SI Vault
 
THE SWEET TRIUMPH OF 'NAPOLEON' BONNET
Huston Horn
February 17, 1964
If vindication was sweet for Bob Beattie it was all the more so for Honor� Bonnet, coach of the French ski team, who had struggled longer and attained at Innsbruck the greatest triumph in French skiing history. In 1959, when the hotel keeper's son was asked to be coach, both Bonnet and the sport were flat on their backs—Bonnet from a spinal fracture suffered in an Alpine climbing accident, French skiing from a lack of initiative.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
February 17, 1964

The Sweet Triumph Of 'napoleon' Bonnet

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

If vindication was sweet for Bob Beattie it was all the more so for Honor� Bonnet, coach of the French ski team, who had struggled longer and attained at Innsbruck the greatest triumph in French skiing history. In 1959, when the hotel keeper's son was asked to be coach, both Bonnet and the sport were flat on their backs—Bonnet from a spinal fracture suffered in an Alpine climbing accident, French skiing from a lack of initiative.

Bonnet got to his feet thinking of a new route to Alpine supremacy. "In my own little head," he says, "I developed a novel idea for my country. It was not so important what skiers did on their skis, I said, but rather what they did with their bodies before putting on those skis."

But first Bonnet had to find some skiers. Ruthlessly and, he admits, somewhat ungallantly, he got rid of every girl over 22 on the French team as "too old for this" and also banished every girl with feminine padding on her hips. "To see such a girl walk down the street is undeniably satisfying," he says, "but to see her on competitive skis is a disappointment. I was obliged to select my girls on the basis of how much they resembled boys, for only these slim-hipped creatures can wiggle through a slalom gate successfully."

As for the boys, Bonnet applied another criterion: maturity. "A man simply does not have sufficient strength to be excellent until he is well into manhood," says Bonnet. "Beyond all that," says Bonnet, "they all must be ready to stand up under the exertions of skiing. Where the Americans have two or three men who can do this, I have eight. Where the Americans have one girl, Jean Saubert, I have four."

Last fall Bonnet assembled his hipless girls and old men at a seaside resort on the Mediterranean and got busy on their bodies. "We began by swimming and walking the beach," he says. "Gradually, we got into other sports—jumping on a springboard, volleyball, and then soccer. But the most important exercise was walking down mountains. After the coast we went to Chamonix, where I live, and chose the steepest routes we could find to walk down. Every muscle used in skiing is also used in a downhill hike."

It was November before Bonnet's team of six girls and eight boys put on their skis. "We are the proprietors of the egg position, we French, but beyond that little distinction there is nothing mysterious about our technique," he says. "I only tell my skiers to ski the way that is natural to them; that if it works, to use it. What can you learn from a system based on theory? Well, of course, nothing valuable can be learned that way, even if the newspapers and my other informed critics say it can.

"Skiing is the most damnable sport, because nothing is ever the same. The wax, the temperature, the condition of the snow, the line of descent, the bumps—everything is always in a different relationship. For that reason, the skier must always be changing, always able to cope with conditions naturally and not artificially."

As the world knows, Bonnet's naturals won three gold and three silver medals in the Games, and skiers from all over commenced calling Bonnet the Napoleon of their sport. "That can only be," says Bonnet deprecatingly, "because I am not so tall and comb my hair to the front."

"Bonnet is formidable" says Christine Goitschel, giving the word all of its French flavor of magnificence. "We fear him a little and adore him a lot, as we might our fathers. When they criticize him in the papers we become furious." But his formidability is not iron-clad. "When we cry," says another of his girls, C�cile Prince, "he is like all men—completely helpless."

What the French fear is that they may be helpless to dissuade the strong-minded Bonnet from his latest idea—to quit as coach. "I want to go back to the mountains again and be a guide," he says, "for only there am I truly happy. I am quite tired of the old-fashioned and the stubborn cutting away at my feet, saying I do not know my job, that I do not teach technique enough. If I had done badly here, I would not have thought of leaving. But no, my skiers did well enough, and I leave 15 back in France able to win next time."

1