For skiers, this winter in the Alps has been the warmest, the brownest and the bleakest in almost a quarter century. The desperate search for snow has kept the White Circus of World Cup racing on the move since the beginning of this year. Such conditions might have been expected to drain the energy and break the spirit of everyone from superstars to also-rans, leaving racers out of shape and out of sorts as they slouched toward the Calgary Games.
Such has not been the case at all. World Cup scouts turned up a frosty valley here, a snow-blanketed mountainside there, and despite a badly fractured schedule, the season has moved along nicely. It has also produced the most promising assortment of bright stars and exciting rivalries the Winter Games will have seen in recent memory.
The super Swiss continue to be super, but they are no longer supernatural. This season other countries have emerged as viable rivals—including Italy, whose ski racing had lagged since the late 1970s, and France. The Austrian team is still hopeless in the men's downhill, the event closest to the hearts of that nation's citizens, but the team is rapidly becoming one of the strongest in the slalom. At week's end the Austrian men led the Swiss 617-559 in World Cup points, while the Austrian team as a whole, men and women, trailed the Swiss by a relatively scant 227 Nations Cup points. Canada is fairly strong in the downhill, Yugoslavia shows promise in the slalom, and the Spanish team, in the person of one woman slalom skier named Blanca Fernandez Ochoa, is doing surprisingly well. Sadly, those seven nations, along with West Germany and Sweden, stand higher than the 10th-place U.S. team, which has been devastated by injuries.
To show how much the overall order of World Cup dominance has changed this season, we need only point out that the brightest star in the pre-Olympic galaxy is not a sober Swiss but an effervescent Italian—the much-celebrated and self-proclaimed "new messiah of skiing," Alberto Tomba, 21 (SI, Jan. 25). Early last week he won his seventh of 10 World Cup races this season. An absence of snow in Adelboden, Switzerland, caused the site of the race, a giant slalom, to be moved to snowy Saas-Fee, a village 15 miles from defending World Cup champion Pirmin Zurbriggen's remote home hamlet of Saas-Almagell.
Zurbriggen, 24, had never been in a World Cup race so close to his birthplace. The crowd roared and rang cowbells to urge him down the mountain. Alas, he fared no better than fourth. Tomba skied the course in impressive style, beating runner-up Günther Mader of Austria by 1.93 seconds.
"I didn't have a chance against Tomba," Mader said after the race, "but I think the Olympics might create heavy pressure and turn him back into an ordinary, normal person."
Probably not. There is very little that is ordinary about this wellborn Bologna playboy. At Saas-Fee he told the crush of finish-line journalists, "I feel a little bit lonely out in front all the time. Maybe the other guys should start training a little more to try and catch up." Thereupon Tomba gently autographed the ski suit—clad fannies of a couple of female admirers, vaulted a fence and sprinted down the mountain to a waiting helicopter while a throng bounded after him. Later he confided, "I like it when everybody loves me."
Zurbriggen, meanwhile, the winner of 11 World Cup races last season and still the best all-around ski racer, seemed dispirited and pessimistic. He had been suffering from a flulike ailment for three weeks, and while he has finished among the top four at least once in each of four Alpine disciplines—downhill, Super G, giant slalom and slalom—he has won only one race this year, a downhill at Val d'Isère, and has finished second in three other downhills. Through Monday, Zurbriggen trailed Tomba in overall World Cup points, 206-186. Tomba does not race the combined event and rarely enters downhills, so the World Cup may not be out of Zurbriggen's reach. But Zurbriggen's hopes of winning five gold medals in Calgary have been dimmed by the emergence of Tomba, the overwhelming favorite in both the slalom and the giant slalom at Calgary. In addition, Peter Müller, 30, Zurbriggen's steely teammate, is still considered the odds-on favorite in the downhill, the first ski race of the Olympics. Müller beat Zurbriggen by 0.27 two weeks ago in a race moved from Kitzbühel's snow-starved Hahnenkamm course to Bad Kleinkirchheim, Austria.
Last week the Lauberhorn downhill was packed off from Wengen, Switzerland—its traditional home since 1930—to Leukerbad. It was the first time since 1964 that a lack of snow prevented both Kitzbühel and Wengen from staging their downhills. The Bad Kleinkirchheim race was a good one, but the Leukerbad Lauberhorn was a stinker—a bizarre affair plagued by changing temperatures and snow conditions that left big-name starters deep in the pack (Müller was 35th, Zurbriggen tied for 39th). As fate would have it in this Tomba-dominated season, the Italians scored their first-ever hat trick. The winner was another Italian dazzler, the veteran Michael Mair, 25, who has legitimate downhill credentials, followed by a nondescript pair: Giorgio Piantanida, 20, and Werner Perathoner, 21.
However, the women's competition has been Swiss, Austrian, French and German, with the Italians running a poor 10th. The overall World Cup leader, Michela Figini, 21, hails from the Italian region of Switzerland, but her three World Cup victories—two downhills and a Super G—are property of the Swiss, as all other women's downhill races have been this season. Figini's nemesis, Maria Walliser, has won two, and Chantal Bournissen and Beatrice Gafner have one victory apiece. Figini and Walliser have been passing World Cup victories back and forth with great mutual distaste for four years now, although both deny there is a feud.