SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — The world's best skier this year is an Austrian with an Italian name who pals around with American Bill Johnson and races for Luxembourg.
Yeah, you know, that grand duchy (998 sq. mi., pop. 333,000) squeezed on all three sides by France, West Germany and Belgium. On a clear day, you can see the Alps--if you're in a plane.
Marc Girardelli, whose family is not involved in the chocolate business, has also been called a man without a country and, more recently, the man from Marlboro Country (because his ski outfits are made by Marlboro Leisure Wear).
The company, of course, pays him to wear its logo, as do the companies that manufacture Atomic skis, Salomon boots and bindings, Scott poles, etc. And since he is the only member of the Luxembourg Ski Federation's Alpine team, he is able to keep a higher percentage of the proceeds.
Or so the story goes.
Asked about this Saturday after he won the final men's slalom of the season, the newly crowned World Cup overall champion did a quick sideslip to his left and said: "Why don't you ask Paul Frommelt about that. He is from an even smaller country."
True, Liechtenstein (61 sq. mi., pop. 19,000) is tiny compared to Luxembourg, but it has a pool of suppliers and an elaborate federation to administer a team of several racers. Like the federations of skiing's superpowers, it likes to slice off a healthy piece of the action.
Said Frommelt, who finished second in Saturday's race at Heavenly Valley, 1.74 seconds behind Girardelli's two-run total time of 1:48.66: "There's no question that Marc can make better deals for himself because he is on his own. He can do what he wants and has a greater variety of choice."
And that, race fans, is the bottom line of why he isn't skiing for his native Austria.
The Italian name? That's because Girardelli's grandfather, Giovanni, emigrated from Trento to Lustenau, Austria. Marc and his family operate a hotel at Bodele, but the racer has claimed residence in Luxembourg since he was 12.
Girardelli, who will be 22 in July, said this switch of allegiance originally occurred because "of problems with Austrian ski officials. They didn't want me to win races, but I did, so I changed federations."
Actually, Marc's father, Helmut, who has coached his son since the age of 5, made the decision.
Marc's friendship with Johnson, the 1984 Olympic downhill champion, blossomed last December when the American visited Girardelli's home in Austria.
"We skied together for a week," Girardelli said, "and, you know, I really like that guy. People have said some bad things about him, and I know the feeling because I have had bad things said about me.
"He has a standing invitation to come and stay with us. Maybe this summer, I will visit him in Malibu."
Girardelli was a bit vague about how much time he actually spends in Luxembourg and kept referring to the citizens there as "they", saying, for example, "They are more interested in skiing than you might think. They will drive 2 1/2 hours to ski in France, and they follow the races on German television."
Until last month, Girardelli was barred from competing in both the Winter Olympics and the World Ski Championships because he has not satisfied the waiting period for a Luxembourg passport.
However, Marc Hodler, president of the International Ski Federation (FIS), finally ruled that Girardelli could enter this season's world championships at Bormio, Italy, if he would sign a statement that he intended to become a citizen of Luxembourg.
Asked if he planned to race through the 1988 Games at Calgary, Canada, Girardelli said: "That is three years away. Right now, I am thinking only of the rest of '85 and maybe '86."
If he continues to compete through '88, Girardelli could become the first male skier since France's Jean-Claude Killy in 1968 to sweep all three Alpine gold medals. He won both the World Cup slalom and giant slalom titles this season and scored 17 points in downhill, even though he hadn't entered one until earlier this month in Japan.
He finished only 19th in that race at Furano, but then placed sixth and ninth in downhills at Panorama, Canada, and Aspen, Colo., respectively.
In an age of specialization brought about by skiers such as Franz Klammer and Ingemar Stenmark, Girardelli may turn out to be a throwback to the old days of triple-threaters.
Asked if he planned to concentrate more on the downhill next season, Girardelli said: "No, not especially, but I will continue to ski downhill because I enjoy it. As for winning all three titles, well, if it comes, it comes."
Stenmark, incidentally, stood third after the first run here Saturday, but the Swede, who failed to win a race this season after piling up 79 victories--all in slalom and giant slalom--in previous campaigns, fell six gates into his second run and did not finish, a fate he shared with 39 others in the field of 68 racers.
Said Willy Schaeffler, who is here as the FIS coordinator: "There were too many tired racers up there on the hill, both from the long season and from a long night in the casinos."