They are serious people, the Swiss, and they are not drawn easily into life's flightier pursuits. Think what Swiss means. Banks. Clocks. Cheese. Not the stuff of lightness and air.
However, these days, at least a breath of something fresh and airy must be penetrating even to those gnomes counting francs in Zurich's stygian bank vaults. For all of Switzerland is contemplating the precious metal that waits to be collected by the Swiss Alpine ski team at the Winter Games.
Never in the history of Olympic ski racing has a nation's team promised to be as devastating as the one from Switzerland. Collectively the Swiss could—with a lot of luck, mind you—walk away with 23 of the 30 medals that will be awarded in the five men's and five women's events.
Individually the Swiss skiers are even more devastating than the team. Only two racers, Austria's Toni Sailer in 1956 and France's Jean-Claude Killy in 1968, have won three individual gold medals in a Winter Games. On this ludicrously talented Swiss team there are no fewer than four individuals who could each win four gold medals in Calgary. And one of them, Pirmin Zurbriggen (page 46), could conceivably win five gold medals.
Now it is true that the odds do not favor such results by one team or one person in this or any other Olympics. There is almost no limit to the variety of things that can go wrong when a skier charges down a precipitous, ice-covered mountainside at breakneck speed while cranking sharp turn after sharp turn through perhaps 75 slalom gates. But no matter what happens on Mount Allan in February, this Swiss team is the best the world has so far seen. Its victories in the last four years are unprecedented. At the world championships held in their home mountains of Crans-Montana last winter, the Swiss won eight of 10 possible gold medals. No other team had ever done so well. In the final World Cup standings last spring, Zurbriggen stood No. 1 in the overall listing for men; a Swiss skier, Maria Walliser, stood No. 1 overall for women; and a Swiss man, woman or gnome stood No. 1 in every one of the 10 individual World Cup disciplines, with the single exception of men's slalom. And this isn't just a team with a thin gilt surface. There is also great depth.
Consider this: In the men's overall World Cup standings, there were five Swiss in the top 12, and in the women's overall standings the top five were all Swiss. The success of the Swiss women was almost incomprehensible: They held three of the top six spots in super-giant slalom (Super G), five of the top eight in giant slalom, four of the top five in slalom, and all four in combined. So overwhelming were the women that Ski Racing magazine noted that if each Swiss female were a country unto herself, the final standings among nations for the 1986-87 season would have looked like this:
1. Austria 739.2 points
2. Germany 502.3
3. Maria Walliser 344.4
4. Vreni Schneider 292
5. France 241
6. Erika Hess 214
7. Brigitte Oertli 213
8. Canada 197
9. United States 191
10. Michela Figini 181
So who are these people and how did they get to be so extraordinary?
Although they are all Swiss citizens, with all the seriousness, imperiousness and austerity which that implies, it turns out they possess a thoroughly mixed bag of languages, outlooks, traditions and cultures. That, of course, is a reflection of Switzerland's historic place as a patchwork of the countries around it. Within its borders, Switzerland is rife with ancient rivalries, old tensions and historic hostilities that continue to exist among different valleys, villages and cantons (states), depending on language, geography, national origin, regional wealth, religion.
Karl Frehsner, 48, the bespectacled little Austrian who has been the Swiss men's team head coach since 1984, says, "Yes, they speak different languages [French: Italian: Romansh, which is closely related to Latin; German; and Schwyzertütsch, an argot that is all but indecipherable to anyone but a German-speaking Swiss], and they bring old rivalries from different parts of the country. But at this level of sport, it is good to be different because they learn from each other. They learn to coordinate their differences. It can only be an advantage."