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The men's alpine skiing events were supposed to produce the designated immortal of the Calgary Olympics, the one competitor among the 1,793 who had a realistic chance to win five gold medals and make the XV Winter Games his own. The competitor loaded with that staggering burden was Pirmin Zurbriggen, 25, Switzerland's brilliant all-around champion. A serene and sweet-smiling mountain boy of steel, Zurbriggen admires the Pope more than he admires any other man, and he used to carry a picture of the Virgin Mary in his address book.
Before the Games' first week had ended, Zurbriggen had won one race and failed to win a medal in two, thus revealing himself as mortal after all, though with such an unbreakable spirit that he may have won almost as many admirers in defeat as he would have gained had he won every race.
So instead of a single overwhelming individual reigning as the gold medal king of wind-battered Mount Allan, men's ski racing turned out a less predictable and far less dramatic collection of medal winners. It included Austria's first Winter Olympics winner since 1980 and, delightfully enough, the first Frenchman to win since Jean-Claude Killy pulled off his famous triple-gold sweep in Grenoble in 1968.
The way things started, however, no one could have guessed that Zurbriggen was going to be so thoroughly human. In his first race he aroused the world to great expectations with a certifiably godlike performance in the downhill. As always, his nemesis was Peter M�ller, 30, his Swiss teammate and the fiercely competitive veteran who had won a silver medal in the Sarajevo downhill in 1984.
M�ller had edged Zurbriggen for the downhill gold in the February 1987 world championships in Crans-Montana, Switzerland. Not only did M�ller have a great affection for Mount Allan (he had won the World Cup downhill there last March, while Zurbriggen finished 11th), but he also had an exceptional record in North America (seven of his 17 downhill career victories had been won on this continent). Indeed, M�ller decided to spend his Christmas holiday in Canada so that he could explore the Olympic downhill terrain until, as he puts it, "it became my very good friend."
Though M�ller made friends with the steep pitches of the mountain, he had no way of knowing exactly how the course-setters would place the gates for the Olympic downhill. And when he arrived in Calgary the week before the Games, M�ller was distraught. Though the bumps and flats in the middle and bottom sections of the course were greatly to his advantage as a glider, the demanding minefield of tight turns on the steep section near the top was the kind of stuff he skis worst.
By contrast, Zurbriggen was positively beaming when he first glimpsed the course. In words that hauntingly echoed those spoken four years ago by America's dead-end downhill winner, Bill Johnson, Zurbriggen said, "It is like this course was designed for me. I can't imagine a better, tougher course. It is at least as tough as Kitzb�hel [where Zurbriggen has won the downhill three times]. However, there is no part that is terrifying like Kitzb�hel, and I will take plenty of risks. I like the wild parts of this downhill."
Things were certainly looking up for Zurbriggen as the Olympics dawned. During much of the current World Cup season he had been distracted and ill with a respiratory ailment and had won only two of 16 races. And one of those wins—a downhill at Val d'Is�re, France, on Jan. 9—was soured when he learned that his sister, Heidi, also a Swiss racer, had broken her leg the same afternoon. Zurbriggen told French journalist Patrick Lang, "Last year I had extra luck. This year I am missing it."
Then, in the final pre-Olympic World Cup downhill, which was run on a rugged course at Schladming, Austria, on Jan. 29, Zurbriggen won by a large margin. That victory moved him into first place in the overall World Cup competition, ahead of the Italian wonder boy, slalom specialist Alberto Tomba, 21. Zurbriggen was revitalized, a young man suddenly riding a high after months of lows.
With him when he arrived in Calgary was his sweetheart, Monika Julen, and friends said they had never seen him so relaxed, so happy, so in love. That he had been earmarked for immortality didn't seem to bother him in the least. "I like pressure," he said. "I like to fight. I like to be at the best level of my talents."