Dawn rose through the night fog, creating, here in the French alps, a quicksilver morning. It was the kind of morning a pleasure skier's fantasies are made of, but in the streets of Val d'Isere, the Alpine resort known as the Mecca of French skiing, life stirred to the sounds of brisker considerations: the clatter of racers' release bindings being tested and of millions of dollars in corporate ski muscle being flexed. This was the first morning of the first race of the World Cup season. If the pressure of any World Cup season was enormous, never was it weightier than in an Olymic year.
On the flicker of one-thousandth of a second hung the accolades and endorsements that could turn a 20-year-old downhiller into an instant lifetime tycoon. On an inch of unexpected ice could slide the profits of the world's ski manufacturing giants and the fate of the winter tourist industries of at least two Western European governments.
Cigarette, watch and yogurt companies swarmed the slopes, plastering their logos on every available angle which a stray TV lens might catch, not to mention on every permissible surface of the skiers themselves. Television cables snaked through the snow churning out pre-games documentaries, and reporters clambered along after the stars, posing earnest questions about the state of Annemarie Moser-Proell's tendons and how, at 24, Ingemar Stenmark planned to spend his retirement. Ski racing had become big business, a billion-dollar recreational boom, and nowhere was it more apparent then here in the hometown of the man who may have contributed most to that development, the winner of the first World Cup 13 years before: Jean-Claude Killy.
On the main street, just up the block from Killy's Rocky Mountain Sportwear chalet and past Killy's Ski Rental and Sporting Equipment, Robert Killy, a still-dapper sexagenarian, momentarily shrugged off the bustle of race day to point across the traffic to the log cabin where he installed his family 35 years ago. "There was no road then," he said. "We used to ski straight from the door of the house." A World War II pilot who had once been a regional ski-jump champion in his native Alsace, Robert Killy had come straight from demobilization to his hamlet of 200 with nothing more than a prefab chalet lashed in pieces to the back of a flatbed truck and a buddy's hot tip that Val d'Isere was destined to become France's most succcessful ski resort. His wife, and their 3-year-old son, Jean-Claude, who had been the product of a particularly ardent Paris furlough, followed soon after. The next winter, Robert Killy strapped tiny wooden skis on his son's feet and found he took to the mountains with such passion they had to rein him in. "Toutoun," they called him for the baby-talk train noise he made, and even now, when Jean-Claude Killy blew into Val d'Isere from his world promotional tours and his mansion on the shores of Lake Geneva next to Saudi Arabia's King Khalid's, he remained "Toutoun" -- much to the distress of his jet-set friends and actress wife.
When Jean-Claude was 6, the Killy's cabin radio crackled with the news that a Val d'Isere farm boy named Henri Oreiller had just won two gold medals for Alpine skiiing in the first post-war Olympics at St. Moritz, and from that day no village pupil would hesitate when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up.
"World champion," they would say, running for their skis at the recess bell. When Robert Killy got a phone call from the principal of the sixth school his son was about to be thrown out of -- this time for running away to a race in Val Cortina -- he knew that it was useless to prevent the inevitable. He gave the nod to the end of an education which left Jean-Claude forever with a rudimentary grasp of arithmetic but on the way to an Olympic payday -- an astonishing triple victory in the 1968 game in Grenoble -- that made him a millionaire by his 26th birthday and now, at 36, the overseer of a personal ski fortune with batteries of agents, lawyers and accountants.
His victory and resultant riches changed forever the face of skiing, and changed, too, the facade of Val d'Isere. These days, the Killy log cabin sits dwarfed among blocks of highrise condominiums and gleaming hotels like some quaint artifact. Down in the basement of the streamlined new family sporting-goods outlet, the one-time wild man of the slopes sat tamed by the cares of his ski-wear empire (for which he was in town hosting a sales conference), on a hillock of plastic-wrapped boots.
"I just happened to win the right games," smiled Killy, still at ease in the limelight. "We had TV coverage for the first time -- more than 500 million people. At the time, it was fantastic, unheard of. Skiing was growing by 15 percent a year and the companies are making enormous money." But no one before had cashed in as he did -- the fate of most ex-champions was to open a ski shop or hire on as a resort coach -- and certainly no one has outdone him since.
For Killy, business was so demanding that he only took to the slopes on his children's school holidays or for the benefit of a TV commerical. His prized 1963 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud III had sat practically unused in his Geneva garage for four years now, abandoned for the practicalities of a Land Rover.
"We were the last to win all three disciplines," he said. "Now there's so much specialization that it's almost as if the downhill and the slaloms are two different sports. It's a big problem for these guys to make a name for themselves the way we did."
A dozen years later, that name still carried the magic that sold everything from sunglasses to 10-speed bikes, from credit cards to cameras, and when sportswriters inquired if glory had passed quickly, he would only smile and recount how the week before a woman in a TV studio had asked the date of his next race. "It's not so bad," he said, "for a guy who's been gone for 12 years."
Annemarie Moser-Proell was not happy. This did not mean that she was not laughing all through lunch, wolfing down fistfuls of bread and salami while regaling her teammates with ribald anecdotes, and pulling fervent drags from her cigarette, one arm clamped firmly on her blond husband, Herbert, the only man allowed at the Austrians women's team training table. But beneath the enforced heartiness, things were not as they should have been with the queen of women's downhill racing. She had not won the Val d'Isere descent, a surprise. Not only had she been whipped by her old rival, Marie-Theres Nadig of Switzerland, who once snatched two gold medals from her at their first Olympic meeting in the 1972 games at Sapporo, Japan, but she had finished an ignominious fifth. It had been an upset comparable to her own leap from obscurity 11 years earlier at a World Cup race in St. Gervais to become the woman hailed as the finest female skier in history. Annemarie Moser-Proell was not accustomed to upsets. "Nein, not too happy today," she said in her broken English, which became more broken if she disliked the subject under discussion.
One of eight children from Kleinarl, a mountain village at the end of a valley near Salzburg, where skiing is not so much a sport as a necessity, she was like most European racers, the offspring of simple burghers -- a hertiage that resulted in wide, flat, freckled cheeks and a broad hip span that disqualified her as a pinup girl but gave her the low-slung ballast essential to a downhill champion. At 12 Proell had won her first race and by 21 she had snapped up five World Cup season titles and a record 42 wins, outclassing even Killy's record streak.
Fog, back injuries and even the number 13 left her unperturbed, and some competitors compared her with male skiers. She would light up a cigarette as soon as she slid across the finish line, knock back beer and shuffle cards at night with the boys while her rivals bowed to training as if to convent rules. "It's unfair -- they ought to have a special cup for her," a French downhiller had pouted, and one women's team coach had suggested that the only way to beat her was to knock her over the head in the starting chute. In Austria, where skiing was not only the national sport, but the national obsession, she was an idol. Thousands hung on the reports of her marriage to Herbert Moser, a salesman for her sponsor, Atomic Skis, whom she had met at a company Christmas party. In Kleinarl, she bought an enormous three-story wooden gasthaus on the main square with a dance hall in the basement and a first-floor coffee house tended by Herbert. The sign outside signals her faithful: Chez Annemarie.
In 1975, when she abruptly announced her retirement a week before her 22nd birthday, saying that she was tired, the country reeled with the jolt. But there were rumors that she couldn't face the merciless pressure to win on her native soil in the Innsbruck Olympics. "It's true," she said. "I would have needed three gold medals to satisfy the public. One wouldn't have been enough."
But that was not the whole truth. What she hadn't been able to tell the press at the time was that her father had been dying and she knew she could not face the Olypic season with that weight dragging her skis. In 1976, when she just as suddenly signaled her comeback after intestinal surgery and 18 months without training, skeptics whispered that she hadn't been able to stand life out of the spotlight -- another half-truth. Always restless between races, uninterested in skiing without the thrill of battle, consigned to knitting in Kleinarl, she was helping her kid sister Connie groom for a place on the Austrian team when she could no longer restrain herself.
"I decided I was too young to quit this life," she said. But there had been other less pleasant rumors about her return -- talk that she had overextended herself with the coffeehouse and that retirement had not brought her the endorsement bonanza that it had brought West Germany's Rosi Mittermaier, the gold medalist who had schussed off from Innsbruck with a fat three-year contract. In fact, Moser-Proell had done only one TV commercial, which until recently had threatened her right to compete at Lake Placid.
It had been an Austrian star, Karl Schranz, who had paid the price for all the ski generations to follow -- ousted from the Sapporo Olympics for making a commerical only days before the race. In the bitter wake of that decision, the rules were changed and now ski, boot, glove and goggle companies paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for the privilege of outfitting a racer, the money all funneled through national team pools -- a convenient laundry facility which guaranteed many European stars an all-expenses-paid present and often a secure future.
But Moser-Proell had earned $7,750 for a detergent commercial in which she had been filmed somberly showing Herbert how she had triumphed over a jelly stain. Only a few weeks before the Val d'Isere meet, the Austrian Olympic Committee had ruled that since she had handed her fee over to the ski federation and done the foul deed while in official retirement, she could be forgiven. But now on the circuit, there were sly digs that, like Annemarie, the committee had done a detergent job -- washing her stain away.
She made no pretense that she had come back in pursuit of the only hardware which had escaped her -- Olympic gold. "A gold medal would fill me up," she said. But she had started the season inauspiciously, first straining her right ankle during a five-mile run through the Jagersee outside Kleinarl last summer, then two months later tearing a muscle in her left leg in a brutal fall during slalom practice. Considering her five weeks lost training, her fifth-place finish was more than respectable. But such was her reputation that, late at night in a hotel bar, supporters of her rivals, Marie-Theres Nadig and Liechtenstein's Hanni Wenzel, would speculate that the injuries were all a Machiavellian plot to disarm the rest of the field before Lake Placid.
Moser-Proell laughed off the speculation, just as she laughed off the notion that she needed an Olympic medal to ensure a comfortable retirement. "Nein, no more commericals," she said. "I don't like what Killy did. When skiing stops, I want a private life." Beside her, Herbert seconded the notion with Prussian zeal. "After, nothing but private," he said. "Annemarie will stay home and get children."
She pulled on her shapeless red parka and climbed into their white station wagon next to him for the drive to the final prize-giving, where her combined downhill and slalom points had won her a third-place trophy. It wasn't the place on the podium she was used to and when the French crowd musterd only perfunctory applause at her name, stormclouds shadowed her brow, and on the silent ride back to the hotel she thumbed angrily through a program in which she was hailed as a "woman without limits." If Annemarie Moser-Proell was not happy, however, she knew that all was not lost for Lake Placid. "I ski better," she said, jutting out her chin, "when I am annoyed."
On the serpentine route to Val dIsere, traffic jams heralded the arrival of the weekend ski crowd -- Mercedes laden with the latest in equipment and Louis Vuitton bags filled with champagne and couturier apres ski. In hotels and chalets, talk warmed to the subject of dinner reservations and after-race disco plans -- the glamor that swirled around the fringes of what the sportswriters have dubbed "The White Circus," a glamor owing in part to the enduring Killy image.
In the lobby of the Hotel Savoyarde, Werner Grissmann, an amiable 28-year-old Austrian bear who likes to call himself Grizzly, cavorted in a wolf coat for the benefit of his teammates, solidifying his own reputation as the eternal also-ran, the veteran who invariably scored the best practice time but who hadn't won a World Cup race since 1973. "I start out fast at the top," he said, "but at the finish line there are always women and that slows me down." In the White Circus, Grissmann plays the clown, chatting with girls in bars long past curfew time and, in summer, haunting the fringes of the Formula One circuit with his friend Nicki Lauda. Last season the diversions of a Hawaiian stopover proved so agreeable that he never did make the starting gate of the race in Japan. The clown's role he has assumed knowingly, ever since a brutal fall in his first World Cup race 10 years ago, when he smashed his pelvis and lacerated his face, leaving it without feeling to his day. If the scars had vanished, the memory still smarted and it took him another three years to win his first and last downhill.
To a ski racer, danger is constant, pain an unfaltering companion. Some downhillers run all season at speeds up to 90 miles an hour on broken kneecaps and cruelly dislocated shoulders. Some will never walk normally and some, like Franz Klammer's brother, who was paralyed from the waist down after a fall in 1977, will never walk again. Now Klammer's teammates theorized that he thought too much about danger -- an explanation for his slip from an Innsbruck gold medalist to an apologetic finisher, some said a has-been, at 27. Beneath the harlequin mask, Werner Grissmann understood well the trade-off he made daily for the price of good times.
"For many of the people in the crowd or on TV, we are gladiators," he said. "We're on the front lines where there are lots of accidents and even a possiblity of dying. They want sensations, dangers, and we are fighting the battle for them. I like being a gladiator. I like to live on the brink, every day to push yourself to your limits. But I don't just want to train and ski. I want to have more in life."
In the eternal debate over the stuff that champions are made of, Grissmann's was the minority viewpoint. Most racers took to their beds by 10 p.m., accepting apple juice and a sometimes lonely life for a coveted time on the electronic scoreboard. In retrospect even Killy banished a myth that he had lived high. "All that came after," he said. "Sure, I had fast cars, but no time to drive them. There were women around. But no time to got out with them. All I cared about was winning. It wasn't skiing that interested me, it was winning."
Killy's was the sort of testimony that might have been given by the current male superstar of the ski circuit -- a racer as different from Jean-Claude Killy as the slalom is from the downhill -- Ingemar Stenmark. On the crest of Bellevarde Mountain on the final race day, he stood alone, just as he preferred. He shrugged off the ministrations of his servicemen and coaches without a word -- his favorite form of conversation. On the ski circuit, the 24-year-old king of the slalom was known as the "Silent Swede," the Garbo of the slopes, almost as famous for his public reticence as for his undisputed mastery of the gates.
After three World Cup championships, he remained an enigma -- disdaining interviews and hoopla. Once, four years ago, three English reporters who were allowed to speak to him emerged an hour later unable to recall his replies. "He seemed to answer a lot of questions in one, two or at most three words," the Daily Telegraph writer said. "Whatever he said, I don't remember it just now."
Last year, when World Cup officials changed the rules in a way that would penalize Stenmark -- preventing him from a fourth championship unless he participated in the downhill -- he reacted as usual: He said nothing. There had been rumors of a new approach to the press. But two days earlier, the circuit journalists had presented him with a skier-of-the-year award and when their spokesman hailed him on the podium for speaking three languages he had smiled into the popping flashbulbs and replied in none of them.
His bashfulness was all the more remarkable considering his celebrity. In Sweden, he was the pop star to a generation, outranking even Bjorn Borg. Each summer, crowds invaded Tarnaby, his tiny home town on the Norwegian border. They wanted to see where his father, a tractor dealer, had invented a rope tow with an old car so his son could slalom during lunch hour. He had proclaimed to his village cronies when Ingemar was only 5 that his son would be was a world champion. Groupies hung on his every move, and as many as 4,000 fan letters a week poured into Tarnaby, where the local ski club fielded them. At the beginning of the Val d'Isere meet, his coach had called a special press conference just to denounce a tabloid's headlines that U.S. skier Christin Cooper was the "girl who was changing Ingemar's life" -- a bit of speculation based on a report that once after a meet in Japan he had asked her to dance. The news was duly recorded by the 25 Swedish journalists and photographers who followed him everywhere like some faithful retinue, a full-time Stenmark beat.
Still, if Stenmark was quiet now he had good reason. He was worried about the consequences of a conversation he had had with a veteran ski journalist last summer. "Tell me about Killy," he had blurted at a dinner in Hawaii, curious about the methods Killy had used to conquer both the downhill and Stenmark's specialities, the giant slalom and slalom. It seemed that Stenmark was thirsting for an expanded stardom.
Last September, he quietly showed up at a glacier in Italy's Val Senales to train for the downhill. He had cut his shoulder-length curls and brought along a former champion to coach him, though the experiment proved shorter than the preparation. A gust of wind caught him off balance and when he landed he was unconscious for an hour. As usual, some Swedish parparzzi had been on hand, and recorded the accident. All of Sweden went into a tailspin as a helicopter ferried him to an Italian hospital, then to an Innsbruck clinic. At Innsbruck, he lay not far from Leonardo David, the 19-year-old Italian downhiller who had fallen at the finish line at Lake Placid the previous March and had sunk into a coma. David had been the new hope of the Italian team, a father of two who was known for his joie de vivre but who now was unable to recognize his own mother, who refused to budge from his side. After Ingemar Stenmark came out of an examining room, Mama David appeared at his bedside to reinforce the resolve that was already taking shape in his aching head. "Never do the downhill," she beseeched. And when Stenmark arrived at Val d'Isere he had affirmed it to the massed reporters who asked him when his next downhill foray would be. "Never," he said, proving remarkable loquacious.
He was nervous about this, his first slalom race since the injury, as he would admit later. In the first run, he had skied cautiously and ranked an unaccustomed third. Now, he had to make up for lost time if he was to regain his lead. He shot out of the chute, expressionless, his frame taut under a skintight body suit. He took the gates with effortless grace. At the finish line, he allowed a small smile as the scoreboard lit up with his winning time. In the five-minute ovation that washed over him at the prize-giving, a reporter pressed close to ask if he had his sights on the Olympics. "Yes," he said, suddenly eloquent, "but I can't think about it or I get nervous." She asked if he hated the crush of journalists and the bank of clicking cameras that surrounded him. "Yes," he smiled, "but it's not so bad when you're winning." Finally, she asked if, when he retired, he would try to emulate Jean-Claude Killy. "Never." He suddenly scowled, then, as if he had said enough, and lowered his head to plow out of the crowd.
As night fell over Val d'Isere, the sounds of a nightclub piano drifted through the dark. But on the empty streets, Ingemar Stenmark ran unnoticed, a solitary figure in a track suit, in his head another race to run.