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Downhill of the Gods

Downhill of the Gods

Features
By Hank McKee
posted: 12/18/2001

The 12 gods have been hanging out in the billiards room of the Mount Olympus Hotel, drinking "nectar" and discussing wagering options. They determine that a dream Olympic downhill, featuring former gold medalists in their prime, would make for a pretty good betting line.

Then they contact the mortals, and all hell breaks loose.Think of the FIS (the Swiss-based International Ski Federation) as a corporate board of directors. There are 101 member countries from Austria to Zimbabwe, and each has an equal vote. It's a credit to the organization that anything is ever accomplished. In response to the offer from the gods, FIS subcommittees are formed and meetings scheduled. In the smoky backrooms of race-site hotels, the officials, both current and former, hack out the rules in a pure political battle.

Canada, pointing to the legacy of the Crazy Canucks but having no downhill gold, argues that all Olympic downhill medalists should participate. Representatives from Norway and Germany take it a step further. They call for four-man teams¿as per Olympic regulations¿and lobby to add skiers who have World Cup victories, but no Olympic podiums. All in all, it's a bit of a mess. When the time comes to determine a venue, the gods, weary of haggling, say they'll provide the course on their home hill, Mount Olympus. Zeus guarantees snow.

The selected skiers arrive at the Olympus Hotel in all manner of vehicle¿some in limos, some in team vans and Roland Collombin on a motorcycle. All of them are older, many gray, some limping slightly, yet most look fit and trim. The late Buddy Werner and Henri Oreiller, apparently now great friends, arrive, laughing, in a golden chariot pulled by a bevy of peacocks and driven by Hera, the wife, sister and victim of Zeus¿but that's another story. Hades, always reluctant to allow anyone out of his Underworld, follows close behind in a Rolls.

There are a few tense moments. Karl Schranz questions Jean-Claude Killy's gold medal in the '68 slalom, and Killy responds in kind about the "ghost" Schranz allegedly saw in the fog, suggesting maybe Oreiller could search the heavens to find him. Oreiller deflects the controversy, saying he's enjoying the "après-vie," and wants no part in this bickering. He does, however, bristle upon introduction to Zeno Colo, who spent World War II in Murren as a "refugee" at the expense of the Swiss government, a time he passed by training and skiing. Oreiller had been an active member of the French Resistance.

Soon the laughter overwhelms any hard feelings. Egon Zimmermann and Hanspeter Lanig are trading names of the best restaurant suppliers for their hotels. Handsome and charming, Toni Sailer regales his table with stories of his career in film and as a race driver¿and of the carnage of the '56 Cortina Olympic downhill, when eight skiers required medical attention on the icy, windblown course. The Canadians and Germans, naturally, debate beer quality. Food is abundant, and all is good. As the meal winds down and cognac is offered around, Zeus introduces the 12 Olympic gods: himself, Poseidon, Hades, Hestia, Hera, Ares, Athena, Apollo, Aphrodite, Hermes, Artemis and Hephaestus.

"This event is to determine the best downhill racer of all time," Zeus explains. "As such, skis will not make a difference." He says that no racers will face debilitating injury in the race, as long as they wear the helmet liners provided. He also notes the course is carefully designed to provide racers from each era a section in which to excel.

And then, one by one, starting with the oldest, Oreiller, the former athletes join Hestia in an adjoining room¿and emerge in their young bodies, carrying their uniforms. The various FIS subcommittees agree the Olympic champs will run at the same age and in the same form in which they won their biggest races. For Jean-Claude Killy, it's 1968, when he's 25 and essentially unbeatable. For Franz Klammer, it's 1976, he's 2and as courageous as anyone who's ever carved a turn.

All this makes for compelling chemistry. Killy, who was taken under the wing of the aging Oreiller, is in jaw-dropping awe when the young, buffed Oreiller emerges. And Sailer, who coached the Austrian team in the Seventies, is now the youngest man present, a mere 20 years old. Canadian Eddie Podivinsky, who spent a career living up to the legendary Crazy Canucks, now finds himself a peer.

"Enjoy the evening," Zeus calls out enthusiastically. "Training begins at 8:45."

Course conditions are excellent, though there are formal complaints heard by the FIS to soften the downhill, which has sections designed by each of the 12 gods. Gods do not react well to ultimatums. Though they bow to the wishes of the FIS, they come back with their own demand: Cut the teams to two skiers¿and do it now.

Norway is fine with just Kjetil Aamodt and Lasse Kjus, but the proclamation leads to difficulties with some of the other teams. The French previously chose Oreiller, Killy and, in a surprise selection, Emille Allais. Oreiller had convinced the French hierarchy there's no need for more than three skiers; after all, there are only three medals. Allais, who pioneered the French technique in the late Thirties, volunteers to stand down, saying he would rather watch the "young guys."

Italy comes with Colo, Herbert Plank, Kristian Ghedina and Michael Mair. Colo and Mair earn the final spots in the first training run.

Austrian team leaders face a daunting challenge. Schranz, who skied his training run cautiously, finds himself on the outside looking in. Sailer and Klammer, by virtue of the only training run taken, are left to represent the Österreich.

The Swiss select a formidable four-man squad in Pirmin Zurbriggen, Peter Mueller, Collombin and Bernhard Russi, who seems more interested in studying the design of the course than in racing it. Zurbriggen and Collombin get the nod, but during the second training run the deeply religious Zurbriggen cannot come to terms with the gods changing the shape of the mountain at Athena's Field. He abruptly pulls off course and Mueller is given his bib.The Americans, of course, are locked in by their published criteria. The starting spots go to Billy Johnson and Tommy Moe, which is disappointing since Werner has easily topped them in the first training run.

The Canadians come down to Ken Read and Steve Podborski; the Germans to Markus Wasmeier and Sepp Ferstl.

Though little official complaint is voiced, there's grumbling to be heard where racers and coaches gather at the top and bottom of the course. While Werner is said to have called the U.S. squad a bunch of "hopped-up car thieves," he's much too enthused about the racing to be left out of the scene. He insists on forerunning the course and scampers around the start area slapping backs and shaking hands. Then he gathers up his gear and kicks out of the starthouse with a good ol' cowboy "yee-haw." There are more than a few in the start area who are relieved that Werner's time will not be "official."

And then the racing begins in earnest.

Mueller has thought often about how much he wants to win this race. Frustrated, he settled for the silver medal in the the '84 and '88 Olympics. To win this race, against these foes, would raise his stature to that of deserving champion, instead of chronic bridesmaid.

As the starter calls down the cadence, Mueller stomps his feet one last time, settles into a crouch and hurtles himself out of the starthouse. He takes three big skating steps down the sharp start incline and grabs a tuck, gently moving his skis up on edge to carve a clean turn between the huge rocks at Hestia's Passage.

He punches his hands down to help absorb the drop-off and takes his selected line through Hera's four turns. He has been no better than fifth through here in training, so he concentrates on keeping his turns clean. Already at high speed, he carves a wide entry turn under the aqueduct and drives himself forward between the Mounds. He is comfortably balanced and feels fast.

Mueller comes into Athena's Field on the high line he wants, and his entry at Hermes' Autobahn has him screaming through the fastest section. As he settles into the tuck, he has the presence of mind to let his skis float side to side, keeping them as flat as possible. It's here that Mueller believes he can win this race, and the entry to this section has done nothing to dissuade that notion.

He comes up slightly, but does not break his tuck, and edges another clean, smooth arcing turn toward Hades' Underworld. The sun is flashing through the trees like a strobe, making focusing on the line difficult. And then he plunges into the Underworld, where the rocks block the sun and the eyes strain to find enough light to see.

The sun blazes in Apollo's Meadow, and Mueller's eyes don't adjust fast enough. His skis bounce about, and he cannot find the balance to pre-jump the first bump. He drops his hands to his sides and rides out the air, cutting nicely across the slope and regaining control. At the road he executes a perfect pre-jump, touches down and regains his tuck. He's carrying much more speed than he did in training.

As Mueller enters the Trident Jumps, he stands, lets his knees absorb the first jump, pre-jumps the second and then launches off the third. He flies, in tuck formation, skis perfectly centered beneath his body, for a full 80 feet. Even in the air, he scans the horizon for his exit cue. He has barely touched down when he sees it¿a red cliff across the valley¿and cranks hard left, just skirting the boulder guarding the inside of the turn. The fall-away pulls him down the hill and to the right of the course as his skis fight to get purchase. His entry has been good and he takes the exit bump almost exactly in the middle. He lands lightly, quickly tucks himself tight and goes to work on Heppi's Weave.

Mueller loves this section of the course. He lets his skis go and remains rock solid as they cut back and forth over the crest of the hill. He edges just enough to initiate the turn, then runs straight to the next gate. He will win this section, as he has in two of the three training runs.He shoots through the narrow slot into the Ares section, rides high on the banked turn and nearly free-falls into the Vulture Turn. His skis are hard on edge, and they hold higher in the turn than he thought possible. He never gets within 10 meters of the nets and carries good speed into Zeus' Schuss.

Mueller is a master in a tuck, and displays that art on the final ride of the course. His skis swim back and forth, his hands form a wedge in front and he stays low with his legs wide. His strength is more than enough to handle the compression. Mueller rips through the finish line in 2:05.21.He is satisfied with his run. It's as close to perfect as he dared to hope.In the starthouse is "America's bad boy," Billy D. Johnson. The years and a devastating crash during a failed comeback bid 17 years after his 1984 medal run have mellowed him considerably. At the opening banquet, Johnson held court as a steady stream of well-wishers passed. But here and now, he is young and brash again. His forte was an astonishingly good tuck, but this course provides precious few opportunities to employ it. Undaunted, BJ kicks out of the start ready to rip. His conditioning is unbelievable, and he feels he has a good chance. Behind him he hears Tommy Moe, raised on BJ's brash battle call, yell, "It sucks to be mediocre."

He smiles as he drops into the opening schuss, then carves through the Passage and under the aqueduct. He is dead center on line into and out of the Mounds and powers a big, clean turn coming off Athena. He has a good run going. He welcomes the speed of the Autobahn. The skis work better at high speed, and he confidently enters the darkness of Hades, holding a deep tuck perfected in the wind tunnel. As he sn under the aqueduct and drives himself forward between the Mounds. He is comfortably balanced and feels fast.

Mueller comes into Athena's Field on the high line he wants, and his entry at Hermes' Autobahn has him screaming through the fastest section. As he settles into the tuck, he has the presence of mind to let his skis float side to side, keeping them as flat as possible. It's here that Mueller believes he can win this race, and the entry to this section has done nothing to dissuade that notion.

He comes up slightly, but does not break his tuck, and edges another clean, smooth arcing turn toward Hades' Underworld. The sun is flashing through the trees like a strobe, making focusing on the line difficult. And then he plunges into the Underworld, where the rocks block the sun and the eyes strain to find enough light to see.

The sun blazes in Apollo's Meadow, and Mueller's eyes don't adjust fast enough. His skis bounce about, and he cannot find the balance to pre-jump the first bump. He drops his hands to his sides and rides out the air, cutting nicely across the slope and regaining control. At the road he executes a perfect pre-jump, touches down and regains his tuck. He's carrying much more speed than he did in training.

As Mueller enters the Trident Jumps, he stands, lets his knees absorb the first jump, pre-jumps the second and then launches off the third. He flies, in tuck formation, skis perfectly centered beneath his body, for a full 80 feet. Even in the air, he scans the horizon for his exit cue. He has barely touched down when he sees it¿a red cliff across the valley¿and cranks hard left, just skirting the boulder guarding the inside of the turn. The fall-away pulls him down the hill and to the right of the course as his skis fight to get purchase. His entry has been good and he takes the exit bump almost exactly in the middle. He lands lightly, quickly tucks himself tight and goes to work on Heppi's Weave.

Mueller loves this section of the course. He lets his skis go and remains rock solid as they cut back and forth over the crest of the hill. He edges just enough to initiate the turn, then runs straight to the next gate. He will win this section, as he has in two of the three training runs.He shoots through the narrow slot into the Ares section, rides high on the banked turn and nearly free-falls into the Vulture Turn. His skis are hard on edge, and they hold higher in the turn than he thought possible. He never gets within 10 meters of the nets and carries good speed into Zeus' Schuss.

Mueller is a master in a tuck, and displays that art on the final ride of the course. His skis swim back and forth, his hands form a wedge in front and he stays low with his legs wide. His strength is more than enough to handle the compression. Mueller rips through the finish line in 2:05.21.He is satisfied with his run. It's as close to perfect as he dared to hope.In the starthouse is "America's bad boy," Billy D. Johnson. The years and a devastating crash during a failed comeback bid 17 years after his 1984 medal run have mellowed him considerably. At the opening banquet, Johnson held court as a steady stream of well-wishers passed. But here and now, he is young and brash again. His forte was an astonishingly good tuck, but this course provides precious few opportunities to employ it. Undaunted, BJ kicks out of the start ready to rip. His conditioning is unbelievable, and he feels he has a good chance. Behind him he hears Tommy Moe, raised on BJ's brash battle call, yell, "It sucks to be mediocre."

He smiles as he drops into the opening schuss, then carves through the Passage and under the aqueduct. He is dead center on line into and out of the Mounds and powers a big, clean turn coming off Athena. He has a good run going. He welcomes the speed of the Autobahn. The skis work better at high speed, and he confidently enters the darkness of Hades, holding a deep tuck perfected in the wind tunnel. As he screams into the brightness of Apollo's Meadow, he is momentarily blinded, and the first of the cowpaths bounces him to his left. But that is where he wants to be anyway, and by the time he can see clearly he prepares to pre-jump the Trident Bumps.His execution here is not ideal. He hits the second jump with too much force, but that allows him to clear the third easily and touch down quickly, giving him the opportunity to charge into the Artemis Turn. He enters a bit early and hits the middle of the jump. He sails onto Heppi's and struggles with full weight on the outside ski of each gentle turn as he crosses over the crown of the slope. BJ lunges onto Ares, arcs right in front of the nets and grabs his tuck to the finish. His strength allows him to hold the tuck over the depression and across the finish. He has turned in the run of his life. He is still not as fast as Mueller.

Killy destroyed his race skis in warm-ups when he slid over rocks at the edge of the course, and he knows this has hurt his chances. He is 25, a two-time World Cup champion and three-time Olympic medalist. Nearing the end of his career, he has learned the value of marketing and has reveled in the attention his sponsors have gained from their association.

Killy's starting kick is legendary, but as he launches on course there is more relief than awe on the faces of the racers on top. His presence at the starthouse has been overpowering.

The great Killy is faster than either Mueller or BJ through Hestia's Passage, past Hera's high-speed turns and through the Mounds. He is absolutely elegant through the tricky, rutted sidehill at Athena, but is late in taking the exiting right-hander. Though the rest of his run is superb, he has no chance to make up the loss of speed into Autobahn. Where others will gain speed dramatically here, he is left trying to regain his. The great Killy has nothing left to prove, and he tells the press exactly that.

Ken Read is obsessed with his bindings, having had one pre-release in his best chance for an Olympic medal, at Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1980. Perhaps because of this, he mistimes his start. The most methodical of the risk-seeking Crazy Canucks, Read knows by instinct he must make up time. He is right. His clocking at the first intermediate is the slowest yet.

He forgoes the risky line through the Mounds in favor of setting up for the smooth exit, giving him the opportunity to climb high left through Athena's Field. He has studied video endlessly in the past few weeks and anticipates the lunging drop to the right perfectly. He uses the sidehill through Hermes' speed section to drift to the precise line he wants for Hades' Underworld. Though he, like most, has trouble adjusting to the dark shadows, he forces himself into a tight tuck and keeps his skis flat, concentrating on not catching an edge. At Apollo's Meadow he takes a line way left of all other tracks, rides the exit jump, then cranks a hard turn onto the Trident Bumps. The launch is a beauty and he clears the middle jump, coming down on the far side of the third, just as he had visualized that morning while still in bed.

Heppi's Face proves no major obstacle, though Read is surprised to be thrown slightly off balance as he crosses over the crown. At the Ares nets, he digs his right ski into the turn as hard as he can and it holds the line. He runs four feet off the nets and tucks Zeus' Schuss to the finish. It is an extraordinary run, and the cheers tell him he has recorded a good time. Read is two-tenths ahead of Mueller.

Sepp Ferstl, far and away the best German downhiller of his time, skates out of the start to the far left side of the course in an effort to cut the angle on the right-hander out of Hestia's Passage. Ferstl never stops charging through the course, and as he approaches the first of the Trident Jumps, he launches, hoping to clear all three. The change of line, however, has ruled out that approach, and he digs into the third. Where a lesser racer might explode, Ferstl gathers in the pieces, but by the time he has an

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