Sports

A little matter of Russian roulette

Hal Quinn March 17 1980
Sports

A little matter of Russian roulette

Hal Quinn March 17 1980

A little matter of Russian roulette

Sports

Hal Quinn

You can only have one hero at a time. I’ve discovered that.—Steve Podborski

Mount Whitehorn was deserted, with cloud-shadow wrapped around the bald peak above the tree line and sunshine where, hours earlier, the best downhill racers in the world had launched themselves to hurtle past spectators at 70 m.p.h., to be embraced by young women with blankets when they reached the bottom, 3,450 yards and less than two minutes later. Preparations for the furious moments had begun a month earlier when Canada, and Lake Louise, were granted their first-ever World Cup skiing event thanks to a fog-shrouded cancellation in France. The speculation and pressure-packing anticipation for the final race of the season had begun then too, because Mount Whitehorn was the home mountain of Ken Read, who trailed only Peter Mueller of Switzerland in World Cup downhill points. A victory by the home-town hero and a low finish by Mueller would give Read

the World Cup downhill crown—something no Canadian male has ever won.

The young girls with their OUR KEN READ HAS ALL THE SPEED banner arrived at the finish line 10 minutes after the race had started. They were too late. It had already been decided.

It is a strange and unforgiving sport, demanding skiing ability that the average skier can barely imagine: remarkable courage, since disaster is constantly courted; a measure of madness, attested by the European press nickname for the Canadian team, “the crazy Canucks”; and the luck of a gambler with a wife and kids to support. Ask Austrian Franz Klammer. After eight World Cup downhill wins in 1975 and an Olympic gold medal in 1976, the undisputed downhill king of all the mountains began slowing down. Friends and coaches say it all started after his brother Klaus fell in a race and was paralysed; others say his decision to switch skis in 1977 (for a rumored $730,000 to be collected when he retires) was the beginning of the end of his reign. It may have ended on Whitehorn last week. On the snow-swept, frigid final training

run, Klammer (now ranked ninth in the o world) entered the difficult S turns, 5 after the “pitch”, which gives the skiers ? their highest speed on this course, d Klammer’s ski caught, cartwheeling hirri, before he finally slid to a stop. Blood matted the snow from a gash on his arm; stretched ligaments in his right knee demanded a stretcher ride to the bottom.

Or ask Read himself, after the Olympics, or after Lake Louise. At Lake Placid last month, the binding of one ski released after he had barely begun the race. “It’s just the luck of the sport,” he said then. His coach, John Ritchie, said: “The binding shouldn’t have released. Perhaps a little ball of snow hit the heel of the ski. At that speed, that’s all it takes.”

The danger, madness and luck of the downhill racing turned Read’s home

town of Calgary and the resort of Lake Louise into a wintry pressure cooker last week. Billboards, shop-window and restaurant signs wished him luck, his local notoriety amplified to international proportions by his World Cup wins this season at Kitzbühel and Wengen. Bitter cold (“I had some frostbite on my face, but on my kneecaps too,” said Canadian racer Dave Murray) and fresh snow—the curse of the Canadian team—greeted Read’s hopes in the training runs. “I’m just praying for clear skies and sunshine tomorrow,” he said on the eve of the race. His prayer was answered, but the Russian roulette of drawing starting positions clouded any hope of catching Mueller.

Fresh snow on the course meant that the first ones down the mountain would be slowed by it, as they packed it down for those who would follow. Read drew starting position No. 4, better than Murray’s No. 2 but terrible compared with Italian Herbert Plank’s 12 and Podborski’s 14. “When I drew four, I knew it was almost impossible for me to win, but I’ve had the luck of the draw go for me too,” said Read. He came down in one minute and 52.39 seconds, Plank, the winner, almost two seconds faster. Podborski was 63/100ths of a second quicker than Read, but in this sport where hair’s-breadth miscalculations result in stretcher rides and a dusting of fresh snow cause split-lOths of seconds’ delay, Podborski’s time meant fourth place, Read’s eighth. Mueller finished 14th, but because Read did not win, that was enough for Mueller to win as World Cup downhill champion.

Though uncrowned (“The snow didn’t help, the start position didn’t help, and the pressure didn’t help”), to the estimated 11,500 spectators filing to cars

and buses Read was still a dashing, handsome, multilingual local hero. “I don’t feel I choked, because I finished eighth in the world today. How many Canadians do we have that can finish eighth in the world in anything? It was one of my worst finishes of the year, yes, but now I’ve ended up second in the World Cup downhill, and no Canadian male has ever won a World Cup medal before. If some people think I choked, then maybe they have to follow the sport a little more, and get some understanding of it.”

Teammate Dave Irwin understands. He finished 12t,h, to take some of the sting away from his bad luck and falls this season. Murray too knows, finishing 21st, all of 1.71 seconds behind Read. (“Ah, you win some, and lose a lot,” he said.) But few know the fickleness of the downhill game better than Podborski. He had a victory wiped out by rain this season, but whenever he has kept his skis or has not fallen Podborski has usually finished third or fourth. Yet even his bronze medal at Lake Placid was eclipsed by the story of Ken Read losing a ski. When asked about the effect of the conditions on the Lake Louise course, Podborski responds using “We,” describing the effect on the team. Asked if he was pleased with the results of the race, he asks in turn, “Do you mean for the team, or personally?” Asked if it bothers him that despite being the top Canadian in the last two big races, the spotlight remains on Read, he replies: “Well, that’s the way it is. All I do is ski race, I don’t write the stories. Ken obviously has been a winner for a number of years, he’s a good skier and a personality. You can’t take anything away from him.” Reminded

that he too is a good skier and a personality, Podborski says, “Well, we have a good team, a really good team, and that’s part of it.”

Podborski may have centre stage of the Canadian downhill skiing world next season. Read is contemplating quitting and will decide in the spring. Many factors are involved. The notoriety (“It makes me more introverted”), the ending of a two-year cycle for the team (“What kind of changes are they going to make? The best would be no changes at all. But we might lose Heinz Kappeler because they’ve made no effort to woo him”) and the nature of World Cup downhill racing itself (“This business cuts such a fine line. It was a year of my life to finish second. Mueller finished in the top three, three times, all wins. I finished in the top three, three times—two wins and a second by 4/100ths of a second. That was the difference).”

Indeed it is a strange sport, one that blinking spectators, or young girls putting the finishing touches on a banner, may miss; one that requires the technology of Omega or Texas Instruments to shave into its component parts; and one in which the athletes are almost totally dependent on the companies that supply their equipment. “We had a weird combination of skis and wax for this one,” said Podborski. Read agreed that the Canadian team had come up with a “pretty good mix.” Adding an ironic laugh, he said, “You’ll notice that the Fischer skiers were all about the same, and there was one skier on Rossignols. He won.”

For Coach John Ritchie, the growing role of suppliers, despite their “hundreds of thousands of dollars” role in the Canadian team’s $780,000 budget, is tragic: “The sad thing to me is that it’s a ‘ski’ race, every race. The companies have that much more to say. And that much more of a vested interest. It’s only happened over the last couple of years, but I think the main reason why Franz Klammer won 25 downhills was because he had the fastest skis. It has become so sophisticated that now companies have a huge influence on teams that are supposed to be ‘national’ teams. Now we’re really a ‘Fischer racing team’ and a ‘Canadian racing team’.” And so the banners are down, the billboards changed, the mountain quiet again. Read ponders his future and his potential marketability in Europe, his teammates think about next season. Podborski will do some cycling and “a lot of Windsurfing. I’ll forget about snow—for about a month.” Murray, disappointed with his season, has a lot to think about too: “I’ll go to Whistler, 5 B.C., and get in some skiing,” he says. § “But mainly, I’ll just try to continue d enjoying life. It’s not that tough.”