For a few turbulent days in Grenoble last week it appeared that nothing would top the opening show staged by Charles de Gaulle. He gathered 1,291 athletes around him in a costly temporary stadium, and for a few crazy moments rockets went off, jet planes drew circles overhead in colored smoke, parachutists landed in Olympic rings and 50.000 perfumed paper roses floated out of the sky. Then it rained, snowed, fogged and smogged, disrupting the skiing and sledding schedules and at one point snuffing out the big ceremonial Olympic torch. But then, while the U.S. skiers were outdoing one another in calamity, four American girls, just plain, average, sparkling, leggy, coltish American girls, finally gave our side something to shout about in Grenoble. In the space of 36 hours Peggy Fleming (see cover) collected her gold medal in figure skating—the first U.S. gold of the Games—and our speed skaters made such a sensational run on silver that France had to send out for more medals. And with everyone still digesting this situation, one of the girls came back to win yet another medal, a nice little thing in bronze.
The skating successes restored some bounce to American morale, proving that, though the U.S. was fresh out of Squaw Valley-style miracles in hockey, though we are still bumpy and snakebit in Alpine skiing, and as far as the Nordics are concerned we might as well stay home, we are again a world power in skating.
By Friday, Peggy had gone through the compulsory school figures and had run up such an overwhelming lead (77.2 points) that she could have left a note on her dresser saying just send the gold medal along home sometime after the Games. The willowy Colorado brunette reinforced a widely held illusion that she is delicate and super fragile by moving out of Olympic Village. There was a rumor that the whole place was aswarm with French flu bugs, and the nights were full of the sound of queasy athletes shuffling down the halls.
Peggy moved in with her mother, Doris Fleming, in a shabbily genteel hideaway hotel across the street from the Grenoble railroad station, because, said Mrs. Fleming, "Peggy has a touch of sore throat and she is so nervous with all this pressure, you know." Actually, despite her 109 pounds and translucent-china look, there is every reason to believe Peggy could break the Oakland Raiders' Ben Davidson in half with one quick body block.
But for the three other girls, who decided to stay in the Village with the germs, the going was far tougher. Sixteen-year-old Dianne Holum, the pride of North-brook, Illinois and Regina Dominican High School and the hope of America in the women's 500-meter race, was the first to falter. Early in the week she lay doubled up in the girls' dorm, stricken by some sort of ferocious germ, gradually growing so weak she was unable to attend practice.
As if that were not bad enough, teammate Mary Meyers, 22, was not only uneasy about assuming the leading role in tackling the Russians but also was in love, engaged and ready to quit skating and get married, in that order. But there was more. The other member of the threesome, 18-year-old Jennifer Fish, in addition to being stuck with a hometown organization with the impossibly corny name of the Towne 'N' Country Speed Skating Club—of Strongsville, Ohio—was an alternate with scant hope of making the team.
Next thing you know, in this old B movie plot situation, team regular Jeanne Ashworth—a 1960 bronze medalist—fell in a time trial. U.S. Coach Ken Henry looked around and there was Jenny, skating like a dream, naturally. He told her to lace up, kid, and get out there for the good old U.S.A. and race.
It had to be a rickety team. On Wednesday, two days before the 500 meters, Dianne was sitting on a bench near the dressing rooms, her hair tumbled down around her shoulders and her eyes full of frustration and tears.
"Boy, I dunno," she sniffled. "I was feeling swell when I got here, but now I'm just sick. My legs hurt and my stomach hurts a whole lot and I can't even move."
And then there were the Russians. This year they sent an advance team of Red press agents to town, spreading the word that they had a mystery racer trained solely for the 500 meters and warning that she was about the biggest thing since Pavlova. And there was the very real presence of Ludmila Titova, who had won medals in everything but knitting sweaters at the recent world championships in Finland, taking both the 500-and 1,000-meter awards.