The principality of Liechtenstein has more world champions per capita than any other country on earth. Liechtenstein has exactly two world champions; its population is 23,500. This breaks down to one champion for every 11,750 inhabitants. If the United States boasted the same ratio, it would have about 18,000 world champions. Russia would have 21,700. China would have 70,200.
Liechtenstein is 16 miles long, eight miles across at its widest point and 300 yards at the narrowest. Few other sovereign nations in the world are so small. Few are so quaint. To have two world champions residing in such diminutive premises, that is impressive. The most recent world champion is a 27-year-old bank employee named Wolfgang Matt who lives in Vaduz, the nation's capital. In 1975 Matt won the world championship for aerobatic radio-controlled model-plane flying in Bern, Switzerland. The more famous world champion is a shy, husky, dark-eyed 19-year-old skier from the "mountain balcony" village of Planken. Hanni Wenzel won the women's slalom at the 1974 FIS world championships at St. Moritz.
Naturally, Liechtensteiners were excited about both triumphs. Still, the victory of Wolfgang Matt did not fire the national morale with quite the gusto that Hanni Wenzel's victory did. When it comes to star quality, a world-class model-plane flier simply doesn't have the same gloss as a world-class ski racer. Thus, Wolfgang came home in relative silence and privacy, while Hanni was flown home from St. Moritz in a helicopter with the Crown Prince and Princess of Liechtenstein at her side. She was accompanied also by a heroic teammate, Willi Frommelt, 23, who had further enhanced the sporting fortunes of Liechtenstein by winning the bronze medal in the men's downhill.
They arrived at night and were met at the Liechtenstein border by a singing crowd carrying torches. A grand parade began. Traffic was tied up from one end of the country to the other. The reigning prince of Liechtenstein himself, Franz Joseph II, 69, was there to greet Hanni and Willi in the torchlight. He rode with them in a gleaming black limousine through the countryside, waving with princely dignity at the crowds gathered in the darkness. People cheered and laughed and said they hadn't seen such a celebration in Liechtenstein since 1967 when Crown Prince Hans Adam wed his lovely Countess Marie Agla√´ Kinsky.
Later, someone printed hundreds of bumper stickers with Hanni's and Willi's faces on them. Some folks even wondered if Hanni's round, rosy-cheeked visage might not soon grace one of Liechtenstein's famed postal stamps, but this did not come to pass. Nevertheless, it was an unforgettable time of high excitement, and national pride reached new peaks.
There have been people living in Liechtenstein since 3000 B.C., the late days of the Stone Age. The first were Celts, but the place was constantly invaded or attacked over the centuries—by Romans, Alemans, by the legions of Napoleon. At one time or another, Liechtenstein was part of the ancient Roman Empire, the Empire of Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Empire, the old German Empire, Napoleon's Confederation of the Rhine and the German Confederation. Besides having no real national identity for nearly all the centuries of its life, Liechtenstein also was poor, gnawing at the very bone of survival, bowed by serfdom—"a subservient country of small farmers," said one historian.
In the 17th century, shortly after the Thirty Years' War had ground to an end, the country was nearly snuffed out in an epidemic of black plague. About that time an even more terrifying cataclysm swept Liechtenstein. In a lunatic season of mass hysteria, more than 300 of the nation's 3,000 residents were tortured and killed—burned, beheaded, torn to pieces by mobs—because they were suspected of being witches.
These were dark ages, indeed. But no more. Serenity has settled down over Liechtenstein. It is the age of bumper stickers and world champions. Since 1799 no foreign soldier has occupied the country. The Liechtenstein army was disbanded in 1868 and its last surviving veteran died in bed 36 years ago. There were still periods of sharp hunger and hard times, since 70% of the nation was engaged in farming well into the 20th century. Then a mighty change occurred around 1950, and today Liechtenstein is neither a blooming land of peasant farms nor is it an antique gingerbread kingdom. In fact, it is one of the most highly industrialized countries in the world, with only 3% of its national income from agriculture. The rest comes from the sprawls of glass and cement-block factories that lie along the valley of the Rhine River, beneath the Alps of Austria on one side and Switzerland on the other. Each fall the country is still warmed by the winds of the F√∂hn rustling up from the Mediterranean to finish the last ripening of the vineyards and the cornfields, but the economic well-being of Liechtenstein lies in manufacturing—cement, nails, false teeth, hyper-sophisticated plastic coatings like the stuff they put on the solar wind device planted on the moon by the first men to walk there.
The princes of the House of Liechtenstein have ruled with gentle hands. The reigning prince and the princely family live in Vaduz Castle, a stone palace with cobblestone courtyards and staunch turrets built on the mountainside above the capital city in the 14th century. The prince owns one of the most important art collections in the world, rich with the work of Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt van Rijn and Albrecht D√ºrer. At the end of each Olympic or world championship ski season, Prince Franz Josef and his family give a lavish reception for the ski team of Liechtenstein. Shy and callow kids like Hanni Wenzel come to the castle and sip soda pop in the regal parlors beneath a vast tapestry by D√ºrer and a celebrated self-portrait by Rembrandt. It is always a warm, affecting occasion. Wars and witch-hunts could scarcely be farther out of sight or mind.
Sport in Liechtenstein is casual, smalltime and unfrenetic. The $78,000 budget for the six-member ski team is larger than the total spent on all other national teams put together. Even so, the skiers cannot afford their own team trainer, and all of them now train with the Swiss, paying for facilities and coaching. Soccer is the leading sport but there is no national Liechtenstein team, and a crowd of 1,000 spectators is considered huge. After Hanni Wenzel and Willi Frommelt, perhaps the most famous sportsman in Liechtenstein is Manfred Schurti, the Formula V auto racer who was European champion in 1972.
The country has no radio station or TV channel of its own but Swiss stations carry every World Cup race, and when Hanni or Willi are racing, Liechtenstein stops what it is doing to watch. This includes the princely family. Crown Princess Marie Agla√´ Kinsky, 35, an elegant person of glowing complexion and honey-brown hair, sat in her chambers in a castle turret last season and pointed to her television set. "Hanni just finished second. My mother-in-law [Princess Georgina Wilczek] and I watched and we cried when Hanni did not win. We always cry. When Hanni won the world championship at St. Moritz, my mother-in-law and I jumped over the barriers and shouted, we were so happy. Everyone was happy. It's incredible to think of it but this little country has a possibility of winning in the Olympics. It makes for cheer when Liechtenstein does well. No one begrudges us our victories."
There have been few victories to begrudge. Prince Franz Joseph II has been a member in good standing of the International Olympic Committee ever since 1936, yet Liechtenstein has never competed with serious chances for victory in the Games, either summer or winter. Theirs have always been lighthearted entries, informal fellows trying to bring Liechtenstein some reflected glory by the mere act of competition. An example of Liechtenstein's approach to big-time sport occurred in 1956 when the Winter Games were held in Cortina.
Baron Edward von Falz-Fein, a Liechtensteiner who had long been a leading winter sports figure, decided that his beloved land simply must have a two-man bobsled in the Games. The baron himself had once been a bobber, but on his wedding night years before he had promised his bride that never again would he participate in that desperate sport. He would not renege. Yet he was obsessed with his idea. At last, late one night, the very night before the bobsled trials were to be held, he hit upon an answer. He went to the home of a 19-year-old named Moritz Heidegger, locally renowned as a daredevil on his motorcycle. As the story goes, the baron woke Heidegger from a sound sleep around midnight and said, "How would you like to drive a bob?" The young man replied, "What's a bob?" The baron said, "You drive it like a motorcycle." Whereupon Heidegger agreed to try it.
The baron congratulated him, then added casually, "By the way, the bob runs on ice." Heidegger cried out, "On ice!" The baron said quickly, "You have given me your word." The anxious young man said, "Yes, but I am only 19—a minor—so you must ask my mother." His mother, a patriot, said it was all right with her, so the baron and the boy left for Cortina in the morning.
When Heidegger first viewed the icy chute and the bobsled, he looked away and muttered darkly. "It's not like a motorcycle at all." The brakeman, Weltin Wolfinger, 23, had never seen a bob run, either. As the two plummeted off the top in the Olympic Trials, a bleak silence fell over the crowd. Miraculously, the sled finished. A joyous shout rose. Wolfinger, amazed at their good luck, said, "It was trees and trees and trees. I was petrified. But Heidegger kept shouting, 'Brake! Brake!" So I put on the brake."
So efficient were Wolfinger's brakes that the run was almost ruined from ruts and scars, and officials ruled the Liechtensteiners had to run last from then on. They did, and they qualified—dead last. Then, in the Olympic competition itself, they astounded the world and delighted their countrymen by actually finishing ahead of one team, the second sled from Norway. It was triumph enough and Liechtenstein was ecstatic. Heidegger and Wolfinger went to St. Moritz to train for the world championships that would follow in a couple of weeks.
There, tragedy struck. Their sled crashed through the snow wall of the chute during training, and rocketed off into the trees. Wolfinger broke a leg. Heidegger fractured his skull and died. All Liechtenstein mourned.
When Hanni Wenzel returned alive to her exultant countrymen from her championship at St. Moritz, a cry soon rose that she must be given formal Liechtenstein citizenship. She had been born in East Germany, and her family had come to Liechtenstein from West Germany in 1957. Her father, Hubert, is an expert in controlling mountain avalanches, and the government had hired him to help control the slides that occurred on the mountains every spring.
Citizenship of Liechtenstein is a precious thing. There are only 14,000 bona fide Liechtensteiners and many people who live in the country have been waiting for years to gain citizenship. "Hanni Wenzel is an important figure for sports people," said Berthold Konrad, director of tourism, "but many older people who suffered to make the country what it is today, they wonder if a full citizenship isn't too much for a mere sports figure." There also was the problem that Hanni, a minor, could be given citizenship only if her entire family got it, too. And, as it turned out, Hubert Wenzel was not the most popular man in the village of Plan-ken, population 200, where the family lives. Konrad said, "Hubert did not have too much social contact with the citizens of Planken. If he had been a member of the village chorus or the soccer team he might have had a better chance of getting citizenship. Also there had been a stupid fight over where he could build his house. Planken is a very small place. Hubert Wenzel was not a favorite."
There are several ways of obtaining citizenship in Liechtenstein. One is for the reigning prince simply to grant "honorary citizenship." This is almost never done. Franz Joseph II has reigned since 1938 and only once has he used his power to bestow citizenship. That was in 1945 when a German resident risked his life by entering wartime Austria from neutral Liechtenstein and re-stealing the entire priceless art collection of the House of Liechtenstein from beneath the very noses of Nazi guards. The prince was so overcome with gratitude for this brave deed that he dubbed the man a citizen on the spot.
Besides princely fiat, citizenship can be granted by the 15-member parliament of Liechtenstein, but only after the citizens of one village have voted en masse on whether an individual resident there deserves the honor. If the vote is positive, then both parliament and prince ratify it and all is well.
Thus, the family Wenzel appeared on the citizenship ballot in Planken because of Hanni's heroics on skis. Despite the dislike many felt for Hubert, the vote was positive. Those who disagreed had stayed away from the polls rather than reject the Wenzels. The vote was 18-0.
Hanni is diffident now when she speaks of the accolades and honors that have come to her. "I would rather stay unknown," she says. "I am very happy to have my citizenship because I can go to Innsbruck now. I might have gone to the Olympics in Sapporo, but my German citizenship prevented it. Now I can compete in 1976—and, yes, I think nearly the whole country will come to Innsbruck to see me race."
A gold medal for Liechtenstein? Well, Hanni is a powerful skier; in 1975 she finished second by four points in the World Cup slalom standings. At Innsbruck she will be a favorite. If she wins, there will not only be torchlight parades, bumper stickers and royal receptions—there will very likely be campaigns to name streets after her, to build monuments, even to put her childlike countenance on one of those postage stamps. An Olympic gold medal for Liechtenstein will be historic indeed.
Liechtenstein bumper stickers are rampant, though there may not be many bumpers, and the ski celebrities have played the palace.
Waiting eagerly to welcome their skiing winners at St. Moritz, the faithful spell it out.