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Of ice and death

The Alpine sun turned the ski run to icy hardness and set the stage for triumph and disaster

From a spectator's viewpoint, the weather could not have been better for last week's Arlberg Kandahar, the oldest and still one of the most prestigious of Alpine races. But for the skier the blue heavens and the unseasonably strong February sun were treacherous. There was plenty of old powder to spread around, but a lack of new snow for some three weeks had left the runs essentially hard and fast, with occasional frightening ice patches that were as slick as polished silver.

The women's downhill on Friday was held on a rock-hard, two-kilometer course, with a 550-meter drop which falls away like a house wall from the start. Training runs left many contestants with an uneasy feeling. "I just don't like that run," grumbled Germany's top-rated Hannelore Basler. "We aren't competing to become cripples."

Canada's unflustered Anne Heggtveit led off with a 1:54.9 that was not fully appreciated by the crowd until the next eight failed to touch it. Hannelore Basler, true to premonition, fell, as did Switzerland's Annemarie Waser. Starting eighth, with her left cheek raked with ugly scratches from a training spill, America's Betsy Snite managed to stay on her feet through the finish before slamming head over heels into the snow. Her 1:56.1 was good for fifth, a solid platform on which to build for the combined title.

When stringy Madeleine Chamot-Berthod of Switzerland pared [1/10] of a second from Anne Heggtveit's time, that seemed to wrap up the downhill. But the cognoscenti were not deceived. Bud Werner irritably shook off a newsman anxious for comment on the Chamot-Berthod victory. "That really makes me mad," said he. "Somebody with a start number in the high 20s could win this race just as easily as not."

Werner's casual words proved prophetic. Plain, well-scrubbed Erika Netzer, 21, a cook in the canteen of an Austrian ski factory, started with number 27, almost unnoticed as press, radio and TV people crowded around Chamot-Berthod. Last year Erika broke her leg and missed training for months. This year in January she broke a bone in her right hand and started this race with three fingers in a plaster cast.

Unknown but determined, Erika swallowed her fears and let her skis run. She sailed straight through a dreaded ice patch at one corner and plunged across the finish, still almost unnoticed, in 1:54.3. Caught by the timer's announcement in mid-interview, the blushing world press corps quickly abandoned Madame Chamot-Berthod to besiege the bashful kitchen maid with attentions worthy of Cinderella. The abashed Erika said, wonderingly, "I didn't really believe I could beat them all."

Saturday afternoon on the slalom run a determined Betsy Snite set about developing the bridgehead she had established in the downhill. After the downhill she had gasped to Bud Werner, "I never thought I'd make it. I don't know how I got down." But at the start of the slalom she looked all calm and concentration.

Starting No. 1, bareheaded in a gray pullover and forest-green ski pants, she betrayed tension only by an occasional race-horselike kick as she waited with the starter's hand on her right shoulder. She started deliberately, took no chances and clocked a solid 36.9 seconds on the shorter of the two courses. Anne Heggtveit lowered it to 36.2, and then Germany's Sonja Sperl racked up 36.1 for the best first-run time.

This didn't worry Betsy. Back at the start, she eased lightly into the second run. She kept her skis beautifully parallel, as if in a concours d'élégance, but dug hard with her sticks between the gates and through the finish. Her 42.3 gave her a total time of 79.2 seconds and first place in the slalom, [1/10] of a second ahead of Canada's Heggtveit and [2/10] up on Germany's Sonja Sperl. It meant, too, a coveted second place in the Alpine combination behind Anne Heggtveit, whose third in the downhill and second in the slalom gave her an important international triumph.

Heggtveit and Snite, finishing one-two in the venerable Kandahar combination against the toughest European competition, clearly demonstrated the New World's new ski power. Europe's best was Erika Netzer, whose seventh in the slalom set her back. Then came Italy's Jerta Schirr, Germany's Sonja Sperl, Italy's Carla Marchelli and Austria's Hilde Hofherr.

Western Hemisphere men were unable to match the victories of the girls. U.S. hopes vanished in the men's downhill when Bud Werner fell some 300 meters from the finish. Austria's big Karl Schranz, who looks as if he might fill Toni Sailer's ski boots, won the men's combined with a first in the downhill and a 10th in the slalom. The slalom was won by France's Francois Bonlieu, but Switzerland's Roger Staub, who was second to Schranz in the downhill, finished second in the combined as well.

And worst fears about the icy runs were borne out by stark tragedy the day before competition ended. Not far from the finish of the rock-hard downhill course, Canada's 20-year-old John Semmelink tumbled sickeningly 60 feet into a gully and suffered a fractured skull. Three hours later, in a hospital, he died.


CINDERELLA COOK Erika Netzer left an Austrian kitchen to win coveted downhill.