Skip to main content
Original Issue


Pirmin Zurbriggen won the downhill but fell short of immortality

The men's alpine skiing events were supposed to produce the designated immortal of the Calgary Olympics, the one competitor among the 1,793 who had a realistic chance to win five gold medals and make the XV Winter Games his own. The competitor loaded with that staggering burden was Pirmin Zurbriggen, 25, Switzerland's brilliant all-around champion. A serene and sweet-smiling mountain boy of steel, Zurbriggen admires the Pope more than he admires any other man, and he used to carry a picture of the Virgin Mary in his address book.

Before the Games' first week had ended, Zurbriggen had won one race and failed to win a medal in two, thus revealing himself as mortal after all, though with such an unbreakable spirit that he may have won almost as many admirers in defeat as he would have gained had he won every race.

So instead of a single overwhelming individual reigning as the gold medal king of wind-battered Mount Allan, men's ski racing turned out a less predictable and far less dramatic collection of medal winners. It included Austria's first Winter Olympics winner since 1980 and, delightfully enough, the first Frenchman to win since Jean-Claude Killy pulled off his famous triple-gold sweep in Grenoble in 1968.

The way things started, however, no one could have guessed that Zurbriggen was going to be so thoroughly human. In his first race he aroused the world to great expectations with a certifiably godlike performance in the downhill. As always, his nemesis was Peter Müller, 30, his Swiss teammate and the fiercely competitive veteran who had won a silver medal in the Sarajevo downhill in 1984.

Müller had edged Zurbriggen for the downhill gold in the February 1987 world championships in Crans-Montana, Switzerland. Not only did Müller have a great affection for Mount Allan (he had won the World Cup downhill there last March, while Zurbriggen finished 11th), but he also had an exceptional record in North America (seven of his 17 downhill career victories had been won on this continent). Indeed, Müller decided to spend his Christmas holiday in Canada so that he could explore the Olympic downhill terrain until, as he puts it, "it became my very good friend."

Though Müller made friends with the steep pitches of the mountain, he had no way of knowing exactly how the course-setters would place the gates for the Olympic downhill. And when he arrived in Calgary the week before the Games, Müller was distraught. Though the bumps and flats in the middle and bottom sections of the course were greatly to his advantage as a glider, the demanding minefield of tight turns on the steep section near the top was the kind of stuff he skis worst.

By contrast, Zurbriggen was positively beaming when he first glimpsed the course. In words that hauntingly echoed those spoken four years ago by America's dead-end downhill winner, Bill Johnson, Zurbriggen said, "It is like this course was designed for me. I can't imagine a better, tougher course. It is at least as tough as Kitzbühel [where Zurbriggen has won the downhill three times]. However, there is no part that is terrifying like Kitzbühel, and I will take plenty of risks. I like the wild parts of this downhill."

Things were certainly looking up for Zurbriggen as the Olympics dawned. During much of the current World Cup season he had been distracted and ill with a respiratory ailment and had won only two of 16 races. And one of those wins—a downhill at Val d'Isère, France, on Jan. 9—was soured when he learned that his sister, Heidi, also a Swiss racer, had broken her leg the same afternoon. Zurbriggen told French journalist Patrick Lang, "Last year I had extra luck. This year I am missing it."

Then, in the final pre-Olympic World Cup downhill, which was run on a rugged course at Schladming, Austria, on Jan. 29, Zurbriggen won by a large margin. That victory moved him into first place in the overall World Cup competition, ahead of the Italian wonder boy, slalom specialist Alberto Tomba, 21. Zurbriggen was revitalized, a young man suddenly riding a high after months of lows.

With him when he arrived in Calgary was his sweetheart, Monika Julen, and friends said they had never seen him so relaxed, so happy, so in love. That he had been earmarked for immortality didn't seem to bother him in the least. "I like pressure," he said. "I like to fight. I like to be at the best level of my talents."

Zurbriggen needed every bit of those talents in the Mount Allan downhill. Müller had been stuck with the No. 1 starting position, which is usually a small handicap, but it loomed even larger here because there was a touch of new snow on the course. Nevertheless, Müller put together a magnificent run. Because he was the first to ski, it wasn't clear just how good his clocking of 2:00.14 was, until several other top competitors arrived at the finish in times as much as three and four seconds slower than his. "I knew only then I had done a really special race," said Müller.

Still, he stared stonily up the hill as 12 more skiers raced, for Zurbriggen had drawn No. 14, the same number, numerologists pointed out, that Killy had worn in his downhill victory of 1968. With his prospects for Olympic immortality on the line, Zurbriggen skied with all the power and panache of Killy, and he flashed across the line in 1:59.63, an impressive .51 of a second ahead of the hugely disappointed Müller. The bronze medalist was Franck Piccard, 23, an ever brightening French star who is a native of Albertville, site of the 1992 Winter Games.

Zurbriggen was ecstatic and, for him, positively theatrical in the finish area. He planted kisses on his skis, gazed heavenward with his hands held together in prayer, kissed Monika and then grabbed a wireless telephone with which he spoke to his father, Alois, and mother, Ida, back at the family's hotel in Saas-Almagell, Switzerland. The Swiss tabloid Blick reported: "It was a strange conversation. He was only able to utter one word—'super'—and his family was not able to say anything."

Though it seemed unthinkable, that moment was to be Zurbriggen's pinnacle of the Games' first week. In the next event, the two-day combined, he produced another masterful run in the downhill portion and stood first by .48 of a second. The next day he tied for sixth in the first of two runs in the combined slalom. He did not have to do any better than that because, according to the arcane computerized formula that measures winning and losing in the combined events, even a leisurely finish in the second slalom run would wrap up his second gold medal.

Indeed, Zurbriggen wasn't pushing very hard when the tip of his right ski slipped inside a slalom pole about two-thirds of the way down the course. He straddled the pole, lost control and fell heavily down the hill on his back. The moment he stopped sliding, he glanced wildly up the hill, as if somehow he could climb back up and continue. Then he sank back, crushed and resigned to a devastating defeat he had brought on himself. Later he said pleasantly, "I was very surprised when the stick was between my legs. I skied too close to the gate, and I don't know why. It probably wasn't a matter of more than a centimeter or two."

Impossible though the dream of five golds may have been, this was the one event that Zurbriggen should have won easily. His toughest adversary, Marc Girardelli of Luxembourg, who had won the 1987 combined title over Zurbriggen in Crans-Montana, dropped out of the Olympic race at the last minute because of injuries and a raging conflict with his ski representatives over the quality of his equipment. An Austrian named Hubert Strolz, 25, who had never won a World Cup race until January, took the gold, followed by Bernhard Gstrein, 22, another Austrian. An unheralded Swiss, a chubby fellow named Paul Accola, 21, got the bronze.

Until his sudden success, Accola's only claim to fame had come earlier in the week, when he accidentally kicked Zurbriggen in the shin during a parking-lot soccer game. There had been momentary concern that the superstar might be seriously hurt. Upon winning his medal Accola said, "After Pirmin's fall, it was I who saved the nation. Now we are okay."

Zurbriggen tried to make the best of an ignominious loss. He told friends, "This has taken pressure off me. No one any longer expects that I am perfect, and if I fail again, it will be no surprise, no problem."

Even with the pressure removed, and to the surprise of almost everyone, Zurbriggen did fail again, this time in the Super G. Granted, the race, a sort of downhill-giant slalom hybrid, was a strange one. As the first group of 15 racers came down, it was clear that many of them were not prepared for the steep, turny course, which was packed diamond-hard and being whipped by occasional strong gusts of wind. One after another, the best racers in the world—Girardelli, Markus Wasmeier of West Germany, even Tomba—went off the course in grotesque disarray. No fewer than 33 of the 94 starters failed to finish.

Zurbriggen again was the 14th racer, but this time he was not so masterful, finishing tied for fifth. There was nothing horrendously wrong with his run and, certainly, nothing particularly right. "I tried my best but it wasn't good enough," he said. "I think maybe the air has gone out of me. I had a great run in the downhill, but I just don't have enough violence left in me anymore."

The Super G gold medalist was the shy young Frenchman, Piccard, a skier who had been improving steadily all winter but had never won a World Cup race. Helmut Mayer of Austria got the silver, and Lars-Börje Eriksson of Sweden the bronze.

The first week of Alpine racing had ended; the giant slalom and the slalom were still to come. Now Zurbriggen faced a more modest question: Could he win three gold medals?

No one was asking him to be immortal anymore.



After his masterful gold medal-winning downhill run, Zurbriggen found time to phone home.



[See caption above.]



Strolz (above) seized a golden opportunity when Zurbriggen failed to finish the combined, and Gstrein made it a 1-2 sweep for the Austrians.



Zurbriggen almost had his second gold medal, then he hit a gate and fell in the combined.



Tomba bombed out in the Super G along with 32 others.



Piccard's gold medal run down the treacherous Super G course recalled his countryman Killy.