Oberlech to run a hotel. There he married a local girl, and they produced a baby boy to whom they gave a French first name, along with dual citizenship in Austria and France.
Ortlieb made the Austrian ski team in 1988, but before the world championships in '89, he was approached by the French to race for them. He was not even tempted. "I am 100 percent Austrian," said Ortlieb after Sunday's race. "I was born, raised and went to school in Austria, and I have no desire to switch teams."
Ortlieb's victory at Val d'Isère was something of a surprise. He had been improving rapidly—he entered the Games with three top-five World Cup downhill finishes this season—but he had never won a World Cup race. Because his gliding style of skiing is better suited to less technical courses, Ortlieb had disparaged the Olympic run, saying, "I'd never call it a real downhill. There is no true gliding part, and it is too turny."
With little pressure on him to win, Ortlieb went into the race relaxed. He would be the first racer down, a position he preferred because on this warm day it gave him an advantage over the later starters, who would encounter a ruttier, bumpier, sun-softened course. Even after Ortlieb had conquered the mountain, he refused to make his peace with La Face dc Bellevarde. "I hope I never have to race on it again," he said.
Ortlieb's gold medal provided desperately needed inspiration for his teammates. It had been a dismal season for Austria's male skiers—they haven't won a single World Cup race—and many observers believe the slump was caused, in part, by a specter of death hanging over the national ski team. In January 1991, Gernot Reinstadler, 20, a promising young Austrian racer, died after a downhill crash in Wengen, Switzerland. Last May, Rudi Nierlich, 25, twice GS and once slalom world champion and the country's reigning ski hero, was killed in a car accident. Finally, in December, Alois Kahr, 49, a women's coach, also died in a car accident. "Even if they don't explain everything," Ortlieb said, "the deaths of Nierlich, Reinstadler and Kahr have had an enormous effect on our morale."
Austrian morale got another boost at Val d'Isère when veteran Günther Mader, 27, who has never fared better than 11th in a World Cup downhill, got the bronze medal. However, nothing matched the morale-raising heroics of the man who took home the silver medal—a small (5'7", 154 pounds) son of the Savoie named Franck Piccard. Born in Albertville and the owner of a hotel in Les Saisies in the Tarentaise valley, Piccard, 27, had become the brightest star in French skiing at the Calgary Games, where he got the gold in the Super G and the bronze in the downhill. He continued to excel until this season, when he fell into a rut of mediocrity that by January had become a free-fall into a chasm of failure. In a downhill on Jan. 11 in Garmisch, Germany, he finished 71st. Despondent, he went home wondering if he could ever ski again. "I was depressed," he told the French sports daily L'‚Äö√†√∂‚àö¢quipe. "I didn't find the idea of taking risks fun anymore. I had no desire to confront icy passages, nor to go fast."
In Les Saisies, he meditated some, watched TV coverage of World Cup downhills in Kitzbühel and Wengen and realized that he "had only one desire: to ski again." At Val d'Isère, Piccard's run was as perfect as this eccentric downhill would allow. As the roar of the French crowd built to the thunder of an avalanche, Piccard flashed across the finish a scant .05 of a second behind Ortlieb's time. Afterward, Piccard's face could have lighted all of Paris. "I would like to take full advantage of this day and live it to the fullest." he said. "I really have discovered the joy of living again."
The race's odds-on favorite had been Franz Heinzer, 29, of Switzerland, who won the world downhill championship in 1991 and has already won four downhills this season. But an uncharacteristic series of rough turns left Heinzer in sixth place. The super-versatile veteran Marc Girardelli of Luxembourg had a great chance to win his first Olympic gold, but he slid into the fence on a difficult turn.
Then there was AJ Kitt, 23, the dream downhiller that Americans have always yearned for and never had. Because of his World Cup victory in December at the old Val d'Isère course and his even more impressive second-place finish at Kitzbühel in January, Kitt was considered a dark horse. He skied a so-so run in which the mistakes were noticeable, though not embarrassing, and wound up a respectable, though not triumphant, ninth.
But no matter whether they won, lost, tied or fell, the stars of world ski racing knew they had met more than their match last week. No one outshone La Face de Bellevarde. No one.