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William Oscar Johnson
February 13, 1978
The snow looked a lot like a Bavarian dessert, but Stenmark and Moser-Proell made sweet work of the championships
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February 13, 1978

Whipping The Cream Of The Crop

The snow looked a lot like a Bavarian dessert, but Stenmark and Moser-Proell made sweet work of the championships

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This was, as they might say in a Bavarian pastry shop, eine Ski-Welt-meisterschaft mit Schlag, a World Ski Championship smothered in whipped cream. From the first day—and for days and days to follow—snow fell on the Alps above Garmisch-Partenkirchen until three feet of it lay soft and thick as beaten cream over the racecourses. This caused all kinds of problems for all kinds of people, most notably the U.S. ski team and Austria's Franz Klammer, formerly the world's premier downhill racer.

For the winners, of course, it was all sweet Schlag. Ingemar Stenmark, the taciturn Swedish slalomist, swept to two gold medals and proved that even if he is a man of no words, he is surely the best man now skiing in the world. And among women, the same was proved true of Annemarie Moser-Proell, the relentless Austrian who un-retired last season, for "financial reasons," to bail out the faltering caf� she owns in the Salzburg region. She won two gold medals and a bronze, a parlay that, under the going rates offered by the Austrian Ski Federation to its "amateur" racers, was worth a cool $35,000. Then came the splendid performance of the two teams from the neighborhood—Austria and Germany—which together ate up the championships like so much strudel, winning 12 of 24 medals. And, as a final touch, little Liechtenstein (pop. 24,000) won five medals, or exactly as many as the U.S., France, Switzerland and Italy combined (pop. 332 million).

The 1978 FIS championships opened with splashy ceremony in the ski-jump stadium that Hitler built for the 1936 Winter Olympics, the last really major sporting event to be held in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. A field of 304 racers—185 men, 119 women from 35 nations—had entered the competition, some of them rank strangers to ski racing. Cyprus was there, as were Libya, Ireland and the Republic of China ( Taiwan). The Taiwanese team produced two of the more memorable runs in ski-racing history. Lin Chi-lang started 101st in the men's giant slalom and, with elbows high and knees stiff, made a leisurely series of turns down the course, then suddenly fell. One of his ski poles broke, but he got up laboriously, returned to the course and continued his meandering progress to the finish, crossing the line scant seconds before racer No. 102 caught up to him. Lin smilingly told reporters who flocked around him that he had taken up skiing only three months ago and that his name meant "tree of good thinking." In the women's slalom the next day, Lin's teammate, Hsu Yu-lang, started 74th, plunged out of the starting hut into the first turn and fell, ending a run of less than three seconds.

Before the meet began, the Alps had been plagued with a shortage of snow and trucks had been hauling it in from the high passes to pack the courses. But the series of storms created quite another kind of problem. The first event was the men's downhill, and the course lay sluggish under soft new snow. More snow was falling, and a cloud bank against the mountain obscured visibility. An enormous crowd of more than 50,000 had massed along the two-mile course. They had come to see the dashing Klammer, darling of the 1976 Olympics, run what he had promised would be his last victorious race before retiring. It seemed reasonable: in the past, Klammer had dominated his event, winning an unprecedented 21 races since 1975. He had been a bit lackluster this year, losing four of five events, facing tough competition from the Italian veteran, Herbert Plank, and a rising Austrian teammate, Sepp Walcher. But in training at Garmisch, Klammer seemed to be back in peak form. On his last warmup run he was timed in a spectacular 2:01.35. The course was easy, even fairly flat by the hair-raising standards of truly first-class downhills. The soft snow might have been a less critical factor on a steeper course, but Olympic and world championship downhills are always relatively tame so that the steel-elbow dilettantes from Taiwan, Libya and Cyprus will not kill themselves.

Klammer started 10th. Walcher, starting fifth, had the best time, 2:04.12. Klammer leaped out of the gate as if he were being chased by the same demons that pursued him to his gold medal in Innsbruck, but he was not far down the course when it was clear that this was not to be the day he would retire in triumph. Earlier racers had cut a deep track through the heavy snow and Klammer was unable to follow his own line, which varied by a foot or two at critical gates. He lost a few split seconds at the top, a few more at the bottom. Still, he said later, "I was sure I was doing the best race I had ever run. Then when I came into the finish area, I heard there was not so much noise from the crowd. That was the first I knew that maybe something was wrong." What was wrong was his time, a 2:04.77 for fifth place.

Walcher, a broad-faced mountain boy from Schladming who had perfected his technique by watching videotapes of Klammer, was followed by Germany's Michael Veith, a usually mediocre racer who ran the race of his life for his countrymen. In third was another Austrian, Werner Grissman, who had spent the night before with Walcher playing their starting numbers on roulette tables in a Garmisch casino—and winning not a Pfennig. The best American was Andy Mill, who had been a strong fifth on his last training run. But on race day his skis were badly prepared for the conditions, and he wallowed down the hill in 22nd place. Klammer also had said that he thought his skis were not quite right for soft snow. Then, as the week went on and the snow got deeper, there was more and more talk of a mysterious new soft-snow ski bottom that had been developed by Kaestle for the racers using that company's skis—and, sure enough, by the end of the week Kaestle skiers had taken an amazing seven medals. Whether the mystery surface made the final infinitesimal difference may never be determined, but the intricacy of ski technology is approaching the finicky precision of race cars, and last week there were many skiers who blamed bad races on skis that did not run well in soft snow.

As for Klammer, the day after the race he was pink-eyed and pale from drowning his sorrows, but he was cheerful enough. He said his retirement was officially off and that he would finish this season. "I want to prove I am the best," he said, "and only a whole season can decide a champion, not one race on a course that should not have been used." He said that he would retire "for sure, for sure" before the 1980 Olympics and join the U.S. pro racing tour.

Meanwhile, the bad weather turned positively Siberian. After an abortive attempt to start, the women's downhill was canceled because of deep snow and fog on the run. In only slightly better conditions the next day, the sturdy American Cindy Nelson, who won a bronze medal at Innsbruck, was the first starter. It was a miserably unlucky position, for she would have to plow much of the track through fresh snow. Still, despite the bad starting position and knees which were still sore from a recent injury. Nelson managed to finish fifth. And that was as good as the U.S. women got in Garmisch: in a meet rampant with spills and tears, the next best American finish was a dismal 12th.

But when it came to women in Garmisch last week, there was one who dominated all. When she retired after the 1975 season, Moser-Proell had just won her fifth straight World Cup title and was newly married to a handsome Atomic ski representative. She sat out the Innsbruck Olympics happily enough, it seemed, then just before last season she announced her return to racing. Her coach, Erich Sturm, said, "It is no secret that Annemarie came back mainly for financial reasons, but she also felt her life wasn't satisfying without racing." She was out of condition last season, but this year she was fit and eager. She won three of five World Cup downhills and came into Garmisch as the favorite.

On the day of the race she selected extra-long, 225 cm. skis that had also been made extra heavy. "They are more difficult to negotiate, but faster on a course such as this," she said. At the top, a German coach kept up a steady fusillade of psychological shots, muttering darkly about the difficulty of so much new snow and the problems inherent in using such long and heavy skis. Annemarie started 10th. The course was well packed by then and she bombed through the first three-quarters. Then, on the fifth gate up from the bottom, her left ski skidded wildly. She fought the extra-heavy weight, managed to bring it under control again and finished in 1:48.31—the best time at that point. Convinced that her mistake would mean victory to some racer still to come behind her, she viciously stabbed a ski pole in the snow. The 11th racer, Germany's Irene Epple, flashed down to great roars from the partisan crowd. But she finished .24 of a second behind Moser-Proell—and no one came closer.

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