For more than three weeks now, on some of the snowiest Alps in the history of postcards, the world's best ski racers have been trying to drive toward an Olympic peak through blizzard, fog and French confidence. Last week it became clear that the French, dominant for the last four years, have some cause for alarm. The Austrians and the Swiss, who have been out for bratwurst lately, are immensely improved and suddenly there are an awful lot of hungry skiers around. Indeed, the stars of the early season have not been France's Jean-Claude Killy and Marielle Goitschel, although they have not been bad, but an old Austrian campaigner named Gerhard Nenning and a young Austrian girl named Gertrud Gabl and two strong Swiss, Edmund Bruggmann and Dumeng Giovanoli. All but Gertrud have been around a while but have never been any better known than some vacationing curlers from Sussex.
As the racers dug their way out of the snowbanks of Wengen and Grindelwald in Switzerland and moved on to Austria's Kitzb�hel and Bad Gastein for the last big pre-Olympic races, the French received some additional shocks. There were Bruggmann and Giovanoli, both leading Killy, and there was Gabl, leading the French girls in the World Cup standings, which are designed to prove the top racers over the season. And there was Nenning, who has been on the circuit so long it sometimes seems he is older than the Arlberg Pass, celebrating a victory in the only downhill that has been run. Nenning won the famed Lauberhorn last Saturday by a stunning three seconds over Killy, who finished 13th and uncharacteristically sulked away.
In that race the Swiss, led by Bruggmann's close third, placed four men in the top six, and this is something they have been doing in recent giant slaloms, too. Then on Sunday the snow changed to rain, and in a slalom that is usually fast and icy, Giovanoli won, while Killy fell and sulked away again.
Whether they are truly worried or not, the French are pretending that none of this matters because of the conditions under which all of the races have been held in France, Germany and Switzerland. It has been snowing like a fairy tale since Christmas, forcing cancellation of some races, a postponement of others, and making Alp-to-Alp travel a deranged sort of thrill for everybody. Practically every race has been staged on heavy, soft courses and Killy and the French are consoling themselves that these conditions have helped make the Austrians and Swiss look good.
Killy, who has still won two races, which is as many as Nenning and more than anyone else, relaxed in Wengen and tried to put it all in perspective.
"The Austrians had to start fast because they have been so bad," he said. "They have been training hard and they look good, but we think they are too good too soon."
Happy to be out of the clutches of the European journalists who have mobbed him and then practically written him off, Killy was in a hotel lobby, graciously signing autographs for children and trying to hide the disappointment he felt at having tripped in a hell-bent slalom run that would have wiped out the field by several seconds.
"I need to win to show them again," he said. "I know what it is with the Swiss. The Head skis they are using are perfect for these conditions, and they have a new training program. But they always start fast, and later something happens to them."
He sighed and said, "My trouble is that I was too good last year. I can never top myself, and yet everyone expects it."
Although Killy still looks superb on a course, he has raced a trifle thoughtlessly so far, almost as if he was so certain that nothing could go wrong that he needn't bother with incidentals like checking his bindings and being sure of his wax. Killy has servants who rig up his skis and boots for him; all he does is step in and ski. They also wax for him, and he trusts they are right. A binding came loose in a race at Val d'Is�re, and he fell. And he definitely had bad wax in the Lauberhorn downhill. Actually none of the French rewaxed as did the Swiss and Austrians.