The juggernaut began to roll in the deep snows of Argentina last August, thundered through the storms of Europe's harsh winter, then rocketed in climactic triumph down the sun-splashed slopes of Crans-Montana, Switzerland, to deliver the most overwhelming team performance in the history of skiing.
Here is what the superlative Swiss did over 13 glorious days at the 1987 Alpine World Championships: They won 8 of 10 gold medals to break a record set in 1962 in Chamonix by a mighty Austrian team and matched in 1966 in Portillo by a great French team. They swept the men's downhill, skiing's premier event, making the first four places wall-to-wall Swiss. They placed first, second and seventh in the women's downhill; first, second and fourth in the women's Super G; and first, third and fourth in the women's giant slalom. As for individuals: Pirmin Zurbriggen, the choirboyish man of steel who is now the best all-around skier in history, won two gold and two silver medals. Erika Hess, the sweet little veteran who has become a Swiss national treasure after 10 years of racing stardom, won two gold medals, giving her six golds over three separate world championships. Maria Walliser, a daredevil downhiller with a movie star's smile, won two golds and a bronze. Various other individual Swiss picked up medals here and there to give the team 14 overall.
It went on and on, with a sense of inevitability growing each day among increasingly frustrated non-Swiss racers and coaches. The usually powerful Austrians could glean no more than three silvers and one bronze. The gleeful Swiss coined some Polish-style Austrian jokes ("Why don't Austrian racers wear gloves? So they can be quicker to congratulate the Swiss at the finish."), and a newspaper in Graz, Austria, declared, "We are now an ex-ski nation." The American team, which had shown such promise in the 1985 championships in Bormio, Italy, with a gold and three bronzes, could take only a single bronze in Crans-Montana. The medal was won by the sprightly Tamara McKinney in the combined event, but when it came time for her to go for the gold in the slalom, in which she was a favorite, she went down in a sprawling, graceless fall that perfectly symbolized the dismal U.S. performance.
There could have been no better site for the championships than Crans-Montana. This tiny village, a cross between Vail and Rodeo Drive, is a perfect place to indulge the Swiss preoccupations with mountains and money. The town is a mecca for the Power Shopper set, with Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Cartier and Yves Saint Laurent outlets lined up side by side. The ski slopes overlook as spectacular a vista as there is in Europe.
The Swiss skiers are as money minded as your average Zurich banker. Ask any member why the team has become so superior to those of the rest of the world, and he or she will probably reply, "It is because we are the most professional." For the 1987 world championships the national federation paid $25,000 for a gold medal, $10,000 for a silver, $5,000 for a bronze. These prizes are only the tip of the money iceberg; other endorsements bring superstars like Zurbriggen, Walliser and Hess as much as $660,000 a year.
There is nothing pampered about these skiing tycoons, however. The Swiss team is driven harder by its coaches than is any other team. Last summer the Swiss were sent to Argentina to train for the off-season World Cup downhills that were to be held in August at the Andean resort of Las Leñas. To most racers, including the Swiss, these races are viewed as Mickey Mouse events featuring out-of-shape World Cup skiers who come for the appearance money. The Swiss, though, took them seriously. They began a fierce training schedule in the Argentine snow on July 18, long before the other teams appeared. When the races were held in mid-August, they blew away the competition.
Then the winter World Cup circuit began, and the Swiss kept charging: Zurbriggen and Walliser already have the overall World Cup titles all but wrapped up. By the time they arrived in Crans-Montana for the first race on Jan. 27, they were ready to make history.
The championships began with a controversial and possibly unnecessary event called the combined, a made-for-TV event that features an easy slalom and an easy downhill followed by arcane manipulations of split seconds to pick a winner. In this case the computer put Erika Hess (third in both the slalom and downhill) in first, Sylvia Eder of Austria in second and McKinney in third.
The men's combined was interesting mainly because it wasn't won by a Swiss. Marc Girardelli, 23—the displaced Austrian who has skied for Luxembourg since 1977 when his father decided his boy wasn't getting enough attention from the Austrian coaching hierarchy—took first place. Tough as a gorilla and nervy as a burglar, Girardelli has suffered all season from a left shoulder so loosely connected that it sometimes dislocates in his sleep. For the championships he imported an Egyptian healer-masseur from Salzburg and kept his shoulder in its socket long enough to add silver medals in the Super G and the giant slalom.
Zurbriggen had been heavily favored to win the combined, but he had to settle for a silver. It was a painful loss, yet he said manfully, "It is an honor to lose to Marc Girardelli." Zurbriggen was also the odds-on favorite to win the downhill, but again he finished second—this time to one of the angriest, stubbornest competitors in the ski world, his own teammate, Peter Müller, 29.