The world ski championships at Bad Gastein, Austria last week belonged to the Austrians, but the most dramatic moments belonged to an American. At the starting gate of the downhill race on the final day there was a buzz and then a silence as America's Bud Werner sank into starting position and waited for the count-down. The season-long duel between Werner and the Austrians (SI, Feb. 3) had thus far ended with one or more Austrians scant watch ticks ahead. A few minutes before, Austrian Toni Sailer had posted the best downhill time of the day. Those who had seen Werner race—and most of the 50,000 watching the downhill had—knew to what lengths he would go to salvage this last and biggest race.
At the "Go!" Werner moved out of the gate, pistoning his ski poles into the ground for speed, and charged down toward the first control markers. Halfway down the course he was a second behind Sailer's time. Then, taking chance after chance at 60 mph, Werner began to catch up, gaining on the clock, gaining on Sailer. At the top of the final schuss, in sight of the finish, Werner took to the air as if peppered out of a cannon in a final gamble to gain time. He came down slightly off balance, lost control, fell, went into a sickening cart wheel, bounced, lost a ski, then slid flat toward the finish line, struggling to get up as he slid, finally got upright—still sliding—and jacked his way across the finish line on his left ski alone, a hopeless 14 seconds behind Sailer's winning time.
After a season in Europe which no other American had even come close to duplicating, Werner had lost the one world championship medal that he had a good chance to win, a championship that would have been America's first.
Everyone predicted that the Austrians would win at Bad Gastein and, in a general way, everyone was right. With impassioned crowds chanting "Hopp! Hopp! Hopp!" as they came into the final schusses, the Austrians played the courses like old troupers before home town crowds. Beyond the finish line lay careers of national adulation, movie contracts, 300SL sports cars as Christmas presents, headlines higher than sputniks and guaranteed security in middle age as the manager of a sporting goods store in Vienna or a ski resort in the Rockies.
The pattern was laid in the first event, the men's slalom, when Karl Schranz from Austria's second team was chosen as forerunner to test the course. Schranz's unofficial clocking at the bottom was better than all but those of Rieder and Sailer, two of his teammates. Schranz may indeed have given his eminent countrymen an assist. After his own run, he took a station near Gate 54 in time to signal Rieder and Sailer ("Langsam!"—"Slowly!"—he cried) that the turn was icy. Schranz's action, variously described as an outrageous breach of the rules and as a fine, comradely gesture, may or may not have had an influence on the result. It is a fact that Bud Werner, running the best slalom race of his life, slipped and fell at Gate 54, lost four seconds, and came in fourth. Rieder and Sailer took Gate 54 "langsam" and finished one-two.
It was a long day—there were 86 competitors from 25 nations including such hitherto neglected provinces of ski as Argentina and Iran. The last starters came down with an unpleasant, scraping sound over a course that had turned into corrugated ice. Almost all of them spilled, the times lengthened and the crowd disintegrated and returned to their hotels in town.
Bad Gastein itself was a little bizarre. An old-fashioned watering place built around a waterfall, it had everything polished up for the occasion. Prices were up, neon lights flashed on the mountain, the waterfall was floodlit to resemble a stage set for Die Valkyrie, but the town remained what it is: a cluster of big, heavy, pilastered and pedimented hotels built along the sides of a gorge to receive Austro-Hungarian archdukes and millionaires of the 1800s when they came up to take the waters for kidney disease and an autocratic variety of nervous disorders. The modern millionaires of the Ruhr and their wives, expensively and inelegantly dressed, sat all week long by the gross marble columns and under the immense chandeliers, their stately and stuffy presence a baroque contrast to the hearty, informal, booted ski crowd.
The skiers had other things to do than hobnob with Ruhr aristocracy. If the men's slalom set up a familiar pattern of Austrian victory, the ladies' slalom the next day broke it. The winner was a comparative outsider, Inger Bj�rnbakken of Norway. She came across the finish with an enormous pearly smile to remind the crowd that hers was the country skiing came from.
It was assumed that Toni Sailer would win the giant slalom. He has not lost one of these since 1955. He was 3.8 seconds ahead of his teammate Rieder, an amazing margin. He is still the finest skier alive. Watching him gives one a chance to see the difference between a grand master and a merely first-class skier. Sailer's secret is that he adheres to the fundamental law of skiing, which is that a flat ski is the fastest ski. Sailer does not edge except at the key moment in the turn, and then his skis are flat again.
Nowadays he ends up in a whirl of snow at the finish with a full-faced smile and turns a handsomely irregular profile toward the army of cameras as naturally as befits a man whose profession is now that of a movie star.