The scriptwriters had done their part. A member of the old guard was making his last appearance, the young protégé was poised to take on the world, and the friendly home crowd of 10,000 waited expectantly in the sunshine. But minutes after the start of the last World Cup downhill race of the season Saturday, the stage at Lake Louise was the scene of tears, not triumph.
In the final race of his career,
Ken Read crashed at the top of the course, out of range of the CBC’s confused camera crews. One run later, Todd Brooker hurtled into the most dangerous section, aptly named Double Trouble, and fell too. Read’s hopes for a grand finale had ended almost before they began, and Brooker’s prerace plan to stay in a crouched position through Double Trouble in a risky gambit to gain precious tenths of a second had cost him his chance at the World Cup title. As he stood, head bowed, metres from the site of his crash, tears of disappointment ran down Brooker’s cheeks. Austria’s Helmut Hoeflehner won the race. His countryman, Franz Klammer, finished second to capture the overall downhill crown. The “Kaiser” became, at 29, the oldest winner of the title and the first to win it five times.
mer, finished second to capture the overall downhill crown. The “Kaiser” became, at 29, the oldest winner of the title and the first to win it five times.
Last week’s dramatic events on and off the mountain slopes brought an end to Canada’s first era of sustained skiing success—the wild, winning days of the “Crazy Canucks.” Charter members Dave Irwin and Dave Murray retired last year, and last week Read made his departure official. With defending World Cup downhill champion Steve Podborski undergoing knee surgery in Toronto (necessitated by his crash at Aspen) and national team coach John Ritchie officially retiring after Saturday’s race, there was only the memory of a team that had thrilled Europe’s skiracing connoisseurs and won the hearts of a nation. Like most breakups, the ski team’s end evoked sadness, bitterness and meddling from those on the sidelines.
Read’s announcement was not totally unexpected. The first North American glamor boy of the downhill won five World Cup races since he joined the tour in 1973. Now 27, Read had hinted at retiring before this season but decided to make one last run at the overall title. His llth-place finish at Aspen dropped him from contention, and, one year short of a degree in economics, Read plans to return to university. (He will transfer from the University of Calgary to the University of Western Ontario.)
The nonrace doings in Aspen, if not affecting his decision, certainly removed any doubts in Read’s mind about the decision. As the racers prepared for the critical second-to-last race, the Canadian Ski Association (CSA), with the subtlety of a wrecking ball, delivered bills for $2,065 to each skier’s hotel room. The CSA said the bills were to help defray a $200,000 budget shortfall. The skiers were outraged, none more than Read, who had made 30 public appearances on the CSA’s behalf since August. Last week in Lake Louise CSA officials, not surprisingly, avoided the subject of the bills while the skiers plotted a united response.
If the CSA’s timing was woeful, Ritchie’s was equally disturbing. Two days before the Aspen run Ritchie gathered his squad and revealed that, after 10 years with the team and six as head coach, he was quitting. Ritchie said that the bills angered him and were “one of the many frustrations associated with coaching.” But he cited personal reasons for leaving the team after the Lake Louise race. The skiers publicly expressed surprise and speculated on a possible replacement, if any. But privately some racers were angered by the timing of Ritchie’s announcement and felt he could have waited at least until the end of the season.
Ritchie and Read leave with bittersweet memories, particularly of their strained six-year relationship. And perhaps only time will allow them to see the irony in the ' post-race announcements 1 Saturday that the Canadian arm of the Japanese corporation Sony plans to donate $10,000 to the CSA to pay the skiers’ bills and that the Bank of Montreal will guarantee at least $5,000 more. At week’s end Read was not appeased, as he recalled that the B and C teams were sent home in December due to lack of funds: “The scandal of Val Gardena was completely unnecessary. So was the way the bills were levied before the race in Aspen. The CSA must realize that they are dealing with athletes who are recognized as world class. We should not be treated as prima donnas, but I wish they understood the kind of extreme pressure we must ski with.”
$10,000 to the CSA to pay the skiers’ bills and that the Bank of Montreal will guarantee at least $5,000 more. At week’s end Read was not appeased, as he recalled that the B and C teams were sent home in December due to lack of funds: “The scandal of Val Gardena was completely unnecessary. So was the way the bills were levied before the race in Aspen. The CSA must realize that they are dealing with athletes who are recognized as world class. We should not be treated as prima donnas, but I wish they understood the kind of extreme pressure we must ski with.”
Brooker, the heir apparent who had the team’s two wins this season, could not forget the race and his fall. “I said to myself, T can’t believe this, it can’t be happening to me, I can’t be spinning around’—but I was. My season ended in slow motion.” And so too did that of a team which gave its name to an era. Fisher in Lake Louise.
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