19/07/2020THE LEGEND OF FANES | CHPT. 4
Let’s start from the end to tell the story of Giant Slalom, or simply GS. Just like the story of Benjamin Button, whose origin is a funny mystery because there are several people to whom we owe its existence.
We owe it a bit to Mark Twain who was a source of inspiration for it. “It is a pity that the best part of life comes at the beginning, and the worst part at the end”, he once said.
We owe it to Francis Scott Fitzgerald, the author of The Great Gatsby, who in 1922 wrote a short story taking inspiration from this remark.
And eventually a bit to David Fincher who, more recently, directed a film based on this short story starring Brad Pitt as Benjamin Button.
Here in Italy, which has a great artistic tradition, someone might have something to say about the origin of the idea, since in 1911 a poet from Turin, Giulio Gianelli, wrote and published the short story Storia di Pipino, nato vecchio e morto bambino (The tale of Pipino, born an old man and died a child) in the newspaper L’Avvenire.
Gianelli was a poet of the crepuscolarismo school and his work was characterised by a mood of melancholy and twilight; he won’t take this theft personally.
Benjamin Button, like Pipino, was born an old man and died a child. Before they died, however, they learned that there is beauty on both sides of the bridge and that, in the end, the most important things in life almost never change, even if you try to turn them upside down.
Let’s start from the end, then.
Let’s start with Federica Brignone who has won the GS World Cup title in a strange season. Strange for everyone, but nobody will ever have to flick through an almanac to remember what has happened, because no one will ever forget anything about 2020.
Federica was born with skis on her feet, partly thanks to her mother Ninna.
She too was a great alpine ski racer. She was one of the icons of Valanga rosa, the Italian women’s team which thrilled millions of Italians in the 1980s. And the same credit, perhaps, goes to Federica’s father Daniele who was a ski instructor.
Federica is used to being on the snow and she doesn’t even have to find the perfect balance anymore. It would be like trying to focus on walking.
Of course, if you go fast and there are some bumps and jumps, it’s difficult to have everything right, but you still adapt to the conditions naturally.
In short, if you think too much, you risk ending up with your arse on the snow.
In any case, GS is a technically demanding discipline and talent alone is not enough to succeed. There are two runs, and what you achieve in the first run thanks to your bib, the sunlight and the snow conditions can easily fade away in the second one.
It’s like a marathon, made of technique, strength and sensation.
The mountains play a central role, as always.
With their roughness, the shape of their valleys, their slopes and natural trajectories.
The human ability to understand those slopes and their roughness plays a central role too, since new race courses need to be set every time.
In GS, the skiers have to ‘interpret’ the course, set by someone who had first to ‘interpret’ the mountain.
The interpretation of an interpretation.
La copia di mille riassunti (the copy of a thousand summaries), as the singer-songwriter Samuele Bersani would perhaps say to tell of a discipline in which the past and the present endlessly chase each other, striving for a perfection that is impossible to achieve but still important to keep in mind.
To keep in mind, like the rapid succession of blue and red gates, the finishing touch to a great result.
To keep in mind and visualise.
GS is synonymous with visualisation.
One, three, ten visualisations.
Your torso rested on your poles, while you visualise the course and hear the sound of the snow under your skis or that of edging in your mind. Sometimes you make mistakes, but often you get it right, and after the last visualisation—just before the start—you almost seem to know everything that will happen once you leave the start gate.
It’s been a golden year, or better, a ‘crystal’ year for Brignone who was able to put a smile on the faces of all Italian fans in such a difficult time for Italy, which was struck harder than other countries.
She became the first Italian female skier to win the World Cup Overall title, with 1,378 points, breaking the historic record of Alberto Tomba which had stood since 1995.
It’s been an extraordinary season for her; she also won the Alpine combined title.
We, and she too, would have liked to see the three crystal globes sparkling in the Cortina sunlight. There’s no doubt about it, but the party has only been postponed because an even bigger party awaits us.
The first Italian female racer to win the GS World Cup title was Deborah Compagnoni.
3 Olympic golds (4 Olympic medals in total) in three different Winter Olympics, from Albertville 1992 to Nagano 1998, plus three golds at the World Ski Championships.
She had to deal with some falls and injuries in her career that almost shattered her dream of making her mark on the World Cup circuit too.
A dream that however came true in the 1996/97 season. In fact, the athlete from Valtellina, the most beloved skier of a magical decade for Italian skiing on a par with Tomba, managed to win her first, and only, crystal globe.
There were seven GS events that season and the German Katja Seizinger was as always the favourite. Katja was a cannibal, a bit like Eddy Merckx, and versatile, a bit like Michael Phelps, and had clinched both the GS and the overall titles in the previous season.
Just like two heavyweight boxers with a different style, but both at the peak of their careers, they chased each other on the World Cup circuit, until Deborah took the lead of the World Cup GS standings ahead of Katja around mid-January, thanks to back-to-back victories in the enemy country, at Zwiesel in Bavaria.
At the end of the season, Deborah won the GS title ahead of the German, who ended up losing on all fronts, finishing behind her teammate Hilde Gerg in the Super-G standings, and behind Sweden’s Pernilla Wiberg in the overall standings.
The History of Italian alpine skiing, however, is full of great accomplishments in Giant Slalom, especially in the men’s GS. Italy have won 8 titles.
Piero Gross one, Gustav Thöni three and Alberto Tomba four.
Tomba would deserve and will perhaps deserve a whole book about him. Who knows, maybe the Slalom story could be the preface to it.
However, we are talking about Giant Slalom, and if there is an Italian champion who aimed at being all-round, it is most certainly the man from Trafoi.
If you are born at the height of the 46th hairpin bend out of the 48 designed by the engineer Carlo Donegani to tame the Stelvio, you are sure going to learn how to ski.
As the first, great Italian ski champion, Gustav has numerous ‘firsts’ that will ensure he will be remembered forever.
Besides being mentioned in a song by the Italian singer-songwriter Rino Gaetano and being the hero of some urban myths that exalted his extraordinary talent—much like the Chuck Norris ‘facts’—Thöni won as many as three GS World Cup titles in 1970, 1971 and 1972.
Those were three memorable years for one of the legends of this sport; he was predestined to succeed, there’s no doubt about it. Suffice it to say that he won his very first World Cup race as a debutant and the gold medal in his first appearance at the Winter Olympics, at Sapporo 1972.
Both competitions were GS races, that goes without saying.
Talking about predestination, sometimes you guess right and sometimes you don’t. When he was only fourteen years old, Gustav won the Trofeo Topolino on Monte Bondone, defeating all the other talented kids of the time. That same year, a young Swedish boy, a certain Ingemar Stenmark, only managed to claim a twelfth place.
This could surprise or amuse the youngest, but the Trofeo Topolino was a real debutante ball in which all—or almost all—the future champions participated to introduce themselves. The list of champions of this event is every bit as impressive as the one of the more prestigious senior competitions. Among the winners of the Trofeo Topolino were: Marc Girardelli, Paolo De Chiesa, Michaela Gerg, Beat Feuz, and even Mikaela Shiffrin, who in 2010 won both the SL and the GS races clocking faster times than her male colleagues in both competitions.
The event was organised under the aegis of Walt Disney by the famous TV presenter Mike Bongiorno and Rolly Marchi, a journalist specialising in winter sports, who was the Italian correspondent at every Winter Olympics from Garmisch-Partenkirchen 1936 to Turin 2006.
There were many little champions, then, and the young Stenmark put his bad result at the 1965 Trofeo Topolino behind him and went on to become a champion, overshadowing all those who had placed ahead of him.
Like every legend, like Benjamin Button, Stenmark too can claim his origins to be a bit intriguing. Ingemar was born in Joesjö, in Lapland, also known as Sápmi. Lapland is a large region in northern Europe that comprises part of Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway.
Stenmark was born under the jurisdiction of Gustav VI Adolf of Sweden, but he was not only a Swede, he was above all a Laplander, a Sámi.
Trained by an Italian, who had been the first to recognise his talent, Stenmark won everything that could possibly be won on skis—3 Olympic medals, 7 World Championship medals, 3 World Cup Overall titles, 8 World Cup SL titles and 7 World Cup GS titles.
7 GS titles, that’s huge. No one ever managed to win as many.
He recorded no less than 46 victories in his career, thanks to his perfect, copybook technique.
A complete domination, and nothing could summarise it better than the 1978/79 season. He won ten GS races out of ten and, if you add the final part of the previous season and the kick-off of the following season, he set an unbeaten record of 14 consecutive GS wins.
Astonishingly, that season the Laplander won the GS World Cup title by only 21 points over the Swiss Peter Lüscher who, despite winning only three races in total, clinched the overall title due to the complex scoring system.
Anyway, the star of Stenmark remained the brightest one in the firmament of the White Circus, or better, got brighter and brighter and Stenmark became a legend, also thanks to some ups and downs in his career. Like when he was not allowed to participate in the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo because he was paid by some sponsors, which was prohibited at the time. Or when he made the decision—a rebellious but also romantic decision—to avoid the big ski companies of the time and rely on the little, unknown Elan, in Yugoslavia, which produced the iconic RC model specifically for him.
The GS Hall of Fame, as is almost always the case in alpine skiing, is full of legendary names and great champions that populate its memories and become a yardstick for the future.
Tradition has it that the first GS race was organised to replace a DH race on Mottarone, in Piedmont, in 1935. There was little snow, so the race director decided to place gates, make the skiers follow slower lines and divide the race into two runs instead of only one.
The rest is history.
From Verena Schneider, 5 World Cup GS titles, to Annemarie Moser-Pröll.
From Marcel Hirscher to Ted Ligety.
There could be thousands of stories.
But if our intention is to get to the beginning starting from the end, we cannot leave out the first two winners of the World Cup GS title—Jean-Claude Killy, from France, and Nancy Greene from Ottawa, Canada.
The 1960s were incredible years, full of pioneers and adventurers on skis who, halfway between movie stars and Greek mythological heroes, accomplished unprecedented athletic feats that no one will ever match in the history of this sport.
Nancy and Jean-Claude, then, the first two winners of the World Cup GS title.
The Canadian skier won the first two globes, in 1967 and 1968, and clinched the overall titles as well. She was a live wire, even when she was a senator. She is still a live wire now that she is retired.
She was a committed politician and mainly focused on aboriginal affairs, fishing and the oceans.
Now 77 years old, she has no intention of giving up, just like Mrs. Fletcher, whom she even resembles a bit.
Killy, who looked like he was ready to star in a film by Federico Fellini, won almost every title in 1967—Overall, Downhill, Slalom and Giant Slalom.
He then became a racing driver and pursued an acting career as well, just like our old acquaintance Toni Sailer. Killy also followed Sailer’s footsteps at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, where he managed to win three gold medals, like the German skier at Cortina 1956.
Here are the first ones, as beautiful as the last ones, and as great as those who are in the middle. GS is a discipline that has never stopped fascinating the fans and testing the skills of the skiers.
Giant Slalom is for the most all-round champions, who have learnt to take the best from different things, a bit like Pipino, born an old man and died a child.