At one point, it seemed that the tiny Austrian villages of Saalbach and Hinterglemm might be on the verge of hosting the World Alpine Ski Championships from Hell—as in "War is hell." And the way things were going early on, people were beginning to wonder whether Saddam Hussein held the Alps as well as Kuwait.
Barely an hour after the first air strike battered Iraq, the entire U.S. Ski Team was rousted out of its European hotel rooms in the predawn darkness of Jan. 17 and ordered to return home to safety. There were even rumors that French and Italian skiers might be pulled out of competition, too, since their countries were also active in the hostilities. On Jan. 20, the day before the world championships were to start, the organizing committee debated whether to postpone the event. It decided not to, but did cancel the opening ceremonies for fear of terrorism.
Then came the crudest blow: ABC Sports, which had contracted to pay $1.5 million for rights to televise the two-week event, bailed out less than 24 hours before the championships were to begin. The network's excuse? Not the threat of terrorism to its crews, not the pressing demands of covering the war, but a vague explanation that it had been informed that the U.S. Ski Team was not going to participate in "certain key events" at the championships. As it happened, the American team did indeed show up in Austria, though two days after competition began, and ABC's little cable sister, ESPN, stayed to report on the races. But the loss of major U.S. network coverage, as well as the fear that ABC might refuse to pay its rights fee, was depressing evidence of how a war in the Middle East could affect life in middle Europe.
It wasn't until the racers finally moved onto the slopes and started competing that it became clear that, whatever Iraq controlled elsewhere, Austria ruled its own snow.
The first race, the men's slalom on Jan. 22, was won by Marc Girardelli, 27, and no gold medal was ever more richly deserved, for he is arguably the finest—and bravest—ski racer of the era. Girardelli was born in Austria, lives in Switzerland, but skis for Luxembourg for reasons too abstruse to explain. He has suffered an extraordinary number of harrowing injuries in his career, beginning in 1983, when his left knee was torn up so thoroughly he was diagnosed as being 80% disabled. But he quickly went back into training and, amazingly, won five World Cup slaloms the following season. In 1987 his left shoulder was repeatedly dislocated, in 1988 he suffered bruised ribs and a crushed left elbow, and in December 1989 he experienced a horrendous fall in a World Cup Super G race, which resulted in internal bleeding that required two operations to correct.
Despite such damage, he has won three overall World Cup titles and seven world championship medals, including two golds in combined events. But the slalom win in Hinterglemm was his first gold in an individual event. Girardelli's mother begged him to stop racing, but he told her, "No, I have lost five years of skiing because of my injuries, so I still have some accounts to settle." Girardelli seemed ready to settle one account by collecting more gold medals at these world championships, but it was not to be. His next-best finish was a fifth in the giant slalom.
In the end, the only multiple gold medalist was an Austrian upstart named Stefan Eberharter, 21, who had never won a World Cup race. Eberharter, who plays the accordion, entertained the crowd by squeezing out tunes at his two victory celebrations—for the Super G and the men's combined. When asked before the Super G who the favorite in the race was, Eberharter looked surprised. "The favorite?" he said. "I thought it was me." He skied a flawless race, blowing out Kjetil Andre Aamodt of Norway, the runner-up by 1.54 seconds, the largest margin in a Super G in five years. He was so hot that Austrian team officials, greedy for more gold, dumped the veteran Hubert Strolz from the men's giant slalom and replaced him with the young accordionist.
The favorite in that race was Italy's Alberto Tomba, 24. This had not been a great year by La Bomba's superstar standards. He had won only three World Cup races and had failed to finish in the last three slaloms before Saalbach-Hinterglemm. When he wound up a lackadaisical fourth behind Girardelli in the world championship slalom, his trainers were puzzled. They knew he was in superb physical shape, so they decided that perhaps Tomba's trouble lay in his mind. They were going to import a motivational psychologist from Trieste to convince their star that he was still a winner, but the plan was scrubbed at the last minute and La Bomba went out on the hill for the giant slalom armed only with his own mercurial motivations.
In the first run, he was superb, finishing a solid .27 of a second ahead of the runner-up, Rudolf Nierlich, 24, of Austria. But in the second run, it seemed both Tomba's mind and body failed him. He took a surprising spin at the eighth gate and did not finish, leaving the victory to Nierlich, who squeaked it out despite a near fall just above the finish. As for Eberharter, he had used up all his songs and finished 17th.
Still, the Austrians had plenty to celebrate. They won an overwhelming 11 medals (including five golds) at the worlds, while Switzerland took six, France three, Italy two, Norway two and Sweden two. Nevertheless, no Austrian worth his Obstler Schnaps could fail to mourn losing the race they call the K�nigsdisziplin ("king's event")—known to most as the men's downhill. It was won by Switzerland's Franz Heinzer, 28, who had finished fourth in three world championship downhills. This time, on the slopes of the Zw�lferkogel, above Hinterglemm, he made a mistake at the top and trailed the leaders at the first three intermediate timing points. But he burst across the finish line first, .25 of a second in front of Italy's Peter Runggaldier. Austria's Helmut H�flehner, the prerace favorite, would cross his ski tails in the start gate and come to a humiliating stop high on the course.