The men's downhill at the Winter Olympics is like so many other celebrations of high-speed courage: the closer a fan gets to the competition, the less he sees of the race. Yet an arm's length from the these dazzling blurs is the only way to sense what makes them special.
From a distance, say a mile or so, the view of Whiteface Mountain is spectacular. A stream partially covered by snow meanders nearby and the skiers, charging down out of a charcoal-gray sky, resemble dots in an uncomplicated computer game.
Up close, hard by curves called Dynamite Corner, Broadway and other names that give the course a deceptively tame appearance, the near-reckless attitude of these most glorified of winter athletes becomes almost frighteningly clear.
Like the cars at Indy and the horses at Churchill Downs, the downhillers here were visible for just a few precious seconds to the fans who adore them, who paid $28 per ticket, who began to trudge up the mountain nearly from first light today as bells and disco music filled the air.
And by the time Leonhard Stock, son of a Tyrolean farmer and an Olympian outcast until two days ago, gave his regards to Broadway and sped through Times Square, nobody but the fiercest chauvinists had minded the effort.
Even a first-time up the mountain, drawn by Franz Klammer's inspiration at Innsbruck, could realize what separated Stock from the relative snails who had gone before.
"I didn't need to hear his time," the U.S. coach, Harald Schoenharr, said. "When I saw him ski, I knew he'd win."
That Stock would compete at all, let alone win the gold medal and follow Klammer to glory in Austria, had been much in doubt.In truth, there had been considerable dissension within the Austrian team when Stock was selected to replace the popular Sepp Walcher.
Stock's victory is not the fluke it might appear. Although he never had won a downhill race, he is an excellent athlete. Austrian downhill alternates, like those in American speed skating and East German swimming, are superior to stars in most other countries.
And he brought the most affectionate gasps as he passed the dozens of vantage points, for he clung to the hill tighter than anyone, as though he alone had his skis attached to an unseen track and was turning the boost toward tilt every few feet.
He offered none of the ominous daring of Klammer -- although he was on one ski now and then -- none of the notion that he had more chance to crash through the loose fences and spiat against a tree than of finishing.
What Klammer did may not be seen again. Which is not to belittle Stock's charge down Whiteface, although many of the others who went before and after did so with more anticipation.
Canadian fans, for instance, had planted three flags near a knoll at Times Square and broke into cheers as their best hope for gold began his run far up the course.
"Ken Read on the course," the announcer said.
"Ken Read off the course," he said 15 seconds later -- and the groans bounced off nearby trails.
"That's it?" a woman said. "No second chance?"
"Nope," her date said. "Four years. Boom."
But Read at least had the chance to compete. When he crashed during a training run Dec. 6, Stock seemed out of the Olympics for sure. His left collarbone was broken so badly a pin was inserted.
But he soon was back on the course, dashing downhill again, that left arm in a sling and strapped to his chest. Most of us dare not try the intermediate slope with two strong arms.
How did he make the team? Stock was understandably occupied most of the time after his victory, so the explanation -- and it undoubtedly is a prejudiced one -- came from Franz Kneissl, son of the founder of the firm that makes the skis Stock rode down a steep hill to Olympian heights.
"I knew I had lost my best man (after the fall)," Kneissl said, alluding to the other potential Austrian medalists being committed to other skis. "But it was unbelievable how he recovered."
According to Kneissl, it was unbelievable that so much fuss was caused after Stock had recovered and seemed to have earned a place on the Austrian team.
He said Stock was chosen as one of the four men downhillers and later forced off after a revolt by other skiers of Olympian skills. Then it was decided to take Stock as an alternate, the No. 5 man, who would compete if somebody else was hurt.
But Stock suddenly became the hottest item on the slopes during practice here, so much better than anyone else -- Walcher included -- that he forced his way into the lineup. Sources said his teammates still were growling about the decision shortly before competition began today.
When it was over, Hans Schiessl of Richfield Conn., and a representative of the company that makes the bindings Stock uses, said: "Now he is the Terry Bradshaw of Austria."
The austrian Terry Bradshaw submitted to a brief press conference and nibbled on some M&Ms that the silver medalist, countryman Peter Wirnsberger, somehow managed to produce. Publicly, Stock was generous to his teammates, offering no hint of prerace bickering.
Had Stock stayed healthy but been denied a place on the Austrian downhill team, he still would have raced here. His best event is said to be the giant slalom, where Sweden's Ingemar Stenmark is the big favorite.
"But because of Stock's success today," Kneissl, said, even so hopefully, "maybe he can explode later on."