Barack Obama or Vladimir Putin.

Ronald Reagan or Deng Xiaoping.

Pope John Paul II or Winston Churchill.

We could go on, from couple to couple, from dualism to dualism, listing all the well-known faces that have been featured on the cover of Time.

Time magazine, in fact, is a place of worship, one of those magical places where it’s not enough to have a good press office to be on its cover.

You need more than that. You need to be an icon.

A popular icon, a cultural revolution, a contemporary deity.

A person who needs no introduction. Whether for better or for worse, in perfect bipartisan style: what matters is that people talk about them.

On 17th February 1936, however, on the cover of the most famous magazine in the world there was the magnificent and muscular physique of a 34-year-old woman in a bikini who climbed the slope of a mountain at Garmisch on her skis.

Leni Riefenstahl was the daughter of a great business owner from Berlin from the early 20th century who wanted her to follow him into the business world. Leni’s soul, however, was split in half, the two parts of a whole, which were not connected yet necessary to each other. With her mother’s support (a support that is said to have cost her her marriage), she decided to embrace the world of arts, and according to her father, arts was the other half.

She began to dance, paint and act. Her father was disappointed and decided to enrol her in the most prestigious arts academy in Berlin in order to show that dancing wasn’t her cup of tea and try to shame her publicly.

But Leni didn’t give up. She first became a great dancer, then a great actress—to the point of vying with Marlene Dietrich for a few leading roles—and finally also a great film director.

So, her look and talent were featured on the cover of Time in the same year when the IOC awarded both the summer and the winter Olympics to Nazi Germany and Leni was chosen as the official film director of the Olympics.

Those summer Olympics, where Jesse Owens clinched four victories, were filmed and gave birth to a documentary feature film of great beauty, Olympia, which was released in two parts. Olympia is still today one of the greatest films about sport.

Few people know, however, that the winter Olympics were a sneak preview, a great test in view of the summer ones, and of course Leni was the creative mind behind them. According to the rumours of the time, the IOC president, the Belgian Baillet-Latour, kindly asked to remove the signs from the entrance doors of shops that read “No dogs or Jews allowed”.

 

The IV Winter Olympics were held in the town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Bavaria, Germany. 28 nations and 646 athletes, of whom a mere 12% were women, participated in the event—a record. Besides the film by Leni, who according to Rolly Marchi “was always very busy going up and down perches, stairs and giving orders for filming”, that edition went down in history for being the first ever to host an Alpine skiing event.

 

Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine the Olympics without the downhill, slalom or giant slalom events. And yet, until 1936, at the Olympics there were only hockey, curling, skating, Nordic skiing and even the military patrol event, which was similar to modern biathlon and which, a little bit eerily, recalled Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.

Alpine skiing, then, i.e. the highlight of winter sports, the most awaited and therefore most thrilling event, full of great champions and stories to be told.

There was, however, doubt as to what competitions had to be included in the Olympics and finally it was decided to reward the male and female winners of one single race—the combined.

The combined had the honour of being the first Alpine skiing event at the Olympics and of awarding the first six medals in Olympic history for Alpine skiing.

However, as is almost always the case when people are involved, and even more so when it comes to the Alpine combined, the audience was split. Guelphs and Ghibellines, one against the other, on one side the ‘insiders’ and on the other the ‘romantics’.

The insiders’ faction, which included journalists, trainers and skiers, claimed that the downhill deserved to have its own story. The Kreuzeck slope, which was full of bumps, frightened everyone, and the Italian team had been in Madonna di Campiglio, on Pancugol, which is also quite full of difficulties, to train for that race. To have a slalom after such a difficult downhill race wasn’t really exciting—it was just like having a chamomile tea after your meal.

The other faction, which included spectators, sports fans and all those who were looking for some great stories to tell taking inspiration from the athletes’ performances, defended the combined.

According to tradition, the downhill run was held first and two Norwegians immediately took the lead. Birger Ruud among the men and Laila Schou Nilsen among the women. Almost 5 minutes of downhill for Birger, who had a 4.5-second lead over the runner-up. Birger tried his hand at cross-country skiing at the same Olympics, and was also World Champion in Ski Jumping. Ruud was dreaming of winning a medal in the combined, but 2 days later, he missed a gate in the slalom and was given 6 seconds penalty and finished fourth.

The winner was a German, Franz Pfnür, but it was the runner-up Gustav Lantschner, also from Germany, who would have deserved the title of hero of the two Worlds. Gustav was the perfect example of versatile man—he was a skier, an actor, a director and a cinematographer.

Among the women, Nilsen, who was also a great professional tennis player and speed skater, was passed by Christl Cranz in the slalom. The German—sixth after the downhill—won by a record margin of 21.3 seconds over the runner-up, also from Germany.

4 medals for Germany, and the race format became the topic of a long discussion, which is still continuing today.

From the very beginning, then, alpine combined has been a whirlwind of emotions, a fight between ideologies, in search of the greatest champion, the one who can win even wearing other people’s boots.

Plot twists, sudden reversals and incorrect predictions have always provided the perfect backdrop for the strangest event of all. The most innovative, yet the first one.

It’s not surprising, then, that the most prominent names in the history of alpine combined are the most prominent names in general. Talents who are able to play it by ear and adjust their skiing technique to everything the mountain can offer.

Gustav, not the one from 1936 but the Italian one, saying his last name is unnecessary. And then Marc Girardelli, Pirmin Zurbriggen, Janica Kostelić… To Kjetil André Aamodt, the most medalled alpine skier in Olympic history, undisputed leader in alpine combined until 2007, when he retired after being nominated ‘Norwegian athlete of the year’. That same year, as fate would have it, the World Cup Alpine combined title was introduced. A crystal globe that sometimes has had Italian owners—for information ask Peter Fill and Federica Brignone—and that in the men’s circuit has been delivered directly to Alexis Pinturault for quite some time. The French skier has in fact been able to put his versatility to good account by turning it into the keystone of his career.

After its magazine-cover start and before the World Cup titles mentioned above, alpine combined was often the deciding factor of whole seasons. Almost silent, absolutely unpredictable, it was rarely included in the predictions and plans at the beginning of the season, but ended up making all the difference when it was time to determine the final standings. Like in 1992, when, in an ‘Alpine derby’, the Swiss Paul Accola won the overall title beating Alberto Tomba, the runner-up, by 300 points—points that he had earned thanks to the 3 victories out of 3 in the alpine combined races organised throughout the season.

The real beauty of the combined, though, is its capability of astonishing and sometimes becoming the unforgettable moment in a series of unforgettable moments. The perfect setting for any Cinderella story. Like the story of Josef Polig, from South Tyrol, who apparently got the nickname ‘Joe-Speck’ because he sold speck (a dry-cured, lightly smoked ham from South Tyrol) under the counter. Joe was versatile but had little success—some good finishes here and there, nothing more. In 1991 he was in the top-30 in 4 disciplines out of 5, a bit of everything without overdoing it.

The following year, though, at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, he had his moment of glory, as unexpected as extraordinary. All the greatest skiers of the time, from Accola to Gunther Mader, participated in that Olympic alpine combined competition. After two wonderful downhill runs, Gianfranco Martin was in second and Joe-Speck in sixth place and that, for the Italian team, was a good result.

Then, during the two slalom runs, the snow conditions got worse and worse and all the favourites for the race—literally, all of them—fell, straddled a gate, or skied badly. It was a fantastic 1-2 finish for Italy: Polig won and Martin finished in second place. All the media attention was on them.

Joe-Speck never got on the podium again—not at the Olympics, not at the World Ski Championships, not even in the World Cup. It was a memorable moment.

A young Kristian Ghedina participated in that Olympic alpine combined race as well, finishing sixth. The year before, at the 1991 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in Saalbach-Hinterglemm, he was able to make an incredible comeback as only in alpine combined can happen.

It was his World Championship debut. In Super-G, with the bib number 4 and a hot pink suit, he finished 9th, not far from the leaders but not close enough to try to win a medal. He, who was a specialist in speed disciplines.

In the first slalom run of the alpine combined, as expected, the best slalom skiers of the time achieved the best results. Kristian finished his first run in 18th place, so in the second one he had to watch the best 15 as a non-paying spectator before finishing his race.

It looked like the standings were not going to change—Stephan Eberharter first, Gunther Mader second and Paul Accola third. In the Finish Area, fans were singing victory chants and the podium began to be assembled. Meanwhile, at the start gate, Ghedina—wearing a more traditional teal blue suit—was ready to finish his first world championship alpine combined race, amid general indifference and in front of the somewhat shallow Telemontecarlo commentators, who said they hoped he would not take unnecessary risks, since he was out of the running for a medal.

But Kristian never cared much about good advice. He got off to a flying start, took lots of risks and skied his best slalom run ever. Second. Silver medal for the man from Cortina d’Ampezzo.

Everyone was in such disbelief that no one, or almost no one, noticed it, not even the commentators who, up until the final results were calculated and a ‘2’ appeared on the display next to Kristian’s name, did not know what to say.

 

Alpine combined was and is a world of its own, an ancient and romantic world, in which there is still room for narratives and for feats that defy predictions.

Contemporary sports are made of specialisations, of research and constant challenge based on the technique, on the details. Nothing is left to chance, even less is left to fate and technology sometimes makes what’s left less thrilling.

Yet the first time alpine skiing appeared in the Olympics, it did with that mix of adrenaline and romance that is alpine combined.

And if at the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in Åre the gold medals were won by the favourites to win, many others World Championships held several, unexpected surprises. Who knows what will happen at the next ones, in Cortina.

Because if you want to win an alpine combined race, you need a little bit of everything, like the Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans from Harry Potter. You need to have talent and curiosity, to always look for new things and adventures, like Leni Riefenstahl, the first to ever film the winter Olympics.

She was a resourceful but also marvellous woman. She got married four times, the last one when she was already over 100 years old, and on her 72nd birthday she lied about her age in order to be certified for scuba diving—a certification she needed for her next, incredible feat.

 

The Owl Post per Cortina 2021