CALGARY, Canada — It's sort of like UCLA and USC, Switzerland and Austria. Call it the cross-the-Alps rivalry of skiing. One year the Swiss are on top, the next year it's the Austrians.
More than halfway through the 1988 Olympic Winter Games, give the edge to the gutsy little guys and gals from the Vorarlberg and points east. After 6 of the 10 Alpine events, they're wearing exactly half of the gold medals--to just one for Zurbriggen's gang from Zurich.
Kurt Waldheim may be front-page news in America, but you know who's getting the big headlines in Vienna: Strolz, Wachter and, on Monday, Wolf. That would be Sigrid Wolf, 24, from the Tyrol, who won the super-G race by a full second over Michela Figini of, that's right, Switzerland.
In all three of the Austrian victories, Swiss skiers were second, except in the men's combined, in which an Austrian was also second behind Hubert Strolz, dropping the top Swiss to third.
What has changed in the past year, since Switzerland won 8 of the 10 golds at the World Alpine Championships, to zero for Austria? Well, it's sort of like the Bruins and Trojans in football.
Said Karl Schranz, who has been around Austria's ski team for 25 years or so: "Before the start of last season, there was just too much pressure on our skiers, from the media, the public, the ski companies and even the government. They were expected to win (in the World Championships). When they didn't, everyone said they were no good. "So this year, there was no pressure, there were no expectations of victory. And the Austrian racers got angry."
In sort of a snowball effect, Anita Wachter said that Strolz's gold medal helped inspire her to win the women's combined Sunday, and Wolf said Monday, "Anita's gold medal made me feel stronger. It motivated me to ski my best race."
Some motivation; she should bottle it. Figini was already prancing around the finish area, waving to groups of fans carrying Swiss flags, feeling fairly secure after none of the other 10 racers before Wolf were able to top her time of 1:20.03.
But then, Sigrid left little doubt. After trailing Figini by .26 of a second on the steep upper portion of the hybrid downhill/giant slalom course, Wolf turned on her turbo to lead by .60 at the next checkpoint, more than two-thirds of the way down, and schussed under the finish banner in 1:19.03.
Figini put the two nations' rivalry aside for a moment, hugging Wolf and giving her a peck on the cheek, kind of like Tollner shaking hands with Donahue or maybe Donahue congratulating Smith.
Both of them then turned their attention to the big-screen TV picture as Canada's Karen Percy, the last racer in the top-15 seeding, left the starting gate. Cheered on by her adoring countrymen, Percy twisted and tucked her way from the eighth fastest intermediate time to the fifth-fastest second clocking, and on to the bronze medal--her second of the Games--in 1:20.29.
Percy, who was also third in the downhill, said, "I had no idea of the other racers' times at the start. I just knew I had to go as fast as I could."
With Percy safely out of the way, Wolf and Figini could both resume their rejoicing.
For Wolf, the gold medal more than made up for an incident that occurred at Lech, Austria, early last month. Shortly after winning a World Cup super-G race, Wolf and three other Austrian women were disqualified because one of the other teams had protested that they had used safety pins to help keep their racing-number bibs from flapping around.
Funny sport. But seriously, folks, this is supposed to provide an unfair advantage, helping reduce wind drag, or something.
Wolf, who has achieved only limited success since joining the World Cup circuit in 1981, missed the 1984 Winter Olympics with a back injury, and got off to a slow start last season after tearing a knee ligament.
However, she finished with victories in both downhills at Vail, Colo., last March and won another downhill at Sestriere, Italy, early this season.
Wolf downplayed the fact she had beaten a Swiss racer out of the gold, saying: "That wasn't important. I would have been just as happy to beat anyone."
But Debbie Armstrong of Seattle, who won an Olympic gold medal in the giant slalom at Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, in '84, said: "Skiing is Austria's national sport, and their No. 1 opponent is Switzerland. The pressure that the media and everyone else in Austria put on their ski team is unbelievable. Sometimes, I really feel sorry for them."
Armstrong, skiing her first race of the '88 Games, finished 18th, 2.84 seconds behind Wolf.
Edith Thys of Olympic Valley, Calif., gave the United States its highest placing so far in the six Alpine events, a ninth in 1:20.93.
"This was really good for me," said Thys, who will be 22 on March 31. "But I think we'll get some even better results later in the week (in the men's and women's slaloms and giant slaloms)."
The Swiss, of course, are also looking for some better results, like another gold medal or two to go with the one Pirmin Zurbriggen won in the men's downhill. But Figini, at least, is reasonably content, for a couple of reasons.
"I wanted to go home from the Olympics with at least one medal," she said. "And now I have it."
Then, a reporter asked her, "Mickey, does it make you happy that you have a silver medal, and Maria (Walliser) has only a bronze (in the combined)?"
Replied Figini, who likes to beat her glamorous teammate even more than she likes to beat Austrians: "It doesn't matter what color the medals are. I got mine, and I don't care what the others get."
But the little laugh she gave before answering gave her away.