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WINTER OLYMPICS : Zurbriggen Snatches Gold From Mueller

February 16, 1988|BOB LOCHNER | Times Assistant Sports Editor

CALGARY, Canada — As everyone knew it would, the Olympic downhill race came down to a confrontation between two men, both Swiss, both temperamentally and physically deserving of being champion, yet dissimilar in personality and life style.

In oversimplified terms, it was the playboy vs. the choirboy, the easygoing big lug vs. the baby-faced assassin.

And for nearly a half-hour Monday, Peter Mueller had the gold medal all but draped around his burly neck. At age 31, making his final grasp at a prize that had eluded him for eight years, he had flung himself down the two-mile-long course on Mt. Allan in 2 minutes 00.14 seconds.

By his own admission, "it was a really fantastic, great run."

And it was all the more remarkable because Mueller had started No. 1, being forced to set up the target at which all of the other racers would shoot.

Twelve of them took aim, fired and fell back, missing by wide margins.

Then it was Pirmin Zurbriggen's turn. The normally shy, 25-year-old schizophrenic on skis at that instant became the world's most aggressive individual.

"I knew I had to ski to the limit," he said later. "And although I am normally calm, my big dream has always been to win an Olympic gold medal. That dream just made me explode."

It was a devastating but controlled explosion.

Zurbriggen rocketed out of the start, attacked the steep pitch beneath him and passed the first intermediate checkpoint .25 of a second faster than Mueller.

Holding his line, pre-jumping the bumps to minimize wasteful air time, and managing to stay in his tuck throughout the long undulating ride to the finish, Zurbriggen increased his lead to .46, then .64 and finally lit up the scoreboard with a time of 1:59.63.

As Mueller shook his head and muttered a not-so-polite word in German, Zurbriggen waved his poles exultantly in the air, almost falling over backward in unbridled joy. He took off his skis, kissed them lightly but rapturously on their tips, then brought his hands together and closed his eyes in a silent prayer of thanks.

As Zurbriggen says, "If you don't forget God, he won't forget you."

As for Mueller, he has to be wondering what the gods have against him. In the last Winter Olympics, at Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, in 1984, he was beaten out of the downhill gold medal by American Bill Johnson. At Lake Placid, N.Y., in the 1980 Games, Mueller finished fourth in the downhill, behind winner Leonhard Stock of Austria.

Eight years later, on Monday, Stock was fourth, just behind bronze medalist Franck Piccard, who gave France's male Alpine skiers their first Olympic medal since Jean-Claude Killy in 1968.

But it was Zurbriggen and Mueller who dominated the downhill, a race that had been postponed one day after high winds created impossible conditions on Sunday.

Because of the delay, there was another draw for starting positions among the top 15 seeded skiers. If the race had been held Sunday, Zurbriggen would have gone down the mountain as No. 5, ahead of Mueller, who had No. 11. In the new draw, Mueller became No. 1 and Zurbriggen No. 14.

"I hate No. 1," Mueller said. "I have never won a race as No. 1. And also, there was some new snow, which made it slower for the first racer.

"Then, as I came up to the start, one official said I had 40 seconds to go in the countdown. But another official, on my left, said, '10 seconds,' and I didn't know what to think. It broke my concentration.

"I had some trouble with the hard turns at the top, but I know that I did my best, gave it everything I had, and am really happy with my second silver medal.

"Of course, at first, I was disappointed, but now that's over. Pirmin just skied better than I did. At Sarajevo, it was a different story. I hadn't skied well before the Olympics, and it was a pleasant surprise to come in second."

Mueller, who also owns a chain of fitness centers in Switzerland, acted as his own translator in post-race interviews, speaking in English, French and German. Asked the monetary difference between the gold and silver medals, he replied: "Some bucks!"

He said he congratulated Zurbriggen in the finish area, but added: "He knows what he has to do, and I know what I have to do. We are not hard friends, but we are teammates. He is a professional, and I am, too."

Zurbriggen, who speaks German and French but has a little trouble with English, would only say of Mueller: "We are friends and teammates, but also rivals.

"I saw only Peter's first two turns at the top, but I found out his time from my trainer. Then, when the next racers were three and four seconds slower, I knew I had to try to make a perfect run.

"But when you ski fast, you always make mistakes. I had some problems at the top but was very fast at the bottom.

"This is the biggest thing I have ever done. The Olympic gold medal in downhill has always been my biggest goal in life."

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