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Premier event among the 34 competitions at the Winter Olympics is the downhill ski race, in which Austria expects handsome Egon Zimmermann (left) to lead the nation back to its traditional—and very profitable—dominance of Alpine skiing

The Olympics are made for heroes, and before the IX Winter Games end February 9, a bold handful of skilled young athletes will push their heads above the mass of rivals as they generate the special kind of excitement that only an Olympics can produce. Some of the likely gold-medal winners-to-be are pictured on these pages, as they step to the brink of the greatest challenge of their sporting lives. Others will suddenly jump to prominence as they overtake the pre-Games favorites (see chart, pages 38 and 39) in their pursuit of the 34 first-place awards.

One whom American spectators will watch with particular fascination—whether they are in Innsbruck or in front of home TV sets viewing film clips flown daily from Austria—is Buddy Werner (see cover), the finest all-round skier in U.S. history. Werner has been winning international races for 10 years. In fact, until 1962 he was the only American male ever to win a major race over the sophisticated speedsters from the established European ski powers. In the 1960 Olympics, he seemed headed for a sure gold medal, perhaps two, but broke his leg in a training fall just before the Games. Now he is again in perfect shape—perhaps even a little overtrained from the U.S. team's exhausting warmup schedule—and skiing as well as he ever has.

To win, however, Werner and the rest of the newly powerful U.S. squad must overcome a singular obstacle: the home team. Austria will send into the Alpine events a group of men who together comprise what is probably the best ski team ever assembled. If not the best, it is at least the equal of the famed Wunderteam which launched Austria's dominance of the ski world from 1950 to 1959. And the bellwether of this new Wunderteam, dashing Egon Zimmermann, may be just as good as the man whose skiing feats in Cortina in 1956 made him a national hero: Toni Sailer. Austria fervently hopes so, because in 1960 at Squaw Valley her skiers fell ignominiously (only one gold medal) before a determined assault by the Swiss, Germans and French. That such a catastrophe should befall little Austria again is something its citizens would rather not think about.

To seven million Austrians, two million of whom ski, the matter is indeed one of capital importance—and not merely one of amour-propre. Alpine skiing was invented here. In no other country, including the four mountainous countries near Austria (France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland), is Alpine skiing the national sport. And not only do Austrian hearts vibrate at the sight of skis on snow; their cash registers clang to every victory. For in Austria skiing is big business—vital business.

Consider the aftermath of the golden age of Toni Sailer. At the Olympics in 1956 the tall, dark Sailer completely wiped out the world's finest skiers. He beat his teammate Anderl Molterer in the giant slalom by an impossible six seconds, beat the Japanese Chiharu Igaya by four seconds in the slalom and then bolted over the icy, precipitous downhill course to defeat Swiss Racer Raymond Fellay by 3½ seconds. No one had ever swept these events before, and with the possible exception of Egon Zimmermann (no relation to another Austrian of the same name who competed at Squaw Valley in 1960), it seems likely that no one ever will.

The economic consequences for Austria were enormous. In the next several years, tens of thousands of foreign skiers reserved rooms in Tyrolean ski resorts to learn the Austrian method of skiing from nearly 1,000 teachers. Instead of heading for Val d'Is√®re or St. Moritz or Garmisch, they journeyed to St. Anton, Z√ºrs and Kitzb√ºhel. Once there, they bought Austrian sweaters, boots, after-ski clothes and went on shopping binges in what is still one of the world's most reasonably priced countries. Ski firms like Kneissl, K√§stle and Fischer did a handsome local business at home, and their ski exports boomed. So did the exportation of ski instructors, particularly to the U.S. Austrian officials in Vienna, who had invested an estimated $20 million of Marshall Plan funds in the country's ski resorts after the war, happily rubbed their hands. Ski victories were paying off. Little wonder that the Austrian government—not to mention Austria's commercial interests—are backing their 1964 Olympic team, materially and morally. A defeat on home grounds in Innsbruck would affect the entire Austrian economy.

Despite the formidable challenge from the U.S. and the still powerful French, Austrian Ski Association officials and the national team coaches are "rather confident" about the outcome of the 1964 winter games. And the list of names of Austrian competitors—men and women—appears to justify their confidence. Among men, there are, of course, Zimmermann, who is the present world giant slalom champion; Karl Schranz, downhill and combined world champion; Gerhard Nenning, runner-up to Schranz as world champion combined skier; Pepi Stiegler and Hias Leitner, who both won silver medals at Squaw Valley, respectively, in giant slalom and slalom. Only slightly less formidable is the women's team, led by Christl Haas, who won the world downhill title in 1962 at Chamonix; Marianne Nutt-Jahn, winner of both the giant and the slalom championships at Chamonix and such other topflight racers as Edith Zimmermann (no relation to Egon ), Erika Netzer and Traudl Hecher. Men's Team Coach Ernst Oberaigner and Women's Team Coach Hermann Gamon believe that this group of skiers, particularly the men, are capable of sweeping all 18 of the gold, silver and bronze Alpine medals. But, says Oberaigner modestly, "we will be satisfied if Austrian men win four or five of the nine."

Though the Austrian people are relatively few in number compared to the Germans, French and Italians, and have to share the Alps with them, their dominance of the sport is not at all surprising. For one thing, mountains cover about [7/10] of the country. There is an Alp just around the corner from nearly every Austrian home—if not at the very doorstep. And, unlike France, Austria has good-sized cities right in the mountains, so that urban Austrians can go skiing, not just on weekends after an exhausting overnight train trip (as Parisians are obliged to do), but every day. Indeed, young Austrians in Innsbruck (pop. 100,000) and Bregenz ski on their lunch hour and even Viennese can be on 6,000-foot slopes after a 60-minute trip. When an Austrian boy shouts to a chum, "Race you to the classroom door," he means on skis. And as he grows up, he need not move away from ski areas in order to pursue secondary studies. Excellent high schools and universities are in the mountains, too. Skiing is definitely not a sport closed to the poor in Austria, either, as it tends to be elsewhere in Europe, notably in Italy and France. It is open to all.

Furthermore, there is nothing hit or miss about the way Olympic champions rise up out of this enthusiastic populace. For Austrian skiing is highly organized. At the top is the 50,000-member Austrian Ski Association, and the key man is Sepp Sulzberger, 43, of Innsbruck, who runs the intensive training program for juniors as well as for the national first and second teams. It was Sulzberger, a lawyer, who was responsible for the selection of Coaches Oberaigner and Gamon. Oberaigner, 31, spent 10 years on the national team from 1951 through the 1960 Squaw Valley Games, and for two years he passed a kind of apprenticeship as coach of the Salzburg province team. The 1964 season is his second with the national team, and the Innsbruck Olympics his first serious test. Gamon, who is 34, has a background in the sport similar to Oberaigner's. Before taking over the women's teams in 1960, Gamon coached the Vorarlberg junior team.

In each of Austria's nine provinces the ski association posts several scouts who see to it that promising boys and girls have adequate equipment and receive first-rate advice and coaching. Those who continue to develop are encouraged to train with national team skiers. All this costs money. Sulzberger explains that part of the funds come from the 20-schilling (80¢) membership fees the Austrians pay to join the ski association. The government partially subsidizes the sport by helping to pay for the costly training periods, and by paying unemployment checks to some skiers during their eight-month season. A third source of revenue is the popular lottery wherein bettors guess the results of soccer matches. How much this adds up to, Sulzberger does not care to say, but one insider estimates the Vienna government's aid alone at between $60,000 and $ 100,000. The ski equipment firms help by furnishing free supplies to top skiers, and it is probable they also make a flat contribution to the teams' costs, but it cannot be proved.

The most distinguished product of all this organization and financial underwriting is Egon Zimmermann. Zimmermann, who will turn 25 on February 8, the day of the men's Olympic slalom finals, has already set spectacular downhill records in the Hahnenkamm at Kitzb√ºhel and in the "Coupe Emile-Allais" at Még√®ve last year. In the Hahnenkamm, Egon not only beat his nearest rival by four seconds but came down the slope six seconds faster than anyone ever had before. A week later, he did even better in Még√®ve. When the loudspeaker announced Zimmermann's time, which was five seconds better than the runner-up and seven seconds faster than the previous record, the French coach, Honoré Bonnet, exclaimed: "It's not possible, it's unbelievable!"

So brilliantly begun, Egon's 1963 season ended disastrously for him in the Kandahar race at Chamonix. "I was going about 60 or 70 mph," he recalls, "when a French racer who had started a minute ahead of me fell. I was not warned in time. As I was jumping over the first of two headwalls, race officials suddenly flagged me away. I was obliged to jump the second obstacle straight on instead of obliquely and I took off like an airplane. I said to myself, 'Egon, your skiing career is over; you are going to break every bone in your body.' But I was lucky. I got off with strained ligaments and 12 days on crutches."

Egon Zimmermann was born into a peasant family in the Arlberg village of Lech. His passion for skiing was not at first appreciated by his hard-working parents.

"Then the development of Lech after the war into a fine winter sports resort transformed our way of life," Egon says. The young Zimmermann boys, Werner, Egon and Karl-Heinz, helped their father build a "hotel-pension" annex onto their 300-year-old house. Now the Zimmermann homestead became Haus Bergfrieden, with a black and cream-colored facade, green shutters and a quaint carved-wood balcony. Holidaying skiers left the family the means to gradually exchange their horse-drawn sleds for red Volkswagen taxis. The cows were sold with no regrets.

At the same time that Lech began to grow as a resort, Egon started to grow as a skier. "The ski lift was only a minute away from school and the house," he says, "and every day at noon during the long winter we used to gulp a sandwich and head for the lift. Up and down we went until it was time to return to class. In those days skiing was pure fun and no discipline. It was an escape from everything. I remember how we raced madly over the slopes, jumping over rocks and trunks, slaloming between trees. Once late in the afternoon when the snow was hard, I took a bump badly and instead of landing below, I found myself hanging from the branches of a tree, like a parachutist who had made a bad landing. Did we laugh!

"My childhood coincided with postwar Austria's period of poverty. Our trousers looked like bloomers, our skis, which were shaped like a ski jump, were not secondhand, but fourth-or fifth-hand. Some of our racers at the 1948 Olympics had ski poles of unequal length. For myself, I never took a skiing lesson. I just watched the champions and tried to imitate them."

While Egon was learning by trial and error, his mother, Eugenie, was as hostile to his skiing as was her husband—understandably so, since her three sons took turns breaking their legs. Sometimes their injuries overlapped, and when that happened their outraged mother would refuse to heed their calls from their bedroom. "So," says Egon's father, "the boys would toss tennis balls against the door until they drove their mother wild and she came to see what they wanted just to quiet them."

One day mother could stand the "skiing nonsense" no longer. "You can go on skiing until you have finished your grammar school studies," she said, "then you are going to learn a trade and forget all about it." Egon replied: "Aw, Mama, let me ski until I have won just one loving cup." He then proceeded to win an armful. But when Egon was 15, his father would put up with it no more and ordered the lad to choose a trade. Egon decided to become a chef and reluctantly allowed himself to be shipped off to Paris to train for the job. "If you live in a ski resort," says he, "there are only a limited number of useful trades."

For most of three years, at home and in France at Le-doyen, a fancy Champs Élysées restaurant, Egon learned about cooking. "Now he is the best cook in the family," concedes his mother, "but after all he ought to be." Returning home to Lech, he also returned to skiing, over his parents' protests. "At 18 I had lost precious time because I was able only rarely to ski," he says, but nonetheless he was soon winning races again. In fact, in 1958 he made a clean sweep of the Austrian national junior championships, capturing all three events. The exploit did not pass unnoticed in Austrian ski circles. At once the Austrian Ski Association took Egon in tow.

In 1959, a year after his triple victory in the junior championships, Egon was named to the national team. "For a young Austrian athlete, there can be no greater honor, no greater prestige," he says. "For me it was also the realization of a childhood dream, a dream interrupted by a kitchen. By then even my parents agreed I had been right to persist."

Asked what he has learned in pure technique since coming under the guidance of national team coaches. Egon replies frankly: "Virtually nothing." Oberaigner does not dispute it: "Egon was born a champion skier—or at least growing up in the Arlberg he acquired the qualities of a great skier. What we did for him on the national team was to prepare him physically with a severe program. We put him into magnificent shape, a condition he could not possibly have attained training alone in Lech. And, of course, we have obliged Egon to discipline himself, to live austerely and intelligently."

Under this discipline, Zimmermann was headed straight for the 1960 Olympics when a shoulder injury took him out of the running. But, two years after Squaw Valley, Egon won the world giant slalom race in Chamonix. Last year he was named skier of the year by European journalists. In the past few weeks, moreover, he has been beating just about everybody in sight during the Olympic warmup races; and while common sense says it will not happen, Zimmermann may indeed win three gold medals in Innsbruck.

While Zimmermann has been sharpening his skills in all the men's events, an Austrian girl has become the dominant figure in her specialty, the downhill. In February of last year, the breakneck Italian skier Zeno Colo was watching the women's downhill in Abetone, Italy. "It's impossible to come down that icy slope so fast," cried Colo watching one racer. "That skier is crazy!" The crazy girl who won the race and, incidentally, took the Abetone speed record away from Colo was Christl Haas.

"I guess I have never skied so fast," Christl admits, "and I don't believe I shall ever ski that fast again." Yet millions of fellow Austrians believe otherwise and hope she will do so in Innsbruck.

"I started to ski when I was 2 years old," says Christl. "And when she was 3," says her mother, "she told us she wanted to be a racer."

Aged 6, pigtails flying in the wind, Hasi, as her teammates now call her, would ski down to school and catch a cable car back up home. Lots of Alpine moppets do that, but the downhill path to Hasi's classroom happened to be Kitzbühel's famed racing trail, the Streif. A few years later her father began taking Hasi mountain climbing. "I was definitely a tomboy," she admits. "I played soccer with the boys and much preferred that to cuddling dolls." She could outdo most boys, in fact, on the Kitzbühel ski jump. "Beating her classmates," her mother says, "was too easy for Christl. She was satisfied only when her time was faster than that of the best boy skier." Hasi cannot remember her first competition. "But I suppose that my first big race was the junior championship of the Tyrol near Innsbruck in 1959 when I was 16," she says. "I was not a bit nervous, and not because I was so sure of winning. On the contrary, I did not think I would win. So I just relaxed. I won that race but, more important to me, my time was faster than the boy winner's."

Still unknown to association scouts, Christl attracted their attention by placing second in downhill and third in giant slalom in the national junior championships the same year. To try her out in international competition, the association then arranged for Hasi to race in the Kandahar in Sestriere, Italy in 1960. "I did not do well in my first major international meet," she laments. "I came in second." (Another Austrian, Traudl Hecher, beat her.) Her showing in the Kandahar, however, earned 18-year-old Hasi a place on the national team in 1961, and that first year she won the Austrian national women's downhill championship. Coach Gamon's rapid promotion of Hasi was further justified by her performance the following year in the world championships at Chamonix where she won the downhill race, defeating the cream of the world's women skiers.

Hasi's skiing style is less elegant—though no less effective—than the more versatile Egon's. She is a big, strong girl who seems almost to overpower the hill. Indeed, her 5-foot 10-inch, 161-pound frame makes her almost as tall and as heavy as Egon, who stands 5 feet 10½ inches and weighs 176 pounds. "Christl crouches very low and skis powerfully and fearlessly," says Coach Gamon. "Of course, all skiers love to ski fast, but few girls have Hasi's physical possibilities." There are, however, rough spots in her booming descents, and she has had to work hard on her technique since she joined the national team in 1961. "There is more precision now in Hasi's movements," adds Gamon, "and she takes the slalom gates more closely, she keeps her skis more parallel than before. In downhill Hasi just goes even faster, not because of any real progress in technique, but due to her greater racing experience and tougher physical condition." Christl herself is aware of only one coach-made correction in her skiing style: "I no longer wield my ski poles way up high like a Viking warrior brandishing swords."

For Austrian racers, skiing is not, of course, just one exciting international meet after another. It is, rather, an eight-month program of training from which pleasure is notably absent. Long before snow fell on the Tyrol this year, Egon and Christl joined teammates at the government owned physical education institutes of Schielleiten and Obertraun for a preseason conditioning period. Then last November, as it does every fall, the team moved on to the Italian resort of Cervinia for downhill training. Everyone, from the first-team coaches to the youngest of the second-team girls, lived dormitory style, two to a room, in a modest country hotel. If any racer smoked, or drank anything other than milk, fruit juice, soda or tea—wine, beer or coffee, for example—he did it on the sly.

In Cervinia, Egon and Hasi turned out each morning at 8:30, breakfasted on hot chocolate or tea, bread, butter or jam, and were soon riding a cable car to the Plateau Rosa, some 12,000 feet up in the Alps. There, they wasted no time admiring the sight of the nearby Matterhorn or basking in the sun. Six miles down they came, straight as arrows, as fast as they possibly could, right back to the cable car departure point. On their way down they were carefully watched from different points on the slope by the coaches, assistants and any other competent association officials who habitually travel with the team. At the bottom of the mountain, their movements were no more leisurely than at the top. They whipped off their skis and bucked the lift line if there happened to be tourists waiting in front of them. "The idea in Cervinia," explains Hasi, "is to put 50 or 60 miles in our legs every day."

After four or five morning runs, Egon and Christl were ravenously hungry, and exactly at the stroke of noon they were sitting in the hotel restaurant. "The first day we sit down next to anyone," says Egon, "and from then on we keep the same table companions." Coaches, world champions and second stringers, boys and girls, dine together and mix freely in the democratic atmosphere of an Austrian training course. The conversation is shop talk: the condition of the snow and the terrain, speed, accidents and incidents.

Egon, who has light-brown curly hair and slightly rounded broad shoulders, is well liked, especially by the girl skiers. "He is considerate, helpful, not at all stuck-up, witty, gay and gallant," sighs one. "We call him the charming Casanova of the team." But the strict training program does not lend itself to romance, and no one on the team can recall national team skiers ever marrying one another.

Around 1:30 the skiers were again riding up the mountainside. The ride was one of the only moments of relaxation. Then it was up and down, up and down, until 4:30 or 5. Back at the hotel, the skiers prepared for 15 minutes of gymnastic exercises. As there is no gym in Cervinia, the skiers lined up in the corridors and on staircase landings and went through their exercises before dinner.

After dinner most of them sipped peach fruit juice or soda pop in the hotel bar, watched television briefly and glanced at picture weeklies, especially those with ski stories. Not once in Cervinia was an Austrian skier seen to pick up a newspaper, not even to glance at the headlines. "They live in a world of their own," said an Austrian reporter who follows them around the Alps. "They bring their own atmosphere with them." And that atmosphere is perhaps best described as one of relaxed but constant purposeful-ness. When they banter, it is generally about skiing. There is, however, nothing solemn or heavy about the Austrian skiers; they are just terribly serious athletes dedicated to collecting gold medals.

Christl, who has short-cut light-brown hair, brown eyes and a dimple, is less brilliant and extrovert than Egon, but no less popular. Teammates, all of whom wear caps she has knitted, constantly seek Hasi's advice about snow conditions or how to wax their skis. "She is a fine comrade," they like to say of her. Even-tempered and good-natured, Hasi appears phlegmatic—besides being the world downhill champion, she is a formidable challenger for the long-distance sleeping title. Her great rival, Marianne Nutt-Jahn, on the other hand, is capricious and known for her temper. The sharp contrast in character carries over to the racing trail, where Marianne, with her virtuoso temperament, is an elegant all-round skier while Christl is a downhill powerhouse.

Whenever Oberaigner and Gamon felt their team had had enough, they broke the Spartan discipline and said to the skiers: "This afternoon free skiing" or "Tomorrow we'll take a day off." One such free day in Cervinia permitted the racers to walk down to the Italian village in the morning to window-shop. In the afternoon, weary of doing nothing, 10 men skiers organized a soccer game on the icy esplanade in front of the hotel. One of the best players was a visitor, Toni Sailer, who was skiing for his own pleasure in the region. Egon was goalie with a broom, and the two teams played so extraordinarily well on the slippery surface that an observer might have concluded he was watching a soccer team relaxing in the mountains. Their competitive spirit never deserts them.

Poor snow conditions in December obliged the Austrians to do their slalom and giant slalom training also on foreign slopes, and they headed for St. Moritz. Naturally, even the austere Austrians appreciated the deluxe hotel where they were installed. But nothing changed in their way of life. In the morning, they were seated in the dining room seconds after an elegant maître d'hôtel had opened the doors. At 5 o'clock, after an exhausting day on the slopes, they lined up in the gray-carpeted, yellow-walled hall of their hotel to do their push-ups, while rich tourists gaped.

Not until the night before the departure for Lienz, Austria and Olympic qualification races there did some skiers really let themselves go. Almost four months of training were now behind them, and Christl spent hours Christmas-shopping and loading up on Swiss chocolates, one of the few luxuries to which she treats herself. And at 10 o'clock a group of devil-may-care racers (but not Egon or Hasi) was doing the cha-cha-cha and the hully-gully in the hotel lounge.

There were no surprises for the Austrian coaches at their qualification races: Zimmermann, Schranz, Stiegler, Nenning and Leitner were in magnificent form, and though Hasi appeared a bit slow in her first formal tests of the season, there was no reason to feel she or the other Austrian girls would not be ready for Innsbruck. But there were some surprises when the U.S. team arrived in Europe and went into the final round of pre-Olympic races. At Val d'Isère, Werner and a fresh-faced Oregon State coed named Jean Saubert (SI, Jan. 20) whipped the French team and caused some early doubts in the previously confident minds of Oberaigner and Gamon. "Anyone who can beat the top French racers can win an Olympic medal," said Oberaigner. "Buddy and Jean are obviously dangerous skiers for our best Austrian racers."

Gamon concurred. "I'll admit I was astonished by Bud's performance in Val d'Isère," he acknowledged. "I never thought he could come back at his age after that accident before Squaw Valley. I have watched Jean Saubert for years and frankly I didn't believe she could make such remarkable progress. The Innsbruck Olympics are no longer likely to be an Austrian monopoly."

Then the Austrian team emerged from its home grounds, and though Gamon's guess seemed to hold true for the women, as Saubert swept through a series of races, swapping victories with the French and Germans as well as the Austrian girls, the men of Oberaigner's new Wunderteam seemed just as powerful as their coach had thought they would be. At Wengen, Zimmermann won two giant slalom races with appalling ease, and Schranz finished second and third in two pre-Olympic downhill races at Madonna di Campiglio. Meanwhile, Stiegler, Nenning and Leitner held the Frenchmen, including brilliant young Jean-Claude Killy, pretty well at bay in the slalom races. And Coach Oberaigner was a happy man.

Gamon, however, on the eve of Innsbruck, still tended toward caution: "Don't ask me to name the winners. How can anyone predict the outcome of a race in which eight or 10 skiers of comparable class are competing, and one will win by tenths, perhaps hundredths of a second?"




The leaders of resurgence in Austrian skiing, Christl Haas and Egon Zimmermann, relax over tea in lobby of their hotel in Cervinia, Italy, where Olympic candidates skied up to 60 miles a day during most intensive phase of four-month-long preseason training regime.


At age 2 (above left) Christl Haas was already rolling in snow near home on Hahnenkamm. By the time she was 6, she skied to school down Kitzbühel's Streif trail (left). In the summer she went mountain climbing with her father.

By late teens, Christl Haas had become an accomplished mountaineer, but skiing was her primary sport. In 1962 she won downhill world title, then flashed winning smile as she took downhill race on Olympic course at Innsbruck.