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Marc of Excellence Girardelli, the One-Man Gang From Luxembourg, Says World Cup Titles Mean More Than Olympic Gold

February 11, 1994|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LILLEHAMMER, Norway — Smaller than our Rhode Island, that speck of a state, Luxembourg measures 999 square miles and asks that you consider every square inch.

It boasts a 100% literacy rate and one of the world's highest standards of living. What it can't produce, it imports, from commodities as varied as alloys to Alpine skiers.

On the map, Luxembourg looks like an ink splat on the borders of Belgium, Germany and France. Yet, the nation of 400,000 is fiercely protective.

And no subject is touchier than that of its most beloved sportsman, Marc Girardelli, the greatest Alpine skier in the world today, perhaps ever.

Under the flag of Luxembourg, the five-time World Cup overall champion has won everything there is to win in skiing except an Olympic gold medal.

Girardelli is the Winter Olympics in Luxembourg. He is the nation's only representative here, where he will try again to become the first gold-medal winner from Luxembourg since 1952.

If a man was ever a country, it is Girardelli. In last year's final Nation's Cup, he finished seventh in the men's overall division, totaling more World Cup points than the countries of

Canada, Germany and the United States.

It matters not that there are few mountains to speak of in Luxembourg, no ski academies or, for that matter, much recreational interest in skiing.

It matters not that Girardelli lives in Switzerland, not Luxembourg, and does not take his Luxembourg citizenship all that seriously.

It is enough for Luxembourg that Girardelli stops by to pick up his mail.

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You will never have visa problems in Luxembourg as long as you never mention that Girardelli is Austrian born.

Do so in a public arena and you will probably receive correspondence on premium bond stationary and embossed letterhead from Alphonse Berns, ambassador of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg to the United States.

Berns is protector of Luxembourg's interests abroad; that is, protector of Girardelli.

"I take exception that people continue to mention that he is Austrian born and runs for Luxembourg," Berns said from his offices in Washington. "In fact, Girardelli went through the whole procedure to become a Luxembourger. It was pretty tough. We consider him a true Luxembourger. I have never heard in this country the reference to the 'Czech-born Martina Navratilova.' "

Girardelli did not dock in Luxembourg with grand designs to bolster its international image or GNP. The motivation to move was the scheme of Marc's cantankerous father, Helmut, who wanted the best for his talented skier-son, even if it meant pulling up stakes at the greatest ski academy in the world--Austria.

When Marc was 11, he was defeating all comers in ski races in and around his hometown of Lustenau.

Girardelli had spunk. When asked as a child if he wanted to meet David Zwilling, the 1974 world champion in downhill, Marc declined, saying he preferred to wait until Zwilling asked for his autograph.

Austrian ski officials got wind of kid wunderbar and insisted he enroll in a special boarding ski school in Schruns, 30 miles from home.

Girardelli's father preferred that Marc stay home. Helmut, a hotel owner, had been training Marc himself with techniques that later some would consider revolutionary.

After a last-straw dispute with the Austrian ski federation, Helmut decided in 1976 to take his 12-year-old and leave home.

Switzerland seemed nice. Germany, perhaps. But Helmut didn't know anyone in those countries.

He did have a government contact in Luxembourg, though, Aime Knepper, who arranged for Marc to ski there.

With one considerable snag.

Girardelli would be welcome as a racer, but not as a citizen, making him ineligible to compete for Luxembourg in Olympic or world championship competition.

Girardelli established residence in Luxembourg but the citizenship process took nearly 10 years, depriving him of opportunities to compete in the 1980 and 1984 Winter Olympics.

Even so, Girardelli says he has never regretted leaving his homeland.

"That was necessary," he says. "I'm not such a nationalist. The color of the passport is not very important."

There were discussions in Luxembourg about exempting Girardelli from the normal citizenship process, but the government ultimately denied him any special favors.

"That's why I hate the implicit references of his Luxembourg nationality as something you just have to show up in some office and you get," Ambassador Berns says.

Girardelli, renouncing his Austrian birthright, became a citizen of Luxembourg in 1985.

While Luxembourg hangs on his every turn, Girardelli maintains that winning an Olympic gold medal is not important to him.

Before the 1984 Sarajevo Games, in which he could not participate, Girardelli won five of eight World Cup slaloms and would have been a favorite for the gold.

"I don't think it was right," he says of his exclusion. "1984 was one of my best seasons."

Injuries before the 1988 Calgary Games doomed his medal chances there.

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