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Original Issue

The Mouse May Roar

Tiny Luxembourg proudly presents Marc Girardelli, a transplanted Austrian who may beat the mighty Swiss

Once upon a time there was a handsome, fair-haired boy who lived in Lustenau, a 1,100-year-old town in the Austrian province of Vorarlberg, not far from the borders of Switzerland, Germany and Liechtenstein. He dreamed that he would grow up and become a great ski racer for Austria—and he never had any doubts that this would happen. Once, when he was 12 years old, he met David Zwilling, the 1974 world champion in the downhill, and his father asked him if he wanted the champion's autograph. "No," said the boy. "I'd rather wait until he asks me for my autograph."

Today that boy is one of the two or three best ski racers in the world. He's Marc Girardelli, 24, the overall World Cup champion in 1985 and '86, the '87 world champion in the combined event and an overwhelming favorite to be an Olympic champion in 1988. The only thing about Girardelli's boyhood dream that hasn't come true is that he does not ski for Austria but for the tiny, virtually mountainless Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.

Here's how that absurd situation came to pass: When he was 11, Marc was winning almost every skiing competition there was in his section of Austria—including, amazingly, ski jumping. Thus, he came to the Big Brotherly attention of Austrian ski officials, who more or less ordered him to attend a special boarding school for budding skiing superstars in Schruns, a town 30 miles from Lustenau. As Girardelli recalls, "My parents decided this was too far away, so I went to the normal school in Lustenau. I was still winning ski races, and it went against the ski federation's grain that I could do this without attending its special school. This led to a lot of fighting between my parents and the federation."

Marc's father, Helmut, a former master embroiderer in the textile industry who now owns a hotel, is an intelligent, outspoken, hardheaded fellow who had a brief career as a local ski racer ("My biggest victory was that I quit racing at 18," he says). Of the fuss with the federation, Helmut says. "Because Marc was beating youngsters from the Schruns school there were fights. Finally, I said, 'O.K., we do away with that.' I didn't know anybody in Switzerland or anybody in Liechtenstein, where he also might have been welcome as a skier, so I went to Luxembourg, where I knew some people, including Aimè Knepper, then president of the federation there. They took him in."

This was 1976. Marc was 12. The duchy took him in as a racer, but not as a citizen. Thus, for the past eight years, the International Olympic Committee has considered Girardelli a man without a country. In '80 and '84 he was ineligible to compete in the Winter Games because his citizenship remained Austrian while his team affiliation was Luxembourgian. That changed last October, when Girardelli officially gave up his Austrian birthright. He says pragmatically. "Since I am a ski racer and want to compete in the Olympic Games. I could only do so by becoming a citizen of Luxembourg."

His talkative father puts a larger philosophical spin on the decision. "Citizenship is a piece of paper that is issued by a clerk," says Helmut. "And I can't find any overwhelming euphoria in paper issued by a clerk. Among human beings the need to belong to a nation is the result of fear. People who are able to stand tall in life by themselves don't need a herd of 100 million others around them. And it is usually the loners who change the course of things anyway."

In fact, Marc's decision to go it alone had as much to do with the unorthodox attitudes of the father as it did with any views the son might have held. For years the elder Girardelli had espoused revolutionary ideas about coaching and ski racing. He even tried to enroll in the Austrian Ski Federation's coaching school to give his theories a broader scope. The authorities said they would let him in, but they wouldn't tell him when or where the courses were to be held. Offended, Helmut did not pursue the matter further. But ever since, he has exacted his revenge by retaining total control over the young man who is now Luxembourg's only medal hope.

Helmut's coaching ideas, which he could apply freely to Marc in his adopted country, turned out to be far ahead of their time. Marc describes them: "It took us 10 years to develop my personal technique, 10 years of thinking, learning, trying things out. We try to work according to the laws of physics—weighing the effects of friction, the application of energy, the results of certain forces. There are many variables—the psychological side plays a big role, too."

And so has the medical side of Marc's career. In 1984, while competing at Lake Louise, near Calgary, in one of his first World Cup downhills, he took a disastrous fall and tore the ligaments, cartilage and a tendon in his left knee. He went to South Lake Tahoe, Calif., where renowned knee surgeon Dr. Richard Steadman operated for 4½ hours. Girardelli went home in a hinge brace to recuperate with a carefully designed program of exercises. Among other things, Steadman told Marc that when he decided to resume skiing, he could do so on one ski, on his right foot. Three and a half months after the operation Steadman received a photograph of a grinning Girardelli dutifully skiing on just one ski—but it was attached to his left leg with its freshly fixed knee.

Last year an old injury to Girardelli's left shoulder turned the season into a nightmare. In 1981 the shoulder had popped out of the joint but quickly reset itself. It was dislocated again in the '82-83 season and became troublesome enough that Girardelli had surgery on it in the fall of '83. Even that didn't make the shoulder completely stable, but it was not a critical problem until last season.

"In December [1986] the shoulder popped out when I was asleep," Girardelli says. "It made such a tremendous noise that my brother, who was sleeping in the same room, woke up. We tried to put it back in but were unable to. My father came and got it in again, but then I passed out because the pain was so terrific." This continued to happen "maybe eight or 10 times. My father became very skilled at putting it back. The season began to seem like a catastrophe."

The pain was so intense that Girardelli considered giving up skiing. Then he heard about Mohamed Khalifa, an Egyptian nerve specialist who lives near Salzburg, Austria. "Khalifa can feel the nerves with his thumbs." says Girardelli. "When he treats me, it is as if he pulls a wire through my nerves." The treatments worked miraculously—though briefly—for the 1987 world championships at Crans-Montana in Switzerland. Girardelli won the gold in the combined, plus silvers in the Super G and the giant slalom. And he won the last World Cup race of the season (a GS in Sarajevo) in March. But the pain and the popping out continued during his postseason training, so in late April, he went to Steadman once more. This time he underwent a five-hour operation to stabilize his shoulder.

Girardelli says he's now without pain, and his skiing seems to indicate that. Though he had not won a World Cup race by early January, he had skied well in downhill training runs and had had good intermediate times in slalom races. As Calgary closes in, Girardelli and Switzerland's Pirmin Zurbriggen (page 46) are heading toward an across-the-board showdown. "Only Zurbriggen and I are in all events," says Girardelli. "The others are specialists." So, is there a chance that either you or Zurbriggen will win five gold medals? "No. It's the same for Zurbriggen as for me," Girardelli replies. "One event always suffers when you are doing so many." Is your goal to defeat Zurbriggen? "No. I want to beat myself by doing better than ever before. Zurbriggen and I don't know each other well. It's difficult to have much of a liking for each other."

Whatever happens at Calgary, Girardelli's first Winter Games, the new citizen of Luxembourg is looking beyond ski racing. He's planning to enroll in a university to study advanced physics. "I would like to become an astronaut." he says, "but I am too old. At least they can find out what a man's body can endure." Many people think Girardelli has gone a long, long way toward doing that in his skiing career.