COVER

UPSETS ON THE SLOPES

CHRIS WOOD February 29 1988
COVER

UPSETS ON THE SLOPES

CHRIS WOOD February 29 1988

UPSETS ON THE SLOPES

COVER

To win his second gold medal in the second alpine skiing event of the Calgary Games, the best skier in the world simply had to finish a race last week. Pirmin Zurbriggen, the shy, pious and talented 25-year-old Swiss superskier needed only to negotiate the 57 red and blue slalom gates stretching before him down the slope. And as Zurbriggen swung easily into the opening section of the course last Wednesday morning at Nakiska, the medal presentation seemed to be a mere formality. Already he had beaten teammate Peter Müller to win the gold medal in the downhill. Then he posted a seemingly unbeatable lead in a shorter version of the downhill, the

first part of the alpine combined event. And he maintained that lead after the first of the event’s two slalom runs on Feb. 17. But later in the day, no more than 14 seconds away from the finish line, the master technician lost his technique, his balance and the medal.

Tragedies: The trouble started when Zurbriggen cut too close to gate 39, and the pole rattled across his legs. Off balance, he collided with gate 40, his right ski slicing over the pole. Thrown sideways, he slid, fell and finally cartwheeled out of control—and out of the

race. ‘T can’t explain,” Zurbriggen said later. “I was right on the skis, really sure. It was just bad luck.” More than that, it was an inglorious and heartbreaking end to his quest to win all five Olympic alpine golds. Still, Zurbriggen remained in contention for golds in the slalom, giant slalom and super giant slalom events this week. The first week of alpine = skiing on Mount Allan at I Nakiska produced other

1 triumphs and tragedies. 2 For Canadians, veteran I Laurie Graham’s fifth5 place finish in the downE hill—a race that was i postponed until Friday

because of the high winds that upset the week’s events at Nakiska—was offset by the surprising bronze medal performance of nearby Banff’s Karen Percy. The 21-year-old finished only one-100th of a second behind silver medallist Brigitte Oertli of Switzerland and three-quarters of a second behind gold medallist Marina Kiehl of West Germany. “It’s a great start,” exulted Percy, who competes this week in giant slalom and Super G events.

The Percy victory, Canada’s first medal in the opening seven days of the Games, also served as compensation for the disappointment of the Canadian men’s performance in the downhill and combined events. The country’s top-rated male skier, Rob Boyd, had to settle for a 16th-place finish in the downhill, while the team’s best showing was turned in by British Columbia’s Michael Carney, who came 14th in the same race.

But perhaps the most bitter personal moment belonged to American downhill champion Pam Fletcher, who broke her right leg in a collision with a course worker while finishing a practice run less than two hours before she was to open her event. In the men’s combined event, the Austrians were the chief beneficiaries of Zurbriggen’s mishap. Hubert Strolz, a 25-year-old ^ policeman from Zams, took the alpine combined gold, as teammate Bernhard 9 Gstrein, 22, won the silver. Franck PicI card, meanwhile, won the downhill g bronze to end France’s 20-year Olymz pic alpine skiing medal drought that § followed Jean-Claude Killy’s recordsetting triple gold medal performance at Grenoble.

Tribute: Still, there was no doubt whose star shone brightest at Mount Allan during the Games’ first week. Despite his humiliating crash, Zurbriggen’s gold medal, his 31 World Cup race wins and more than half a dozen world championships clearly made him the most forbidding competitor on the mountain. And he is one of the most enigmatic. Indeed, after Zurbriggen’s unexpected fall, the eventual winner in the combined event offered the Swiss skier an unusual tribute. Declared Strolz: “I didn’t dream of a gold medal because Pirmin was the strongest contender. I would have been satisfied with second behind Pirmin.”

And there was certainly no question about Zurbriggen’s strength during his convincing victory in the men’s downhill race—a vertical drop of 874 m down more than three kilometres of mountainside. Delayed a day from Feb. 14 by winds gusting to 193 km/h at the top of the course, the race pitted Zurbriggen against the seasoned Müller, his arch rival on the Swiss team and at races

around the world. Müller, a 30-year-old veteran of 11 World Cup seasons and the downhill silver medallist at Sarajevo in 1984, skied first in the field of 51. He set a blistering pace, completing the course in a fraction over two minutes (2:00.14)—a time approached by none of the next dozen skiers down the hill. And as Zurbriggen, skiing 14th, entered the starting gate just 60 m below the mountain crest, he said that he doubted he could better his teammate’s time. “I was really nervous,” he recalled later. “I have never seen Müller ski so well.”

Prayer: Zurbriggen struggled briefly to control his skis on the difficult upper sections—some with a precipitous pitch of 75 degrees—before finding his balance after the third turn. But by the time a speed gun tracked him at the base of the Bobtail—a steep mid-course pitch—Zurbriggen was flying downhill at 133.5 km/h. And as he crossed the finish line, the results board flashed a remarkable time of 1:59.63, just over a full half-second ahead of Müller. Seeing the figures, Zurbriggen looked skyward and pressed his hands together in a gesture of prayer before tossing one ski into the air in an uncharacteristic public display of emotion. “I was so happy,” he said later. “I thanked God that I won this.”

It was a heartfelt statement from the native of the tiny Swiss village of SaasAlmagell (population 300). Zurbriggen learned to ski on the mountain behind his family’s inn and served as an altar boy in the small Roman Catholic church nearby. Skiing, family and religion re-

main the central elements in his life. He attends Sunday mass faithfully and twice made pilgrimages to Lourdesencouraging detractors to describe him as a “goody two-shoes.” But Zurbriggen seems unaffected. After he glanced last week at his winning time in the men’s downhill, he sought out a telephone in order to share the moment with his parents in Switzerland.

As electrifying as it was for the 22,000 spectators lining the course, Zurbriggen’s run was a bitter disappointment for Müller. He told reporters later that he felt he had never skied better. Declared Müller: “I came down without a mistake.” But Müller also bowed to Zurbriggen’s talent. “When he makes no mistakes,” the balding Swiss veteran admitted, “it is not possible he is slower than me.”

Star: It seemed impossible, too, when not one of the three women who had been expected to dominate in the women’s downhill finished in the medals. Switzerland’s Maria Walliser, noted for her temperamental behavior off the slopes, edged out Canada’s Graham by placing fourth, while her Swiss teammate Michela Figini, gold medal winner in the event in 1984, finished ninth. For 27-year-old Graham, who had postponed retirement to compete in her second Games, it was a bitter outcome. “I felt so relaxed and in control,” a tearful Graham said after her run. But the Inglewood, Ont., veteran added, “I can live with it because I know I skied my best.” Figini, meanwhile, blamed her poor performance, in part, on high winds,

which delayed the race four times on Friday after forcing a one-day postponement. Declared Figini: “The wind was a problem. It was difficult to see the course.”

Those powerful winds, however, did not prevent Karen Percy from moving triumphantly into the spotlight as Canada’s newest skiing star. Percy, racing in her first Olympics after only one full season of World Cup competition, actually outpaced gold medallist Kiehl in the steep top sections of the course, before being slowed by a rough crossing of the flat lower portion of the 2,928-m run, known as the North Axe. “I was definitely a dark horse compared to Laurie,” the bronze medallist observed after the race. “But I was hometown favorite.” And Percy, who travelled about 25 km from her Banff home to hike the Nakiska course last summer, said that the downhill medal could improve her chances in other events during Week 2. Said Percy: “It shows I can handle race pressure.”

Meanwhile, for firstplace finisher Kiehl, the downhill victory was especially sweet. Until her win, the 23-year-old Munich millionaire’s daughter had been a doubtful starter for the West German team in this week’s Super G. Fellow West German Traudl Hächer had claimed a better chance at a medal, and team coaches had planned to hold a private race between the two women to determine who would race in the event.

Declared Kiehl after last week’s medal victory: “I wasn’t sure they would let me race the Super G. That made me very aggressive.”

Fall: But the lack of experience of the Canadian men’s team was clearly exposed. Whistler, B.C., downhiller Rob Boyd, ranked eighth by the Fédération internationale de ski (FIS) and first in Canada, finished 16th in the Olympic downhill on Feb. 15. It was an especially disappointing result on his 22nd birthday. “It was my first Olympics, and the pressure got to me too much,” said Boyd later. “I was thinking too much about the Olympics. I wasn’t thinking about my skiing.” Felix Belczyk, 26, from Castlegar, B.C., was 18th, while 21-year-old Brian Stemmle of Aurora, Ont.—who suffered a knee injury in Januaryfailed to complete the race. Later in the

week Belczyk’s bid in the combined event ended with a fall 30 m from the finish line in the event’s first slalom run.

Crashed: In the end, it was left to relative unkowns to provide the Canadian men with their top performances: 21year-old Michael Carney of Squamish, B.C., with a 14th-place finish in the downhill, and Rossland, B.C.’s 24-yearold Donald Stevens with a 19th-place result in the combined. Significantly, Carney observed: “I always seemed to be the fourth man [on the team]. I didn’t have any pressure on me.” Added Boyd: “We’ll be better prepared for thé next Olympics.”

It will have to be the next Olympics,

too, for the best U.S. women’s downhiller, Pam Fletcher. Just one hour and 45 minutes before the scheduled start of her event, the 25-year-old from Acton, Mass., collided with volunteer course worker Steven Lounds of Calgary at a blind corner near the bottom of a training run. The collision knocked the wind out of Lounds and injured his knee—but left Fletcher with a fractured right lower leg. Sobbed the disheartened skier after the accident: “I worked so hard to get here, I just knew I would do well today. Then I hit this guy.”

That was only the latest of eight injuries to sideline U.S. skiers in as many months. The bad luck started when 1984 Olympic giant slalom gold medallist Debbie Armstrong dislocated a leg joint last summer, and continued through

January when giant slalom specialist Tory Pillinger suffered eight leg fractures when she crashed while racing in Switzerland. Observed team spokesman Nick Howe: “It seems as if they are being picked off one after the other.” Last week’s unco-operative weather also was a disappointment. Gale-force winds forced postponements of two races, but the other problem forecast for the contentious site did not transpire: despite warm chinook winds during much of the Games’ first week, there was no lack of snow on Mount Allan’s alpine ski runs. For the chastened Canadians, the familiar runs offered fresh medal opportunities in the second Olympic week. Graham and teammates

Kerrin Lee and Karen Percy were scheduled to race in the ladies’ giant and super giant slaloms.

Hopes: Still, the drama in the ski events seemed certain to centre on Pirmin Zurbriggen, when he faces a new challenger. High-living Italian slalom sensation Alberto (La Bomba) Tomba holds an unassailable 99-point lead over Zurbriggen in World Cup slalom standings so far this year, and a 20-point lead in the circuit’s overall ranking. If the former Swiss altar boy hopes to beat the Italian playboy on Saturday, he will need to restore the concentration he lost so dramatically last week on what was supposed to be his mountain.

CHRIS WOOD with PEGGY WEDDELL at Nakiska