MOUNT ALLAN, ALBERTA, FEB. 16 -- The last anyone saw of Pirmin Zurbriggen today, he was being ushered by his coaches to a chairlift to go to the top of Nakiska for some work on the slalom course. He might be the greatest skier in the world, but he never has spent as much time on the slalom as he has on other races.
So, with a sunny afternoon and nothing to do, Zurbriggen decided it was time to introduce himself to the slalom gates of the Olympics.
The Swiss skier, the gold medalist in the men's downhill Monday, had just finished another spectacular run down the mountain, this time putting himself into first place in the two-day men's Alpine combined event, which should, with a respectable run down the slalom course on Wednesday, provide him with his second gold medal.
His run over the downhill course of the combined, which starts lower on the mountain than the regular downhill race, was 1 minute 46.90 seconds, .48 of a second faster than France's Franck Piccard, the downhill bronze medalist who is in second place in this event.
Because the downhill portion of the Alpine combined receives about 40 percent more weight than Wednesday's slalom portion, and because several slalom specialists are a couple seconds off Zurbriggen's pace, and because a prerace favorite, Marc Girardelli, withdrew because of a sore elbow and a reported dispute with Atomic, his Austrian ski supplier, Zurbriggen should hold onto his lead Wednesday despite racing in his worst event.
If Zurbriggen does indeed win the combined, he will have two gold medals and three days before his next race. He won't race again until Sunday, after three days of women's events, when the men's super giant slalom is run. The Super G is a cross between the downhill and the giant slalom. Zurbriggen is favored to win that, too.
Then, on Feb. 25, the following Thursday, comes the giant slalom and, two days later, the slalom. These two races will provide Zurbriggen with his greatest test. Zurbriggen is a generalist, a rare breed on the Alpine circuit these days. Specialists like Alberto Tomba of Italy and Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden are preparing only for these slalom events. Many experts think it will be impossible for Zurbriggen to beat them.
But if he does, he will have won an unprecedented five gold medals. Can he do it?
"Not five, but three are possible," 1976 Olympic downhill champion Franz Klammer said today. "The downhill, combined and Super G, he should win. The giant slalom is possible. I don't think he can win the slalom because he spends so much time on the downhill."
No Olympic Alpine skier has ever won more than three golds. In 1956, Toni Sailer of Austria won three gold medals, and, 12 years later, Jean-Claude Killy of France did it. In previous Olympics, there were just three men's Alpine events: the downhill, slalom and giant slalom. The Super G is new, and the combined is back after being held in 1936 and 1948.
There has been a tremendous interest in Zurbriggen's chances of winning five golds here, perhaps because some fans and some reporters would love to see it happen. If Mark Spitz, Eric Heiden and Carl Lewis can sweep their events, why can't Zurbriggen?
Well, for starters, the Alpine events are more dissimilar than the swimming, speed skating and track events those athletes participated in. For example, each of Zurbriggen's five events requires a different pair of skis. The downhill rewards brute strength and great speed. The slalom, with gates set three to five meters apart, rewards control, patience and quickness.
What Zurbriggen is trying to do is difficult indeed. If an Olympic athlete won the gold medal in the decathlon and, say, the gold medal in the 1,500 meters, it would be roughly equivalent. Or if a baseball player hit 60 home runs, batted .400 and stole 50 bases, it would be about the same.
Needless to say, the Swiss skier is not counting on winning all five golds.
"It would be a miracle," Zurbriggen said. "It would not be possible."
Yet other skiers give him a chance.
"He's good enough to win the slalom," said U.S. skier Felix McGrath. "Anything can happen with him."
-------------- After Downhill Race -------------
Skier ---------------- Nation ------------- Time
Pirmin Zurbriggen .... Switz. .......... 1:46.90
Franck Piccard ....... France .......... 1:47.38
Felix Belczyk ........ Canada .......... 1:48.24
Peter Duerr .......... W. Ger. ......... 1:48.30
Hubert Strolz ........ Austria ......... 1:48.51