Was it Captain America or his good friend Billy? It didn't matter, really. Here he came and that was enough. He could have his quiet ways and his long, shaggy hair. He could race purely for himself, against the world, against the Establishment. He could be old by the modern standards of Alpine competition, a hobbling, decrepit 26. He could feel alienated from his coach and know that a thing called team spirit was lost somewhere back on the ice and bumps of other mountains or in conference rooms where men in blazers run a sport they seem to know little about. This was now, the world ski championships, and here he came, old Easy Rider in a sweater he had designed himself to look like, well, maybe Peter Fonda's motorcycle; anyhow, here came Billy Kidd out of the past to swipe a bit of glory that no American skier had ever known.
As far as the long-suffering fans of U.S. ski racing were concerned, there could not have been a more beautiful way for the 1970 FIS world meet to get under way in Val Gardena, Italy last week. Billy Kidd, who had carried most of the load before, got us a real live medal in the very first event—the men's slalom—and what this feat represented was the following: the first men's medal ever for an American in the exclusive FIS championships and the first time in history that any male had taken medals in world championships six years apart. It was Kidd, some may remember, who sped to second place in the slalom of the Innsbruck Olympics back in 1964, half a dozen seasons ago.
That victory had come up in the cold snow flurries of a little nook called Lizum in Austria. It also had come at a time when the U.S. Alpine effort had purpose, spirit, a sense of organization—and, certainly, uniforms. Last week's success was wholly different. Kidd skied in the sunshine and scenic splendor of a marvelous northern Italian Dolomite resort, and, by necessity, he had skied on his own terms, in his own uniform and for his own satisfaction.
Billy didn't win the race, of course. The winner is always a Frenchman, a Jean Noel Augert or somebody. He wasn't even second. That, too, is always a Frenchman, a Patrick Russel or somebody. But Kidd was third, taking what we call the bronze, and he was close to first—to be exact, .06 second out of first, or less time than it takes to blink. His finish came so unexpectedly that it will be celebrated long after the roads of Val Gardena get unclogged, all of the carabinieri sober up and the wood-carvers go back to their pasta.
Aside from the medal that would carry the U.S. cheerfully through the rest of the championships there was another nifty thing about Kidd's accomplishment. It sent him into the other two events, the giant slalom and the downhill, with at least a chance at the combined title. An American probably should not even think in such grandiose terms, for no chance like this had ever existed before. But it did after the slalom, after Billy got his third, after Karl Schranz, the Austrian favorite for the combined, didn't finish and was therefore out of contention, and after it suddenly occurred to everybody that the other good slalom finishers, with only a couple of exceptions, aren't all that swift in downhill.
What it meant was that if Kidd could run a decent giant slalom early in the week, he might very well go into next Sunday's downhill with some hope of capturing the FIS combined medal, which carries with it the modest tag of World's Best Skier. No American in Val Gardena could try that thought on for size without reeling toward the nearest bar.
Hardly any ski race is ever staged without confusion and controversy, and these world championships were certainly no different. Most of the early talk in the three villages that make up Val Gardena was about America's clothing problem first, and about the Great Slalom Protest second. If everyone will remember the last chapter, the U.S. team for some mysterious reason had no uniforms. When last seen, aside from Billy Kidd's sweaters, which a French company hastily provided, the team still did not. And this condition was the highlight of the opening ceremonies.
Into Val Gardena's ice stadium marched all of the teams from the 31 nations, parading to the clank and whomp of an Italian band that wore baggy pants and looked like the retreat from Caporetto—but, at that, looked about as good as the Americans. There they were, the Billy Kidds and Kiki Cutters and all, outlined against the black wet-look coats and dark brown bell-bottoms of the French girls, against the fur-lined suede coats and matching hats of the Austrian men, against the camel-colored coats and white fur hats of the Italians. And what were the Americans wearing? Why, their department-store corduroys and Billy Kidd sweaters, of course.
"How do you feel?" someone asked Kiki Cutter.
"Shabby and cold," said she.