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

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.

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.

The women's race, in fact, was started on Wednesday, when 17-year-old Michela Figini of Switzerland - the first skier down the Mount Jahorina course - made a spectacular run that looked as though it would be hard to beat. But after three more racers came down, one of them falling at a spot on the course that was found not to be properly marked, the race was held up temporarily, then cancelled altogether when the weather worsened.

It was a controversial decision, and a tough blow for Figini - but the Swiss teen-ager shrugged it off, came back on Thursday, and charged down the course once again for a ''poetic justice'' victory - becoming the youngest Alpine gold medal winner in Olympic history. Her teammate Maria Walliser copped the silver medal, with Czech Olga Charvatova taking the bronze.

Earlier in the week, some doubling up occurred in the women's and men's giant slaloms as well, with both runs in each race held within the space of several hours - a common procedure on the World Cup circuit, but not at the Olympics, where they had originally been scheduled on successive days.

The women's race produced the first American gold medalist at these games in the person of Debbie Armstrong, with Christin Cooper finishing close behind for a 1-2 US sweep - the only time American women have ever taken two medals in the same Alpine event.

Cooper led after the first run, but Armstrong was just a tenth of a second behind. In the second run Cooper slipped coming around an early turn and was unable to match the overall time of her teammate, but held on to take second place.

No one was more surprised by her victory than Armstrong, whose utter disbelief during the medal ceremony prompted spurts of uncontrollable laughter. It was unusual behavior for an Olympic ceremony, but understandable in view of Armstrong's giddy rise to fame.

Not that long ago, she was still listed as a ''B Team'' member of the talented American women's squad. That meant she owned junior varsity status.

A former all-around high school athlete, she learned the international ropes in a hurry under 1976 downhill bronze medalist Cindy Nelson, who took Armstrong under wing. A sign of her potential came last year, when she stunned the World Cup circuit with a fifth place finish in a Swiss downhill. (She was a disappointing 21st in the downhill here.)

Skiing adheres to the ''on any given day'' motto as much as pro football does - and sometimes even more so during the Olympics.

Before the present Games even began, Cooper shared the opinion held by many top skiers that the Olympics are an overemphasized ''one-shot deal'' compared to the World Cup season. ''Half the time the best skiers don't do well because so much is expected of them,'' she said. ''The dark horses who don't have any pressure on them come out and ski great and win.''

Besides Armstrong, skiers who seemingly emerged from a snowbank to win Olympic gold have included Spaniard Francisco Ochoa in the 1972 men's slalom, Canadian Kathy Kreiner in the 1976 women's giant slalom, and Austrian Leonhard Stock in the 1980 men's downhill.

But Renee Colliard perhaps topped them all in 1956, when in her first race representing Switzerland in international competition she won the women's slalom by 3.1 seconds, a whopping margin by today's standards.

Though not a winner, Yugoslavia's own Jure Franko turned in one of the most surprising Alpine results here, grabbing a silver medal in the men's giant slalom behind Max Julen of Switzerland. Third went to Liechtenstein's Andreas Wenzel, whose sister, Hanni, and her fellow 1980 double gold medalist Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden were ineligible here because of the direct manner in which they pockteted endorsement money.

Ironically, much of Stenmark's substantial ski income comes from Elan, Yugoslavia's largest ski manufacturer. With the Olympics in Sarajevo, the populace hoped that a local hero would do the country and the company proud by winning Yugoslavia's first-ever winter medal.

The man given the best chance was Bojan Krizaj, who missed a bronze at Lake Placid by .02 of a second. But Franko was hotter on this day, whisking to the fastest second-run time and a place in Balkan history.

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