In retrospect, it seemed inevitable that Jean-Claude Killy would ski away with three gold medals from the 1968 Winter Olympics; and indisputable that if the final Alpine event, the men's slalom, had been run through the fog of White-chapel, against Jack the Ripper, Jack would have missed two doorways to be disqualified. As the race actually was run in the souped-over village of Chamrousse, a couple of other skiers had to be noisily eliminated by the officials before Killy could sort of sideslip into his third victory of the Games and thus into a gilded niche in the history of the world's most confused sport.
But after he got his first two golds of the Grenoble fun festival, one in the windiest downhill since Hillary's descent from Everest and the other in the two runs of giant slalom conducted through another thick fog, the big question in everyone's mind was whether the Frenchman could score that historic triple. For certain, because of changes in the rules, it would be a far better triple than Austria's Toni Sailer got in 1956.
For example, Sailer came out of the starting gate only four times at Cortina—once in downhill, once in giant slalom and twice in slalom. Already Killy had made three runs, and it appeared early in the week that he would have to make four more in order to take the slalom: one to qualify, one to gain the top-seeding group and two on the day of the race itself.
Killy was not delighted at these prospects. He said, "It is ridiculous that I am obliged to beat British and Lebanese racers in order to make the finals."
Jean-Claude did condescend to make the first qualifying run on Wednesday. And he posted the fastest time of all the 102 racers. Now he had left the starting gate four times—as often as Sailer 12 years ago—but still he had only two medals instead of three. Now he was also going to lead a revolt.
On Friday the seeding race was scheduled for the 56 men who had qualified on Wednesday, but Chamrousse's favorite weather—Oxford gray smudge—caused it to be canceled, and the most talented skiers, led by Killy, went into the loftiest group, where their season's records should have put them in the first place.
Everything was thus primed for Saturday's stupendous happening, perhaps the most exciting day in the history of Alpine racing, the day Killy would go after his third gold medal against the Karl Schranzes, Guy Périllats and Billy Kidds of the world, hopefully before thousands strewn down the hill and millions watching television. Well, everything was primed but the weather, of course, and the race officials. When it comes to being baffled, no group can equal an assemblage of ski-race officials, whether you find them in an Olympics or in Red River, N. Mex.
The fog had choked Chamrousse. At the finish line, if you leaned over a little and adjusted your binoculars, you could see your feet. Up on top, the racers pleaded that they could see no more than two gates ahead. Off to the side a frantically milling collection of TV executives, including ABC's Roone Arledge, were ranting that 300 million viewers around the globe were going to see a slalom, the most important ever run, that would look like a test pattern. The race could simply not be held, everybody thought, if for no other reason than the fact that Arledge, who had spent $4 million to televise the Games, would go grab all of the slalom poles.
Oh, but it could. Officials of the French government and the city of Grenoble, who had combined to finance the Olympics and who no doubt were disturbed throughout by an obvious absence of spectators at practically every event, were not about to blow their biggest payday of all—the 90-meter jump on Sunday. A postponement of the slalom would have forced a conflict.
So the funniest ski race of all time was staged. Dimly, you could see the racers cross the finish line, one by one, trailed by ominous, uncertain applause. They seemed to be creeping down, a convoy of lost souls. As America's Rick Chaffee put it, "I made every gate I could find."
Killy raced 15th in the first run, and when his time was announced, the fastest of all, he raised his poles straight up in a happy salute to his followers—the lone emotional gesture of the hour that anyone could see.
The fog was so dense that 14 racers were grouped less than one second apart after the first run, from Killy's 49.37 to a 50.06 for Austria's Herbert Huber. Jimmy Heuga and two other Americans, Spider Sabich and Chaffee, were among those 14 fellows jammed together after the initial run, three who would eventually wind up fifth (Sabich), seventh (Heuga) and ninth (Chaffee). But Billy Kidd, our best man, was not. Midway down the first course, Kidd caught a tip, spun and fell.
With no letup from the mountain pollution gripping Chamrousse, the second run began, the madcap run that made a Norwegian named Hakon Mjoen the slalom winner—for about 15 minutes. The slalom was next won for about five hours by Austria's ageless Karl Schranz. It was finally won by Killy. But not before a sort of dis-United Nations conference had been held, and a decision rendered. The decision was correct, but Austria is never going to stop howling about it.
Killy started first, snaking through the gates not only with visual difficulty but also two broken buckles on his right boot, a problem discovered just one minute before he started. There was a brief celebration, most of the French assuming that no one else would even be able to find the arrivée banner until Tuesday or Wednesday. But along came Hakon Mjoen. He was faster. Or was he? He couldn't have been faster if he made all of the gates, said the French. "Hakon Mjoen," said a Frenchman, "did you make all the gates?"
"Well..." said Mjoen. That was the tipoff. He hadn't.
About now Schranz was supposed to be coming, but Karl had stopped way up at the 22nd gate because a course patrolman, one of those guys whose main duty, it seems, is to push spectators around, had got onto the trail and interfered with the Austrian. A Russian FIS delegate saw it, as did a Yugoslavian delegate and an East German racer. They all climbed back up the hill to testify in Karl's behalf. Schranz was hastily awarded a rerun and, with the advantage of having skied a third of the gates already, posted the fastest time. Schranz then began to celebrate. He was hugged and hoisted, and even taken to an interview as the winner, where he said, "You always expect a victory like mine when someone trains as hard as I did."
Killy was utterly unmoved, almost as if he knew something Schranz didn't—namely, that the race jury was going to disqualify Karl for blowing two gates above the point where the patrolman absentmindedly interfered. Gates 18 and 19, to be specific, the same gates Hakon Mjoen had missed. In a ski race there is a gatekeeper for every three gates, and when a man skips one, the keeper writes down his name and the gate he misses on a piece of paper and posts it on a board. This was done.
Word also circulates rather swiftly around a finish line that a racer has missed a gate when, indeed, he has. And this happened. One of the reasons Killy seemed so confident while the jury met was the simple fact that Schranz had swept past Gates 18 and 19 several yards above the point where he was forced to skid to a stop because of the patrolman, and everybody was saying that Karl would surely be thrown out.
Finally, there was this five-hour jury meeting where a French protest was stacked onto an Austrian counterprotest. After looking at all the foggy TV tapes and hearing the gatekeeper's testimony, two Frenchmen and one Swiss outvoted a Norwegian and a Briton, and Schranz was officially disqualified; Killy had his third gold medal.
The reason for the split vote and the jury's prolonged deliberations was the dissenters' steadfast acceptance of Schranz's claim: that he had taken Hakon Mjoen's short-cut route only because he had been bothered as early as Gate 18 by a glimpse of the errant course patrolman at Gate 22. The British juror, by the way, was the starter who had granted Schranz his extra run.
Schranz spent the whole next day granting angry interviews around Grenoble, saying that he did miss the gates but insisting he saw this shadow before him—the shadow of the patrolman. Some people wondered how Schranz could see a shadow in the fog, but gave him that, figuring he meant a silhouette. Others didn't, saying crafty old Karl was trying to politic a gold medal. Killy shrugged it all off in his usual manner, saying, "If I was beaten, it was by a great racer. I am on the summit, anyhow. One more gold, more or less, does not matter." He was as right as the jury.
For the U.S. Alpine team it was a fairly tearful Olympics all around, partly because of injury and partly because of inexperience, but mostly because we are not as good as the French and the Austrians and even the Swiss this year. France wound up with eight medals overall in Alpine skiing, while Austria got five and Switzerland three. America got zero, coming the closest with Kidd only .54 of a second out of third place in giant slalom, with Sabich only .40 of a second out of third in the slalom, and with 16-year-old Judy Nagel, who led the first run of the women's slalom, tightening into an emotional wreck and skiing past the second gate in the final run.
"What's a real shame," said Coach Bob Beattie, "is that we have to come in here with a good team, then get everybody banged up and have to ask a 16-year-old girl to go up on a mountain and save America in the Olympics."
However, the top skiers, who won the golds, obviously did not get banged up. Killy took the three men's races as he should have, and the leading girls all did the things they do best. Olga Pall won the downhill, Canada's Nancy Greene blazed to a giant slalom win by a stunning 2.64 seconds, and Marielle Goitschel calmly won the slalom, becoming the first Alpine skier, girl or boy, to win races in two different Olympics. She had won the Innsbruck giant slalom in 1964 over her sister Christine and America's Jean Saubert.
The striking success of the favorites diminished the talk, most of it from the racers themselves, that the World Cup was a more urgent thing to win than the Olympics.
The Olympics were more important than anyone had been willing to admit, and proof of this came at the dark finish line of the slalom. Gathered there were a number of men eager to sign Killy up after this season to endorse skis and do a dozen other profitable things. Among them was Mark McCormack, who handles the top pro golfers. McCormack said he could get Killy six figures now to do nothing more than try on sweaters and fasten a couple of bindings. "This sport," he said, "is ready to explode with opportunity." He spoke of TV ski classics, open racing, downhill relays. "Killy could almost change it by himself," McCormack said.
No one can truly predict whether either Killy or ski racing will change. However, one thing is certain. Jean-Claude, weighted down with seven gold medals in all, counting the four he got from the FIS, does not especially want to work. He would settle for less money than he might be offered if he could just "do well" and travel around. "I am too old to be a top car driver," he says, "and I am too smart to get in the movie circus." He might—he just might—continue to race in all of the Hahnenkamms that dominate skiing in the years between the Olympics. And if he does, it will be a pretty good indication that financial opportunity for European amateur ski racers is very nifty. Which is what Avery Brundage started suggesting before the Grenoble flame was lit, and before the Gods of Chamrousse began smiling on the greatest skier ever, who probably didn't even need the help in the first place.
Down through dense fog comes Karl Schranz in his third slalom run. At finish Killy (inset) grimly awaits the news of his disputed gold.