There are times when you can't tell where the Swiss Alps end and Werner Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár begins. In late morning, when the alpenglow brightens over the resort village of Leukerbad, and when Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár, the men's world champion in the shot put, is poised in his practice ring below, with the shot wedged under his unshaved jaw, the backlighted shapes of man and mountain merge convincingly.
Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár's terraced nose and dark mustache are repeated in the outcroppings and avalanche fences above the timberline. His brow is a bulging cornice. Wisps of chalk dust that he uses in his workouts settle over his face: snow left in high, protected places.
He bends, thrusts his hips back, drives across the ring, turns and launches the shot. It lands with a boom about 65 feet away, in an area spread with tumbling mats. He and Austrian champion Klaus Bodenmüller are throwing in a gorgeous new gym, the east wall of which is glass, allowing in the mountainside. Save for their coach, Jean-Pierre Egger, they are alone.
"Most important is the balance, the dynamic balance all the way through," says Egger. For an hour and a half, four throws at a time, the putters groove their form, delicately timing the transfer of force from foot through thigh, hip, back, shoulder and arm to the snapping wrist. There is no explosive grunting. They speak in whispers. Their care in this laying down of neural-patterns is such that the work is mesmerizing. They could be chamber musicians, absorbed in mastering a difficult passage.
July 21, 1992
Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár, who is 31, 6'6¾" and 282 pounds, might prefer that. "I should be doing something more intelligent," he says while retrieving the rubber-coated spheres. "Sometimes I feel like a leopard in the zoo, pacing from the ring to the weight room and back." He likes to slip his toe under the shot and lift it with his instep like a soccer ball, tossing the 16-pound implement waist-high so he doesn't have to bend for it.
Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár has won the past two world titles, in 1987 and '91, and was third in the Seoul Olympics. His best mark, set in 1988, is 74'7¾", the fifth longest of all time. He may never throw that far again, because back surgery in 1990 slightly reduced his range of motion.
"They took a piece out of his spine like a hazelnut," says Egger. "It was pressing on the sciatic nerve. Since then, he hasn't taken the risk of putting everything into it. To throw a record...." His gesture is that of tearing out his own heart.
Yet to keep winning, Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár probably won't need record distances. Seoul silver medalist Randy Barnes of the U.S., whose world record is 75'10¼", doesn't come off suspension for use of an anabolic steroid until Nov. 2,1992. Defending Olympic champion Ulf Timmermann of Germany is coming back from a thigh and pelvis injury. Indeed, the world's shot-putters, in this age of Eastern European realignment and random drug testing, have gone into surprising decline. All but Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár. His best in 1991, 72'3½", was a remarkable four feet better than that of his closest competitor. He seems a good bet to become the first Swiss track and field Olympic champion in history.
Their work done, Egger, who is 48 and who finished 12th in the shot put in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, shows Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár and Bodenmüller an essay he has written for a sports magazine, asserting that the Olympic ideal of bringing people together through sport has not yet been overwhelmed by Olympic failings of politics, size, commercialism and drugs. Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár smiles at this optimism, saying, "We Swiss."
"What is a great life?" Egger has quoted one Alfred de Vigny, a French poet and author, as asking. "The dream of one's youth, fulfilled at maturity."
"Mine was an old Harley-Davidson," says Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár. "The dream of my youth, still unfulfilled, is to ride it across America."
While the throwers shower, Egger, who has coached Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár for 10 years, says Werner's Geschenk (gift) is his natural ability to coordinate his long limbs and leg strength. "He doesn't take things too seriously," says Egger. "That lets him relax in the ring, but he has emotional potential that may never be explored now. He can be very angry. He can be very funny. But he hasn't let his deepest aggression out in competition. Even before he hurt his back, he never really let go."
During the last year, Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár's throws have ranged between 69 and 72 feet, while the rest of the world has subsided to 68 or thereabouts. In 1990 the West German magazine Der Spiegel ran a story linking Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár to illicit steroid use, and other published reports have since done the same, including a book by University of Texas professor John Hoberman published in the U.S. this month, Mortal Engines: The Science of Performance and the De-humanization of Sport. Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár denies the allegations, most of which appear to rely on a letter written by German physical-education teacher Norbert Wolf, who has repeatedly said that his references to Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár were "pure speculation." The reports were further fueled by an acknowledgment by Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár's doctor, Bernhard Segesser, who is also the Swiss Olympic team physician, that he administered anabolic steroids to Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár but only as therapy—once, he said, after an auto accident in 1985, and another time after knee surgery late in 1987.
"I said very clearly that Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár was treated only in such cases with steroids," Segesser told SI's Anita Verschoth. "This was always for the rehabilitation of a patient. He had a car accident, and we used steroids for several weeks to treat his cervical vertebra. His knee operation was in 1987 [after the world championships]. We used a very limited dosage of steroids over four weeks. I firmly believe in not using sports medicine for manipulative purposes. Werner was tested constantly through all these years. He was never positive. He never manipulated steroids to improve his performance."
Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár, under the Swiss system, is subject to random testing during the year, besides those at competitions. As long as he keeps passing them, Egger presumably is justified in crowing, "We have stayed at this level because we didn't take controlled substances."
Neither Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár nor Bodenmüller, who has thrown 69 feet, lives in Leukerbad. (The town is a spa, famed for its mineral hot springs.) They come here to work with Egger, who directs the Sportzentrum, and are invited to base themselves at the lovely, many-starred Bristol hotel. At lunch, the mountain light plays over their table's crystal and silver. Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár orders a steak in place of the Swiss boiled beef.
"Everywhere in Switzerland you can have a good meal," he says, "and we're used to it." He is an informed advocate of Swiss environmental safeguards, tax structure, social security and health care. He opposes Switzerland's membership in the European Community because he sees it threatening the Swiss people's right to place issues on the ballot. "I'm glad," he says, "really, to have been born Swiss."
"You couldn't have been born anyone else, anywhere else," says Bodenmüller with calm assurance.
"I could have been born a black baby in Africa," says Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár. "Not as Werner Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár, of course, but somebody else."
"Then you would be somebody else," says Bodenmüller, setting off a long conversation on the nature of identity.
"Do you think it was all preprogrammed?" asks Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár with exasperation toward the end.
The supremely unprogrammed Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár grew up in the village of Uttwil on Lake Constance. He played hockey and was one of Switzerland's best junior javelin throwers but resisted switching to the shot. "I saw all those fat people doing it and said I don't want to look like that," Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár says.
Finally, when Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár was 21, Egger coaxed him into what he was born to do. In school he studied plumbing, but he won't have to fall back on the trade if he should become, as is being discussed, a regional director of marketing for the Mobil Corp.
He now lives in the small town of La Neuveville, near Biel, with his girlfriend, Nadia Darman. "She is a hairdresser," says Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár, shaking out his shaggy mop. "Can't you tell?"
He shaves but once a week. This, too, is medicinal. "If you have such a delicate skin as I, like a ballerina's," he says, "you need the beard to block against the rough Kugel [shot]."
Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár is asked about Egger's assertion that he has never really let go. "It's possible," he says, "that I haven't given the very last bit. But when I've done well, I've had a feeling of harmony, a feeling that I can do much more. That's not necessarily accurate. If I tried harder, I might tighten and do worse. It's hard to put oneself in a trance and still be strong and technically right. Hard to strike that balance. I've thought about this a lot, and I have a theory."
Bodenmüller squares around to take this one in.
"Northern Europeans and American throwers are much more aggressive," Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár says, "not as people but in the ring. Americans yell, 'Come on, let's go,' and the Germans are animals. They fight until they drop dead...."
"But the Swiss..." begins Bodenmüller.
"The Swiss," says Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár, "are by nature more...restrained, more reserved."
He needs to nap for two hours before his afternoon weight workout, so he walks you outside to take his leave. A cool wind comes down from the astounding Alpine heights, picks up some meadow perfume and delivers the mixture to Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár's lungs, which expand with contentment.
Later, after you've driven down to the Rh‚Äö√†√∂¬¨•ne and along Lake Geneva, finding it hard, through thickening fog, to see the steep vineyards and the old churches, and even the lake, it strikes you that of all the people in Europe, Werner Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár, back on his mountain, has the sunniest day.