Up in a tiny crease of the Swiss Alps at a place called Wengen, where the Jungfrau and the Eiger have been staring each other down for centuries, the officials of the Lauberhorn ski races decided early last week that they would promote some special fun a couple of days before their famed Alpine events. The fun would be a 100-foot jump for the racers. A what? In the sport of skiing, racers do not jump, and jumpers do not race down mountains. The officials thought reversing the roles would be very entertaining for the hordes of British tourists who swarm into the tiers of old palatial hotels and make Wengen a sort of low-rent St. Moritz. Naturally, the Americans did not enter for fear of injury (it usually is difficult enough for them to keep from falling down just going through slalom poles). But the French, of course, did enter, because they have Jean-Claude Killy, a prankster as well as a splendid racer, and everyone knows the French are goofy anyhow. So, when Killy made his nonsensical jump he wore his number tied around his neck and his socks pulled up outside his boots. In the midst of the jump, to the absolute horror of both the officials and the British tourists, Killy dropped his stretch pants down to his knees, revealing his bare legs and undershorts.
As it turned out, this single act epitomized the whole Lauberhorn week, for when the meet ended Sunday most of the favorites seemed to have been caught with their pants down, especially America's Billy Kidd, who, until Sunday, was in the process of knocking everyone off the Alps for the third week in a row.
Last weekend Kidd began doing at Wengen what he had done previously in Hindelang and Adelboden—crushing the Europeans, Killy included, in Alpine racing, their own private sport for years. On Saturday Kidd was a creditable 11th in the Lauberhorn downhill ( Killy was 15th). Austria's Karl Schranz won it, wearing a secret weapon: an experimental wind-resistant black-plastic suit. Fifty of the 93 racers beat the old course record of this classic European downhill.
The slalom, however, is Kidd's best event, and his good showing in the downhill put him in an excellent position to win the combined championship. He had beaten the Europeans soundly at Adelboden, and through the first run of the slalom he was blistering them again. He flowed down this twisting, shady course almost two seconds faster than anyone—and five seconds faster than Killy—and needed merely to stand up in the second run to take both the slalom and combined.
Kidd's victory was so thoroughly expected that dozens of spectators had drifted away, and many present were beginning to yawn and pester the hot-chocolate concessions. The racers before him, including Killy, had simply not gone fast enough to force him into anything but a cool, steady run of ordinary time in order to win. Now here he came. He was flowing again, well in control, in and out of the gates like a man fastened to the slope and being led to victory by an invisible tow rope. The big clock at the finish banner showed him far ahead and, finally, he was only eight or so gates from the bottom, a mere 60 yards, when it happened.
Somehow, probably for a flukish reason that he will never be able to explain and because things never come easy for Americans in skiing, he skidded past a gate. It was not a fall, just a skid, but it was enough to blow it all. Kidd had to step back through the gate, and the loss in time was a devastating nine seconds—the difference between a monumental American first and 18th place, where he eventually wound up.
"I was just being too cautious," said Kidd, gloomily, later. "It was an error in calculation or something. When something like that happens, it's usually because you're taking chances. Here I was cooling it, and it happened. I just sat back, or—well, I don't know."
Oddly enough, the disappointment of the Americans in the Lauberhorn was both greater and smaller than that suffered last year when the Europeans came to the U.S. and defeated them laughingly. At that time the feeling was that Kidd really would have been stealing something if he had won. But not now. In the two weeks preceding the Lauberhorn, in his duels with Jean-Claude Killy, Kidd had established himself as a racer of true talent. He was, in fact, the favorite at Wengen. And even after the slalom was over, the surprised winner, Guy P�rillat, the Frenchman who seems to have been racing forever, consoled Billy with the fact that he ( Kidd) deserved to have won.
"It's a different feeling to realize you lost on a fluke rather than because you're not as good," said U.S. Coach Bob Beattie. " Kidd is right up there with them now, one of the greatest, and when he loses it's an upset, of all things."
Fortunately, this is the longest ski season ever, and Kidd and Killy have plenty of time for more duels. Having started just after the first of the year, the season will continue, for most racers, straight through the world championships (FIS) in Portillo, Chile, in August, which may be the silliest date ever set for an event so important. For the Americans, there actually will be two seasons. They will compete in Europe through next week's Hahnenkamm in Kitzb�hel, Austria and in the Grand Prix de Meg�ve, then they will come home for the U.S. Alpine championships at Stowe, Vt. and the American International team races at Sun Valley, as well as a few lesser things. They will then recess until June, when Beattie packs them off to South America to try to recapture their form, particularly Kidd's present form, in a series of summer races prior to the FIS.