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Historic downhill victories by Johnson, Figini bring Alpine skiing to Olympic center stage

By Ross AtkinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 17, 1984

Sarajevo, Yugoslavia

Though only added to the Winter Olympics in 1948, Alpine skiing quickly became one of the biggest attractions of the Games and has maintained that position ever since. The zigzagging slalom and the longer, faster giant slalom are the artistic disciplines, but the glamour race has always been the downhill.

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For sheer thrills nothing beats this all-out charge down a lengthy, sometimes treacherous course - and on Thursday no one was capable of beating Bill Johnson.

The brash young Am,erican shot down Mount Bjelasnica ahead of 60 other racers to capture the gold medal at these XIVth Winter Games. In doing so, he became the first US male to garner a gold in any Alpine discipline. Switzerland's Peter Mueller and Austria's Anton Steiner, two better known international stars, finished less than a half second behind Johnson's 1:45.59 clocking.

Johnson, a native of Los Angeles, is something of a Johnny-come-lately to skiing's top ranks. Last year he finished only 27th in the World Cup downhill standings, but he opened a lot of eyes several weeks ago at Wengen, Switzerland, when he won his first cup downhill - a feat that also was a first by an American male in this sport traditionally dominated by the Austrians and Swiss. He did so by skiing on the edge, almost shooting off into the woods after one wide, nearly out-of-control turn.

It was shades of Franz Klammer's famous 1976 Olympic run, which netted the Austrian star the gold after he had flirted with disaster from top to bottom.

Klammer, who has staged a remarkable comeback after a lean period in which he failed even to make the 1980 Olympic team, was the sentimental favorite here (he finished 10th). But the red-hot Johnson had been the Alpine talk of the town since the Olympics began.

In five practice runs, he recorded the best time twice and was the second fastest on two other occasions - results that boosted him up from ''dark horse'' status to a position among the favorites by the time the oft-delayed race finally was run on Thursday.

The secret to Johnson's success is his tuck position, according to veteran ski observer Nicholas Howe. ''He has an exceptionally tight, low tuck which he can hold through practically anything - even in the air off bumps,'' says Howe. ''The tuck is a large part of your time, because as soon as your chest comes up, your drag increases significantly.''

Johnson has benefitted from training in a wind tunnel in Buffalo. The tunnel helps the US skiers scientifically determine the most efficient tuck position for the 70-to-80 m.p.h. runs down the mountain. As a result of these aerodynamic studies, Americans have become some of the fastest skiers in the world on the flats.

And despite a vertical drop of 800 meters, the men's course here was flat and straight enough to allow Johnson to capitalize on his gliding ability.

An Olympic run cannot be too difficult because of what one racer calls the ''Egyptian factor'' - a reference to the presence of Egypt's Jamil el Reedy and other less skilled skiers in the competition. El Reedy, a US resident, took more than three minutes getting to the finish line.

Throughout much of the Olympics, the Alpine events were forced to play a waiting game, with none of the first four races run according to its original schedule (the women's and men's slaloms will be run on this final weekend). The weather simply has not cooperated.

Only days before the Games began, springlike temperatures threatened to turn Mt. Bjelasnica's bald crown into a dripping ice cream cone. But then came three days of snow and raging winds, forcing organizers to play musical chairs with the backlogged schedule.

Once the sun came out, it seemed appropriate to adopt the approach taken by baseball great Ernie Banks, who was famous for saying, ''What a great day for a game. Let's play two.''

And indeed, officials eventually did go the doubleheader route, running both the men's and women's downhills on Thursday. And the latter event also had more than its share of drama and suspense.