The principality of Liechtenstein has more world champions per capita than any other country on earth. Liechtenstein has exactly two world champions; its population is 23,500. This breaks down to one champion for every 11,750 inhabitants. If the United States boasted the same ratio, it would have about 18,000 world champions. Russia would have 21,700. China would have 70,200.
Liechtenstein is 16 miles long, eight miles across at its widest point and 300 yards at the narrowest. Few other sovereign nations in the world are so small. Few are so quaint. To have two world champions residing in such diminutive premises, that is impressive. The most recent world champion is a 27-year-old bank employee named Wolfgang Matt who lives in Vaduz, the nation's capital. In 1975 Matt won the world championship for aerobatic radio-controlled model-plane flying in Bern, Switzerland. The more famous world champion is a shy, husky, dark-eyed 19-year-old skier from the "mountain balcony" village of Planken. Hanni Wenzel won the women's slalom at the 1974 FIS world championships at St. Moritz.
Naturally, Liechtensteiners were excited about both triumphs. Still, the victory of Wolfgang Matt did not fire the national morale with quite the gusto that Hanni Wenzel's victory did. When it comes to star quality, a world-class model-plane flier simply doesn't have the same gloss as a world-class ski racer. Thus, Wolfgang came home in relative silence and privacy, while Hanni was flown home from St. Moritz in a helicopter with the Crown Prince and Princess of Liechtenstein at her side. She was accompanied also by a heroic teammate, Willi Frommelt, 23, who had further enhanced the sporting fortunes of Liechtenstein by winning the bronze medal in the men's downhill.
They arrived at night and were met at the Liechtenstein border by a singing crowd carrying torches. A grand parade began. Traffic was tied up from one end of the country to the other. The reigning prince of Liechtenstein himself, Franz Joseph II, 69, was there to greet Hanni and Willi in the torchlight. He rode with them in a gleaming black limousine through the countryside, waving with princely dignity at the crowds gathered in the darkness. People cheered and laughed and said they hadn't seen such a celebration in Liechtenstein since 1967 when Crown Prince Hans Adam wed his lovely Countess Marie Agla� Kinsky.
Later, someone printed hundreds of bumper stickers with Hanni's and Willi's faces on them. Some folks even wondered if Hanni's round, rosy-cheeked visage might not soon grace one of Liechtenstein's famed postal stamps, but this did not come to pass. Nevertheless, it was an unforgettable time of high excitement, and national pride reached new peaks.
There have been people living in Liechtenstein since 3000 B.C., the late days of the Stone Age. The first were Celts, but the place was constantly invaded or attacked over the centuries—by Romans, Alemans, by the legions of Napoleon. At one time or another, Liechtenstein was part of the ancient Roman Empire, the Empire of Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Empire, the old German Empire, Napoleon's Confederation of the Rhine and the German Confederation. Besides having no real national identity for nearly all the centuries of its life, Liechtenstein also was poor, gnawing at the very bone of survival, bowed by serfdom—"a subservient country of small farmers," said one historian.
In the 17th century, shortly after the Thirty Years' War had ground to an end, the country was nearly snuffed out in an epidemic of black plague. About that time an even more terrifying cataclysm swept Liechtenstein. In a lunatic season of mass hysteria, more than 300 of the nation's 3,000 residents were tortured and killed—burned, beheaded, torn to pieces by mobs—because they were suspected of being witches.
These were dark ages, indeed. But no more. Serenity has settled down over Liechtenstein. It is the age of bumper stickers and world champions. Since 1799 no foreign soldier has occupied the country. The Liechtenstein army was disbanded in 1868 and its last surviving veteran died in bed 36 years ago. There were still periods of sharp hunger and hard times, since 70% of the nation was engaged in farming well into the 20th century. Then a mighty change occurred around 1950, and today Liechtenstein is neither a blooming land of peasant farms nor is it an antique gingerbread kingdom. In fact, it is one of the most highly industrialized countries in the world, with only 3% of its national income from agriculture. The rest comes from the sprawls of glass and cement-block factories that lie along the valley of the Rhine River, beneath the Alps of Austria on one side and Switzerland on the other. Each fall the country is still warmed by the winds of the F�hn rustling up from the Mediterranean to finish the last ripening of the vineyards and the cornfields, but the economic well-being of Liechtenstein lies in manufacturing—cement, nails, false teeth, hyper-sophisticated plastic coatings like the stuff they put on the solar wind device planted on the moon by the first men to walk there.
The princes of the House of Liechtenstein have ruled with gentle hands. The reigning prince and the princely family live in Vaduz Castle, a stone palace with cobblestone courtyards and staunch turrets built on the mountainside above the capital city in the 14th century. The prince owns one of the most important art collections in the world, rich with the work of Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt van Rijn and Albrecht D�rer. At the end of each Olympic or world championship ski season, Prince Franz Josef and his family give a lavish reception for the ski team of Liechtenstein. Shy and callow kids like Hanni Wenzel come to the castle and sip soda pop in the regal parlors beneath a vast tapestry by D�rer and a celebrated self-portrait by Rembrandt. It is always a warm, affecting occasion. Wars and witch-hunts could scarcely be farther out of sight or mind.
Sport in Liechtenstein is casual, smalltime and unfrenetic. The $78,000 budget for the six-member ski team is larger than the total spent on all other national teams put together. Even so, the skiers cannot afford their own team trainer, and all of them now train with the Swiss, paying for facilities and coaching. Soccer is the leading sport but there is no national Liechtenstein team, and a crowd of 1,000 spectators is considered huge. After Hanni Wenzel and Willi Frommelt, perhaps the most famous sportsman in Liechtenstein is Manfred Schurti, the Formula V auto racer who was European champion in 1972.