SAVOGNIN, Switzerland — As the skiers raced down he slalom course, all indications pointed to a Paardekooper, Paardekooper, Paardekooper, Paardekooper finish.
And so it was. Esther, Julia, Liane and Rene Paardekooper, 8-year-old competitors from Suessen, West Germany, flashed across the finish line to take the first heat in the quadruplet parallel slalom competition.
They were among 43 sets of triplets, five sets of quadruplets and a single group of quintuplets--from Switzerland, Germany and France--at conventions that gave them a chance to compare the pleasures and pains of sameness multiplied by three, four or five.
The Second International Triplets' Convention and First International Quadruplets' Convention also allowed them to gawk at each other.
"They all have the same nose, look," Dagmar Weidenfeller whispered to sisters Doris and Daisy as a set of quadruplets marched by in close formation.
People always used to point at Dagmar, Doris and Daisy when the West German sisters, now 31, went out together as teens.
At the time, the pervasive scrutiny was unnerving, a suggestion that the triplets lacked individual identity.
The sisters eventually learned to enjoy their special relationship. But such a transition is not always easy, as questions the assembled throng put to a child psychiatrist at a discussion here showed.
Did the others have trouble making friends? How did they deal with puberty? How are other children in the family affected when the arrival of new children suddenly demands their parents' attention? Should parents feel guilty if they split up brothers and sisters in school?
"Do we have to grow up in a glass house?" one exasperated quadruplet asked.
For Ingrid Schramm, mother of 7-year-old triplets from Burnbach, West Germany, the hardest part is finding time to spend alone with each child.
"There are always little battles for power going on," she said. "They all try to express their individuality."
Barbara Dohner, mother of 3-year-old quadruplets from Staefa, Switzerland, managed to maintain outward calm as Manuela, Monika, Marcus and Rahel scampered around.
"They are so small, but they are starting to show individual character traits. . . . It's just fantastic," she said during an interview as some of her children scrambled away while another unscrewed the lids from all the salt shakers at their table.
"Marcus," she called, rolling her eyes heavenward, "you are driving me crazy. Come back here."
Multiple births remain relatively rare. But they are becoming more frequent as infant mortality rates decline and hormone treatment of infertile couples becomes more common, said Helga Gruetzner, mother of triplets and president of a club for families with triplets and more.
Triplets From Twins
She estimated that triplets enter the world about once every 6,500 births.
Peter Gruetzner, her doctor husband who acts as the club's scientific adviser, said that most triplets are actually a set of twins, formed when one fertilized egg splits in the womb, while another egg, fertilized separately, develops into the third brother or sister.
The close emotional ties among siblings doomed to or delighted by lifelong linkage are easily observed. But strangers often have a harder time relating to the individuals or even telling them apart.
"Sometimes when you do not say hello to someone or claim you do not know them, they can get really aggressive," complained Ute Helmreich, a 30-year-old identical triplet from Heidelberg, West Germany.