There are times when you can't tell where the Swiss Alps end and Werner G�nth�r begins. In late morning, when the alpenglow brightens over the resort village of Leukerbad, and when G�nth�r, the men's world champion in the shot put, is poised in his practice ring below, with the shot wedged under his unshaved jaw, the backlighted shapes of man and mountain merge convincingly.
G�nth�r's terraced nose and dark mustache are repeated in the outcroppings and avalanche fences above the timberline. His brow is a bulging cornice. Wisps of chalk dust that he uses in his workouts settle over his face: snow left in high, protected places.
He bends, thrusts his hips back, drives across the ring, turns and launches the shot. It lands with a boom about 65 feet away, in an area spread with tumbling mats. He and Austrian champion Klaus Bodenm�ller are throwing in a gorgeous new gym, the east wall of which is glass, allowing in the mountainside. Save for their coach, Jean-Pierre Egger, they are alone.
"Most important is the balance, the dynamic balance all the way through," says Egger. For an hour and a half, four throws at a time, the putters groove their form, delicately timing the transfer of force from foot through thigh, hip, back, shoulder and arm to the snapping wrist. There is no explosive grunting. They speak in whispers. Their care in this laying down of neural-patterns is such that the work is mesmerizing. They could be chamber musicians, absorbed in mastering a difficult passage.
G�nth�r, who is 31, 6'6�" and 282 pounds, might prefer that. "I should be doing something more intelligent," he says while retrieving the rubber-coated spheres. "Sometimes I feel like a leopard in the zoo, pacing from the ring to the weight room and back." He likes to slip his toe under the shot and lift it with his instep like a soccer ball, tossing the 16-pound implement waist-high so he doesn't have to bend for it.
G�nth�r has won the past two world titles, in 1987 and '91, and was third in the Seoul Olympics. His best mark, set in 1988, is 74'7�", the fifth longest of all time. He may never throw that far again, because back surgery in 1990 slightly reduced his range of motion.
"They took a piece out of his spine like a hazelnut," says Egger. "It was pressing on the sciatic nerve. Since then, he hasn't taken the risk of putting everything into it. To throw a record...." His gesture is that of tearing out his own heart.
Yet to keep winning, G�nth�r probably won't need record distances. Seoul silver medalist Randy Barnes of the U.S., whose world record is 75'10�", doesn't come off suspension for use of an anabolic steroid until Nov. 2,1992. Defending Olympic champion Ulf Timmermann of Germany is coming back from a thigh and pelvis injury. Indeed, the world's shot-putters, in this age of Eastern European realignment and random drug testing, have gone into surprising decline. All but G�nth�r. His best in 1991, 72'3�", was a remarkable four feet better than that of his closest competitor. He seems a good bet to become the first Swiss track and field Olympic champion in history.
Their work done, Egger, who is 48 and who finished 12th in the shot put in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, shows G�nth�r and Bodenm�ller an essay he has written for a sports magazine, asserting that the Olympic ideal of bringing people together through sport has not yet been overwhelmed by Olympic failings of politics, size, commercialism and drugs. G�nth�r smiles at this optimism, saying, "We Swiss."
"What is a great life?" Egger has quoted one Alfred de Vigny, a French poet and author, as asking. "The dream of one's youth, fulfilled at maturity."