Lake Placid, N.Y. — Bashful Sweded Ingemar Stenmark didn't want to become the Sam Snead of his sport -- a superstar with an asterisk beside his name. Snead, one of the greatest golfers in history, never won the US Open. The big one for Stenmark was an Olympic gold medal, something he had let slip away in 1976 but finally pocketed at Whiteface Mountain here.
When it comes to giant slalom racing, Stenmark has been in another world for years. Entering the Olympics, he had not been beaten in this demanding discipline since 1978.
What makes this truly phenomenal is that most of these runs were over different terrain and under different conditions. In addition, negotiating a maze of some 50 gates at 30 to 40 m.p.h. is a risky business. Even the best skiers sometimes catch a tip and fall, but the only way to win in this sport (decided by hundredths of a second) is to attack.
That Stenmark has failed to finish only twice in his last 42 World Cup giant slaloms is a testament to his flawless technique and consistency. One of his few falls, however, came in the 1976 Olympic slalom. His giant slalom performance at Innsbruck was also off, resulting in a disappointing bronze.
This time, in typical fashion, he skied rather cautiously during the first run, contenting himself with third place. The next day he held back nothing, delaying his turns until the last instant, an art that he alone seems to have mastered. The result was the gold with a combined time of 2.40.74 or about 1 1/ 2 miles of zigzag skiing, 3/4 of a second faster than silver medalist Andreas Wenzel of Liechtenstein.
Because hundredths of a second can make the difference between a gold and silver medal, precise timing is very important in the Winter Olympics.Wisely, therefore, the organizers of the Lake Placid games placed responsibility for this aspect of the competition with the Swiss.
A group calling itself Swiss Timing, a conglomerate of some of Switzerland's top watch manufacturers, is using nine tons of equipment to do the job. This technology is utilized to check times not just at the finish, but also at points along the race routes. These times, picked up on television, make it much easier to evaluate the performance of individual athletes.
In skiing, the clock starts when the contestant's shins push against a gate and stops when the skier's legs, not poles, pass through the beam running between photo-electric cells.
American skier Barbara Cochran won a gold medal at the 1972 Sapporo Olympics by 2/100ths of a second, but it's possible for precision to become excessive.
A case in point occurred during the 1972 men's 400-meter individual medley swimming final, when Sweded Gunnar Larsson edged American Tim McKee for the gold by a mere two-thousandths of a second. This difference represents just two milimeters in swimming. And since the length of pool lanes can vary fractionally, such timing accuracy can unfairly negate this variance. Consequently, the International Swimming Federation called for a return to hundredths, rather than thousandths, of a second at the 1976 Montreal games.
The sport that has engendered the most spectator enthusiasm here at Lake Placid has been ice hockey, the only team sport in the Winter Olympics. It also is virtually the only sport in which victory is decided on the basis of head-to-head competition. This occasionally holds true in speed skating where the top two skaters can wind up being paired.
In the remaining sports, the athletes compete individually, against the clock in some cases (skiing, sledding), for judges' points in others (skating), and primarily for distance in the case of ski jumping.
While the skill required to compete in ski jumping, luging, and bobsledding may be considerable, these events generally lack lasting spectator appeal.
In terms of the effort expended to win a medal, hockey leads the list. To capture a medal, a 19-player team must take the ice seven times in just 14 days.
Lake Placid's Olympic organizers have generally received low marks for preparedness. Their motto, "Welcome world, we're ready," does ring true, however, if the sports facilities are being discussed. They were given across the board approval of international sports federation officials assembled here.
The glowing opinions offered on these facilities should help the town in its bid to hold future world championships. Certainly the quality of the venues will make Lake Placid winter training headquarters for many US athletes. The speed skating oval, refrigerated bobsled and luge runs, and the 70 and 90 meter ski jumps are the most valued facilities, since similar ones are either in short supply or nonexistent in this country.