The afternoon sun glinted off two broad discs of bronze as Karen Percy posed before the Olympic flame at the foot of Mount Allan
at Nakiska last week. With her medals for third-place finishes in the women’s downhill and super giant slalom races, the 21-year-old from nearby Banff established herself as the new shining
light of the women’s ski team and the Canadian star of the Calgary Games. But as eager photographers snapped the beaming blonde’s picture, an embarrassing scene was taking place only feet away. Inside the lodge of the Olympic site, a subdued Glenn Wurtele, head coach of the Canadian men’s ski team, attempted to explain why the suits in which four Canadian men had raced had not been submitted for approval by authorities. Wurtele could only say, “Nobody noticed.” Race judges in the giant slalom event did—and the once-proud skiers, who failed to win a medal at the Games, were disqualified. Their afternoon at Nakiska was as humiliating as Percy’s was triumphant.
Even as Wurtele spoke, Italy’s sizzling Alberto Tomba was burning up the mountain in the second of his two brilliant runs to the giant slalom gold. Tomba’s total time was a full second ahead of his closest rival, Austria’s alpine combined gold medallist Hubert Strolz, and two seconds ahead of third-place finisher Pirmin Zurbriggen of Switzerland. It was a convincing demonstration of the talent that has carried the high-living 21-year-old, who
described himself as the “new messiah of skiing,” to no fewer than seven victories in 10 World Cup slalom and giant slalom races so far this season.
Glamor: Two days after his giant slalom triumph, Tomba further buttressed his boast by winning gold again in the final event of the Games’ alpine schedule, the men’s slalom. After his giant slalom victory, Tomba, the son of a wealthy Bologna businessman, happily announced: “I will get a Ferrari from my father. I want it red.” Tomba’s reward captured the spirit of an Olympic sport dominated by money, glamor and Europeans.
In fact, Percy was the only non-European to take home any of the 30 medals
awarded in the Games’ alpine skiing events. And she came painfully close to winning a third in the alpine combined event, which involves a downhill race and two slalom runs. But in the second slalom race, Percy, who had injured her left hand in January, lost her grip on her left pole. That cost her precious fractions of a second and marks in the event’s complicated scoring system. She finished fourth, just 3.19 scoring points
away from another bronze. Three days later in the giant slalom Percy’s hope for a medal ended in a spray of snow and a bruised buttock when she fell during the first of the event’s two runs. Still, with her two trips to the medal podium, the tenacious young Albertan happily assumed the mantle of her childhood hero, Nancy Greene—winner of a gold and a silver at Grenoble in 1968—as Canada’s alpine heroine.
It was an achievement that Percy pursued with steely determination. Her introduction to skiing came in 1971 when she was 5—the year Heather and Gerry Percy chose skiing as a family recreation they could share with their four children. By 1984, Karen was a candidate for the
national team. And the Grade 12 student at the Banff Community high school recorded her ambition in the school yearbook: “To win something like a gold medal at the 1988 Olympics.”
Since then, Percy has spent more than five months of each year travelling the World Cup ski racing circuit in pursuit of her Olympic dream. In the summer months she has trained by jogging daily from her family’s chalet-style home through Banff to run up and down the trails of Mount Norquay. One casualty of that demanding schedule has been her schoolwork. Percy is still several credits short of a high-school diploma.
As well, the young perfectionist told Maclean ’s:
“I don’t want to get a 50.1 want to get straight As.”
Despite distractions, she is completing a chemistry course. Said teacher John Stutz, approvingly:
“She’s an outstanding student. She can focus totally on her objective.
That’s also what makes her such an excellent athlete.”
Goals: When not focused on skiing, she finds diversion in reading— mostly escapist fiction— and knitting. Says Percy of her homey hobby: “It’s a time filler when you’re in a hotel in the middle of nowhere.” The almost constant travel on the ski circuit also keeps Percy apart from her boyfriend, 25-year-old Swiss-born restaurateur Marcel Holzherr. “It’s hard for any relationship,” observed Percy last week. “Your friends have to understand your goals.”
And now Percy has added another objective: capitalizing on her medals and sudden celebrity. Bonus provisions for Olympic medals in her nine existing endorsement contracts will soon award her an estimated $100,000. And according to her Edmonton-based agent, Michael Barnett, who also represents Wayne Gretzky, careful cultivation of her image could be worth another $1 million over the next five years. Said Barnett: “The dimples and the blond hair and the sparkling eyes are all there.”
Those golden prospects remained distant dreams for Canada’s male skiers. Only three managed top-15 finishes in their events: Jim Read was 13th in the super giant slalom, Mike Carney
placed 14th in the downhill, and Alain Villiard finished 14th in the slalom. But the lowest point during the Games was the disqualification—along with 10 other skiers from three other nations—of the four giant slalom racers. They were ejected following the first of the two required runs because their racing suits did not bear a seal indicating they had been approved by the Fédération internationale de ski. After a hastily organized check, Wurtele announced, “The suits have been tested, and they test legal.” But it was too
late. The team had no explanation for the oversight, and the race jury rejected Wurtele’s request to appeal the disqualifications.
At the same time, Wurtele defended the disappointing performances of Rob Boyd and Brian Stemmle, both winners on the World Cup circuit. Declared Wurtele: “People don’t realize how young our team is. They had no experience in the Olympics, and it showed. But the future is bright.”
For first-time Olympian Tomba, the future is now. Companies are lining up to have Italy’s newest national hero endorse their products. His countrymen already call him “the Rambo of the Snows,” and even “the Ben Johnson of
ski racing.” And his fun-loving manner off the slopes has added to his popularity. In December the darkly handsome skier celebrated his 21st birthday for nearly 48 straight hours, then donned his skis and won his fifth World Cup race of the year. Last week Tomba said that his success would give him “a certain prestige with other great stars, such as the beautiful [East German figure skater] Katarina Witt.” And as hé skied with deceptively casual grace down Mount Allan, appreciative fans sang the chorus to what has become his North American theme song, the rock classic La Bamba.
Tragedy: For other
European men there was joy and tragedy on the slopes last week. France’s Franck Piccard captured his second medal with a gold in the Super G, after placing third in the downhill. But a bizarre accident may have contributed to Swiss skiing star Pirmin Zurbriggen’s failure to capture a gold in the giant slalom. Riding the chair lift to make their second runs, Zurbriggen and teammate Martin Hangl looked down in horror as two skiers collided on the hill below them, sending one into the path of a snow-grooming machine. Austrian Ski Federation doctor Joerg Oberhammer, 47, was killed. I Hangl withdrew from 1 the race, and Zurbriggen g was badly shaken. Said a Zurbriggen: “It was aw£ ful. I could not keep my 2 concentration.” Even so, Zurbriggen won the bronze.
His performance reflected the dominance of the Swiss, who won a total of 11 alpine medals. Vreni Schneider, 23, led the team with golds in the giant slalom and slalom. Brigitte Oertli, 25, added silvers in the downhill and the alpine combined. An almost equally strong Austrian team took six medals, led by Hubert Strolz, with a gold in the alpine combined and a silver medal in giant slalom. But, as the Olympic flag fluttered down from its pole at the base of Mount Allan, Canadians could take satisfaction in the knowledge that they had a new champion of their own: Karen Percy, a lady with all the charm of the girl next door.
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