SI Vault
William Oscar Johnson
February 23, 1976
Slalom gates on an Innsbruck mountainside were portals to fame for a West German "granny" and skating rinks were icy avenues to gold medals for two Americans at the Winter Games
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February 23, 1976

Opening Up Those Golden Gates

Slalom gates on an Innsbruck mountainside were portals to fame for a West German "granny" and skating rinks were icy avenues to gold medals for two Americans at the Winter Games

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So good were the Games of the 12th Winter Olympiad that a visitor might be forgiven for concluding that all Winter Olympics to come should simply be staged at Innsbruck, over and over, in a setting of maximum efficiency and good spirit. Everything worked. Indeed, the only casualties were those felled by the flu. As always, some tried to measure the value of ideologies by the numbers of medals won, and, as usual of late, the Communist states finished first: Russia won 27 medals, East Germany 19. Next came the very rich, the U.S. and West Germany finishing with 10 each. Far more inspiring was the fact that Liechtenstein, population 23,000, won two Olympic medals.

But counting medals was not the way to judge Innsbruck. If there was a symbol for these Games it was Rosi Mittermaier. No one was so charming, no athlete so refreshing as the 25-year-old West German ski racer who last week became the most decorated 1976 Olympian of all.

The night before she won the downhill at Axamer Lizum, Rosi dreamed that she would get a medal. Before she raced the next morning, she chided her subconscious, "Don't produce such nonsense." It did seem like nonsense, for never in her international racing career—10 years of World Cup competition and three Olympics—had Rosi Mittermaier won a major downhill race, although she had won 16 German national ski titles and is the leader this season in World Cup points. She has been around ski racing so long that her teammates call her "Omi" (Granny). But at Axamer Lizum, Granny beat them all.

Now, suddenly, she was famous. Flowers were strewn across the bed in her hotel room. Soldiers guarded the stairway. From time to time she would step out onto the balcony and favor the crowds with a dimpled smile and friendly wave.

The excitement spread. Rosi might win another gold medal in the next event, the slalom. She might, all right, but she could scarcely be favored. Six times in World Cup races this season Rosi had finished second to Lise-Marie Morerod of Switzerland, and Morerod was odds on to win.

The slalom course was far meaner than it looked, spilling 1,312 feet down the hillside at Lizum. There was one particularly tricky gate two-thirds of the way where a chain of fairly simple turns suddenly changed to a wrenching series of long, sharp curves. It was there, on the first run of the required two, that More-rod skied off the course and was disqualified. Rosi was second with a 46.77 run, .09 of a second behind teammate Pamela Behr. One more run to come.

Rosi's mother Rosa and her father Heinrich were in the crowd. Frau Mittermaier wore a fashionable black Bogner ski outfit, father was dressed in a suit and brown overcoat and looked as if he had accidentally happened onto the course while on the way to the office.

Rosi's second run was slashing and strong and she finished in 43.77 to lead the field. Her coach jumped up and down, shouting, Sieg, Sieg, Sieg (victory, victory, victory).

When Rosi came off the medalists' stand she went directly to her mother, handed over the bouquet of roses she had been given, and said, "Mummy, I can't help it. I have to cry." Then, crushed in the mob of police and officials, she was swept away to meet her public. In the relative calm behind Rosi's departure, her mother said, "She is a lion. She is quite tough. Today I have seen tears in her eyes for the first time."

And now talk of three gold medals for Rosi began. It was an exciting possibility to consider, something no woman skier had ever accomplished. But as anticipation swirled around the German racer, she kept spinning a kind of grandmotherly wisdom. She said that an Olympic medal won in a race or two was not half as important to her as winning a World Cup title, which signified excellence and consistency. Rosi even managed to speak of the fun of her sport. "Everybody should enjoy skiing," she said. "One should not take ski racing too seriously. I have had some very bad results in my career from doing just that."

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