Sports

JUST AS THINGS LOOKED HOPELESS, KATHY SAVED THE DAY

MICHAEL POSNER February 23 1976
Sports

JUST AS THINGS LOOKED HOPELESS, KATHY SAVED THE DAY

MICHAEL POSNER February 23 1976

JUST AS THINGS LOOKED HOPELESS, KATHY SAVED THE DAY

Sports

MICHAEL POSNER

The flags were coming down on Innsbruck's Marie Theresien Strasse, and the athletes had departed. The XII Winter Olympiad—conducted without incident, but not without surprise—was over. The Russians and East Germans had carted home their medals—almost as many as all the other nations combined. The Austrians were left pondering the near-collapse of their alpine ski team, the Norwegians the decline of their cross-country heroes. But Canadians everywhere were saluting the most productive performance by a Canadian team in years, including a frankly unexpected gold medal in the women’s giant slalom by 18-year-old Kathy Kreiner.

Kreiner, a native of Timmins, Ontario, zipped down the treacherous slopes of the Axamer Lizum in the unbeatable time of one minute. 29.13 seconds—thereby depriving West Germany’s Rosi Mittermaier of the chance to become the first women’s triple gold medalist in alpine skiing. Kreiner’s margin of victory over Mittermaier was a mere one-eighth of a second. “I would have liked to have seen Rosi win,” the tall (five-foot-seven), angular Kathy said afterward, “but I’m not unhappy that I won.” Then, after sipping victory champagne, she spoke to her father, Hal, a general practitioner in Timmins. “I’m looking out the window at the hill

where it all began,” Dr. Kreiner told his daughter. He was referring to the tiny, 350foot slope on which Kathy and her sister, Laurie, 22, also on the Olympic team, had first skied. Said Kathy later: “It didn’t sound like my father somehow. It sounded like he was in tears.”

The delight that followed Kreiner’s victory was at least equal to the surprise. Lew Canadian fans were present for her performance and of more than a dozen Canadian news reporters in Innsbruck only one (from Canadian Press) was on hand. Even alpine team manager Luc Dubois chose to stay in the Olympic village and supervise packing for the trip home. “Frankly,” he said, “I didn’t think they’d finish in the top 15.” Based on the women’s performances in earlier events, one could hardly blame him. Canada’s highest placing in the downhill event—won by Rosi Mittermaier— was nineteenth (Laurie Kreiner). and only one Canadian woman managed even to complete the difficult slalom course (Laurie again, finishing in the last third, far behind winner Mittermaier). Interviewed after her disappointing twentysecond place finish in the downhill, temperamental Betsy Clifford was asked if the Canadian public—supporters of the national ski team—might react unfavorably to the results. “(Obscenity) the Canadian public,” cooed Betsy. “We’re doing the best we can.”

Clearly, their best was not good enough, until Kreiner’s swoop down the threequarter-mile Axamer course. She was the first starter, a decided advantage on the bumpy, icy slope. “The giant slalom is a race for technique,” said Nancy Greene Raine, winner of the same event at the Winter Games at Grenoble in 1968. “You need finesse, and Kathy has it. She doesn’t attack a course, she finesses it—she’s a very technically exact skier. By skiing first, she was able to do her thing before the course became chatterboxed [rutted].” Kreiner agreed: “It’s easier to hang on in that kind of snow. All along I felt that I could do well. I didn’t go out to win a medal. I w'as just going out to do my best, but I knew that my best might be a medal.”

Appearing at the daily news conference for medal winners, Kreiner. wearing borrowed clothes (her own had been shipped home early to avoid excess baggage charges), stuck out a playful tongue at Nancy Greene Raine, who shouted: “ ’Way to go, Kather!” But it was a full five minutes before assembled newsmen were able to move their attention from the dimpled Miss Mittermaier, 25, easily and de-

servedly the most popular woman athlete in Europe this winter. (A fan gave Rosi flowers after the race, and she promptly presented them to Kathy.) Kreiner answered questions with her customary reticence. seemingly embarrassed by the endless flash of cameras and flow of questions on how she had slept and what she ate for breakfast. (She slept well, and had Austrian rolls and orange juice.) CTV staff erected a KREINER + CANADA = GOLD sign, executive producer Johnny Esaw launched a chorus of For She’s A Jolly Good Fellow,

call home from Europe and tell their parents I’m working them too hard. Who are the parents going to listen to—me or their children?”

Jorritsma is a disciplinarian. Last year, he sent three members of the team home to Canada—including Burka and Edmonton’s Andrew Barron—for “goofing off.” Elis training program is rigorous—five hours a day of running, cycling and skating—but it has produced indisputable results. In addition to Priestner’s silver, Burka (who after last year’s suspension

and Nancy Greene Raine told Kathy, “You’re the queen now. It’s all yours.”

No such celebration followed Canada’s other medal victories—Cathy Priestner’s silver in the women’s 500-metre speedskating or Toller Cranston’s bronze in men’s figure skating. Both were surrounded by controversy. Priestner, Windsor-born and Winnipeg-raised, finished slightly more than a third of a second behind American gold medalist Sheila Young and—in the view of her coach. Jorritt Jorritsma—might easily have placed first. “Cathy doesn’t work hard enough.” the 30-year-old Dutchman said later. “She’s beaten Young before and could have beaten her again. But you can’t sleep in, skip practice and avoid training and hope to win gold medals.” Jorritsma. a former member of the Dutch national team, could afford to be blunt. He had tendered his resignation in December—citing personal reasons. In fact, however. Jorritsma resigned for lack of support from the National Speedskating Association—specifically Doug Gordon, the team manager. “They accused me of spending all my time with Sylvia Burka. Listen. I was the coach. I’m the one who’s supposed to know what kind of training they need. So these girls

now swears by Jorritsma’s methods) placed fourth in the 1,000-metre event, and 17-year-old Gaétan Boucher, a future medal candidate, finished sixth in the men’s 1.000 metres. By contrast. Canada’s best finish at Sapporo in 1972 was eighth in women’s events and fourteenth in men’s. Gordon, a freight sales officer with the CNR in Winnipeg whose daughter Gale was also named to the Olympic team, refused to engage in a public battle with Jorritsma. But he admitted that no special attempt had been made to retain Jorritsma’s services.

The central irony of the speedskating dispute is that Priestner, 19, probably trained less than any Canadian athlete in Innsbruck. A chunky 120 pounder, with a nonchalant approach to life, Priestner finds training boring. After her medal-winning effort, Jorritsma planted a discreet kiss on her cheek and said, simply, “Congratulations, kid.” while her parents took her out for a celebratory lunch.

If Jorritsma’s candor surprised Canadians, so did Toller Cranston’s. He chose the first of three press conferences to inveigh against the judging in international figure skating. An acknowledged genius in free skating. Cranston has repeatedly

failed to impress the judges in compulsory school figures, an exacting science that calls for skaters to trace prescribed patterns on the ice. The exercise is enough to put most spectators to sleep, but it counts for a full 30% of a skater’s overall marks. Cranston, Ron Shaver (who later withdrew after pulling a thigh muscle in practice) and Stan Bohonek met the press for the first time after the compulsory figures. Admitting that he had gotten off to a bad start (including one disastrous 3.3 mark—out of a possible 6.0—on the first figure), Cranston nevertheless accused East European judges of “protecting their skaters, even when they perform badly.” It was a widely held view. Skating magnificently in the short, two-minute program—an event he has not lost in four years—Cranston moved from seventh to fifth place in the overall standings, and a good shot at a medal. Still, he seemed discouraged. “The audience, I think, was cold, to a degree. I can’t get enough practice time. The food in the Olympic Village is too good. It seems like we’re eating all the time.” Ever the performer, Cranston wondered: “Would Baryshnikov or Nureyev have to put up with this?”

More than the village food, Cranston had to wonder whether his balletic free skating program, separated by light years from the more athletic performances previous men’s champions have turned in, would impress a traditional cast of judges. Europeans tend to take a dim view of innovation. German reporters call Cranston “the clown on ice,” and the Austrian television announcer, covering his short program. termed it “an unusual performance.” Then, introducing Ron Shaver, he said: “And now we will see more of a male performance.” Cranston’s free skating effort was predictably artistic, but after a bad landing on his first, triple-toe loop, his skating never seemed inspired—or inspiring to the audience. “I should have attacked more,” he said later. “My costume didn’t fit exactly properly, and I felt a little like a stuffed sausage.” Britain’s John Curry, the reigning European champion, won the gold medal, and Cranston was the first to admit the Englishman deserved it.

Beyond Canada’s medal-winning performances, there were some other improvements—and some disappointments. The luge and bobsled teams placed almost as far back as it’s possible to place and still remain in competition. Canadian ski jumpers, still engulfed in the pre-Olympic controversy that saw two team members dismissed from the team for rowdiness in Europe, looked like boys against men in both the 70-metre and 90-metre events. Cross-country skiers Bert Bullock and Sharon Firth improved their times dramatically—but so did the winning Finns and Russians. (An interesting sidelight of the games is how little recognition Nordic skiers, perhaps among the fittest of all athletes, receive. Not one of ABC-TV’S dozen commentators was on hand to record

American Bill Koch’s silver medal performance in the 30-kilometre race. When broadcaster Curt Gowdy finally hustled himself up to the site, the first question he posed to Koch—who had just raced 18.6 miles—was whether he was tired.

For many Canadians, the event which delivered at once the best and most disappointing performances was the men’s downhill, a spectacular, dangerous race down two miles of sheer ice. Late last year. French skier Michel Dujon was killed in a World Cup downhill race and a Swiss star

suffered a broken spine. Thunder Bay, Ontario, native Dave Irwin suffered a broken rib and a concussion three weeks before the Olympics, but still finished eighth at Innsbruck—one of three Canadians in the top 10. It was a remarkable performance. Irwin was advised by Austrian doctors to stay off skis for two months. He ignored them. The highest-placed Canadian skier, Calgary’s Ken Read, was fifth. “If this had been a World Cup race, I’d be very happy with that,” said Read. “But, it’s the Olympics and there are only three winners, so I’m naturally disappointed.” Austrian hero Franz Klammer won the event.

For a long time, it appeared that Canada’s performance in Innsbruck would be consistent with earlier Olympic efforts— dismal. “We always come with the same high hopes, the same rush of enthusiasm, and then we end with the same downhill fall,” said Southam sports columnist Jim Coleman. Against 1,400 athletes from 37 other nations, some of the Canadians seemed distinctly out of place. But that was before Kathy Kreiner surprised everyone. As one Canadian visitor so aptly put it: “It’s amazing what one little gold medal does for morale. Suddenly, we seem to belong here.” MICHAEL POSNER