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The Olympics are made for heroes, and before the IX Winter Games end February 9, a bold handful of skilled young athletes will push their heads above the mass of rivals as they generate the special kind of excitement that only an Olympics can produce. Some of the likely gold-medal winners-to-be are pictured on these pages, as they step to the brink of the greatest challenge of their sporting lives. Others will suddenly jump to prominence as they overtake the pre-Games favorites (see chart, pages 38 and 39) in their pursuit of the 34 first-place awards.
One whom American spectators will watch with particular fascination—whether they are in Innsbruck or in front of home TV sets viewing film clips flown daily from Austria—is Buddy Werner (see cover), the finest all-round skier in U.S. history. Werner has been winning international races for 10 years. In fact, until 1962 he was the only American male ever to win a major race over the sophisticated speedsters from the established European ski powers. In the 1960 Olympics, he seemed headed for a sure gold medal, perhaps two, but broke his leg in a training fall just before the Games. Now he is again in perfect shape—perhaps even a little overtrained from the U.S. team's exhausting warmup schedule—and skiing as well as he ever has.
To win, however, Werner and the rest of the newly powerful U.S. squad must overcome a singular obstacle: the home team. Austria will send into the Alpine events a group of men who together comprise what is probably the best ski team ever assembled. If not the best, it is at least the equal of the famed Wunderteam which launched Austria's dominance of the ski world from 1950 to 1959. And the bellwether of this new Wunderteam, dashing Egon Zimmermann, may be just as good as the man whose skiing feats in Cortina in 1956 made him a national hero: Toni Sailer. Austria fervently hopes so, because in 1960 at Squaw Valley her skiers fell ignominiously (only one gold medal) before a determined assault by the Swiss, Germans and French. That such a catastrophe should befall little Austria again is something its citizens would rather not think about.
To seven million Austrians, two million of whom ski, the matter is indeed one of capital importance—and not merely one of amour-propre. Alpine skiing was invented here. In no other country, including the four mountainous countries near Austria ( France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland), is Alpine skiing the national sport. And not only do Austrian hearts vibrate at the sight of skis on snow; their cash registers clang to every victory. For in Austria skiing is big business—vital business.
Consider the aftermath of the golden age of Toni Sailer. At the Olympics in 1956 the tall, dark Sailer completely wiped out the world's finest skiers. He beat his teammate Anderl Molterer in the giant slalom by an impossible six seconds, beat the Japanese Chiharu Igaya by four seconds in the slalom and then bolted over the icy, precipitous downhill course to defeat Swiss Racer Raymond Fellay by 3� seconds. No one had ever swept these events before, and with the possible exception of Egon Zimmermann (no relation to another Austrian of the same name who competed at Squaw Valley in 1960), it seems likely that no one ever will.
The economic consequences for Austria were enormous. In the next several years, tens of thousands of foreign skiers reserved rooms in Tyrolean ski resorts to learn the Austrian method of skiing from nearly 1,000 teachers. Instead of heading for Val d'Is�re or St. Moritz or Garmisch, they journeyed to St. Anton, Z�rs and Kitzb�hel. Once there, they bought Austrian sweaters, boots, after-ski clothes and went on shopping binges in what is still one of the world's most reasonably priced countries. Ski firms like Kneissl, K�stle and Fischer did a handsome local business at home, and their ski exports boomed. So did the exportation of ski instructors, particularly to the U.S. Austrian officials in Vienna, who had invested an estimated $20 million of Marshall Plan funds in the country's ski resorts after the war, happily rubbed their hands. Ski victories were paying off. Little wonder that the Austrian government—not to mention Austria's commercial interests—are backing their 1964 Olympic team, materially and morally. A defeat on home grounds in Innsbruck would affect the entire Austrian economy.
Despite the formidable challenge from the U.S. and the still powerful French, Austrian Ski Association officials and the national team coaches are "rather confident" about the outcome of the 1964 winter games. And the list of names of Austrian competitors—men and women—appears to justify their confidence. Among men, there are, of course, Zimmermann, who is the present world giant slalom champion; Karl Schranz, downhill and combined world champion; Gerhard Nenning, runner-up to Schranz as world champion combined skier; Pepi Stiegler and Hias Leitner, who both won silver medals at Squaw Valley, respectively, in giant slalom and slalom. Only slightly less formidable is the women's team, led by Christl Haas, who won the world downhill title in 1962 at Chamonix; Marianne Nutt-Jahn, winner of both the giant and the slalom championships at Chamonix and such other topflight racers as Edith Zimmermann (no relation to Egon ), Erika Netzer and Traudl Hecher. Men's Team Coach Ernst Oberaigner and Women's Team Coach Hermann Gamon believe that this group of skiers, particularly the men, are capable of sweeping all 18 of the gold, silver and bronze Alpine medals. But, says Oberaigner modestly, "we will be satisfied if Austrian men win four or five of the nine."
Though the Austrian people are relatively few in number compared to the Germans, French and Italians, and have to share the Alps with them, their dominance of the sport is not at all surprising. For one thing, mountains cover about [7/10] of the country. There is an Alp just around the corner from nearly every Austrian home—if not at the very doorstep. And, unlike France, Austria has good-sized cities right in the mountains, so that urban Austrians can go skiing, not just on weekends after an exhausting overnight train trip (as Parisians are obliged to do), but every day. Indeed, young Austrians in Innsbruck (pop. 100,000) and Bregenz ski on their lunch hour and even Viennese can be on 6,000-foot slopes after a 60-minute trip. When an Austrian boy shouts to a chum, "Race you to the classroom door," he means on skis. And as he grows up, he need not move away from ski areas in order to pursue secondary studies. Excellent high schools and universities are in the mountains, too. Skiing is definitely not a sport closed to the poor in Austria, either, as it tends to be elsewhere in Europe, notably in Italy and France. It is open to all.
Furthermore, there is nothing hit or miss about the way Olympic champions rise up out of this enthusiastic populace. For Austrian skiing is highly organized. At the top is the 50,000-member Austrian Ski Association, and the key man is Sepp Sulzberger, 43, of Innsbruck, who runs the intensive training program for juniors as well as for the national first and second teams. It was Sulzberger, a lawyer, who was responsible for the selection of Coaches Oberaigner and Gamon. Oberaigner, 31, spent 10 years on the national team from 1951 through the 1960 Squaw Valley Games, and for two years he passed a kind of apprenticeship as coach of the Salzburg province team. The 1964 season is his second with the national team, and the Innsbruck Olympics his first serious test. Gamon, who is 34, has a background in the sport similar to Oberaigner's. Before taking over the women's teams in 1960, Gamon coached the Vorarlberg junior team.
In each of Austria's nine provinces the ski association posts several scouts who see to it that promising boys and girls have adequate equipment and receive first-rate advice and coaching. Those who continue to develop are encouraged to train with national team skiers. All this costs money. Sulzberger explains that part of the funds come from the 20-schilling (80�) membership fees the Austrians pay to join the ski association. The government partially subsidizes the sport by helping to pay for the costly training periods, and by paying unemployment checks to some skiers during their eight-month season. A third source of revenue is the popular lottery wherein bettors guess the results of soccer matches. How much this adds up to, Sulzberger does not care to say, but one insider estimates the Vienna government's aid alone at between $60,000 and $ 100,000. The ski equipment firms help by furnishing free supplies to top skiers, and it is probable they also make a flat contribution to the teams' costs, but it cannot be proved.