Icy downhill drag strip figures to get Games in gear in a hurry

February 08, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Correspondent

VAL D'ISERE, France -- From a gondola that sways in the winter wind high above the French Alps, the icy course below looms like a white monster that twists and bends and oozes down the side of a mountain.

There is a start that launches a skier from 0 to 60 faster than a Porsche, a turn that loops like an S, a set of boulders where only the bravest dare tread, a cluster of stomach-churning dips and an alley so narrow you can imagine a set of bowling pins at one end. And it ends -- 45 gates, 22 turns, four jumps, 3,191 feet lower and 1.8 miles later -- across the street from the La Schuss Bar.

This is Face du Bellevarde.

Tomorrow, if it doesn't snow, if it doesn't rain, if the morning fog lifts and if the sun burns bright, they'll kick-start the Olympic Winter Games with the running of the Super Bowl on snow.

Before America even wakes up, they could be crowning the king of the mountain -- the men's downhill champion.

"From a spectator's point of view, this course is great," said former U.S. Olympic downhiller Andy Mill, who is here as an expert commentator for CBS-TV. "But from a racer's point of view, it's like skiing around the edge of a basketball."

In this sport, it's the Germans and Swiss and Austrians who perform the slam dunks.

The favorite to win the gold medal is Germany's Markus Wasmeier, who has schussed away from his rivals in two days of training.

The list of other contenders reads like a who's-who of technical specialists with Switzerland's Paul Accola and Franz Heinzer and Austria's Guenther Mader and Patrick Ortlieb leading the pack.

Bidding to join the cold-blooded European elite is American AJ Kitt, winner of the season's first downhill at Val d'Isere's original OK course. Kitt was seventh in training yesterday, continuing to make the necessary refinements to cope with a course that never eases.

Gliders need not apply for Olympic gold.

"You've got to make a precise plan for the start of the race," Kitt said.

This is a course that follows the natural contour of the mountain that towers over one of the trendiest resorts in Europe. Outlined with orange netting, encrusted with ice, this is a man-made drag strip -- with the equivalent of stop lights every few hundred yards.

Bellevarde is a testament to two men, Jean-Claude Killy and Bernhard Russi. Killy, the favorite son of this ski-crazy area, the 1968 Olympic ski champion whose picture adorns a wall in the town's 17th century church, ensured that the downhill would come to Val d'Isere.

And it was Russi, once Italy's preeminent downhill racer, who built upon Killy's dream. He shaped and molded the course, cutting down just five trees, while creating turns and treachery.

"We wanted a downhill on which the skiers, not the skis would win," said Killy, co-president of the Albertville Olympic organizing committee.

The course cost $4.5 million to construct. For that price, the 1992 Olympics, and all of the European World Cup circuit, got a run with a maximum slope of 63 percent by a start house perched above the timberline, and an average slope of 35 percent.

There is only one problem: the hot-shot downhillers loathe the course.

Since its opening in 1989 for the French Championships, it has been rarely used. Downhillers like to average 60 mph on a run, but here, they're slowed to 58.

Unpredictable weather also has damaged the course's reputation. A World Cup event was mercifully canceled last year when fog rolled in.

"At the start, if it isn't clear, it's like looking into a milk bottle," Mill said.

But if the day is clear and cold, watch out. The skiers will come careening down the mountain, in an unending free-fall, finishing in a bowl surrounded by 20,000 spectators, while tens of millions more will be watching on television.

"These racers will have to be perfectionists on skis," Mill said. "It won't take a guy with a lot of courage to win. It will take a guy with a lot of brains, and a lot of heart."

Bellevarde awaits.

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