Sad Hill Cemetery is one of the gloomiest, most frightening and desolate places in the whole Far West.

It is a bleak and barren landscape. Thousands of graves radiate from a paved circle, like the rays of a black sun. Legend has it that there are over eight thousand graves in total. The crosses are the plainest ever—most of them are made of wood that wouldn’t even be good for kindling a fire, since it’s rotten due to the desert climate.

It almost looks like the clear sky is quivering on the horizon, while a bright, yellow light reflects off the flat stones with which the central circle is paved. In fact, the light is so bright that it is impossible to keep your eyes open, you have to screw them up.

Along the outer perimeter, as if the centre were off-limits, three shady, bearded characters are standing right halfway between the graves behind them and what looks like the centre of the world. They’re sweaty and covered in dust and are looking at each other with intense hatred.

Their sharp tongues are the only thing more vulgar than their appearance. They are sending each other cryptic messages as a consequence of the epic adventure that took them there.

 

The Good—the most taciturn of the three—is the one who gets the ball rolling.

He’s wearing a dark olive green poncho with cream-coloured embroidery that once, presumably, must have been snow-white.

A creased denim shirt appears timidly under the collar.

A black scarf is tied around his neck, as if the Good were always dressed in mourning. Only few centimetres of his face are visible, the rest is hidden by his worn-out broad-brimmed hat, his shaggy beard and the cigar.

Yet those few centimetres are scary enough.

 

The second man is a sadist, a bastard—to call him in an appropriate way for the movie. He’s a stateless adventurer who has earned the nickname ‘the Bad’ even though his professional environment definitely abounds in ruthless bandits.

His clothes are more elegant than those of the Good, but he’s as filthy as the latter. He is wearing a grey suit with a black shirt and a black hat. A throbbing vein of pure wickedness is clearly visible on his face, outlined by his aquiline nose, his handlebar moustache and his eyebrows—the most arched eyebrows ever.

One of his fingers has been severed.

 

The third one, finally, is Ugly, not just in name.

He may be thin.

Or he may be fat, it’s impossible to tell due to the layers of ragged clothes, rust and gunpowder. His clothes are brown, a shade of brown that reminds of terra rossa, and complete the desert colour palette the three of them are wearing on the occasion. Big bulbous nose, unkempt beard, wide, wrinkled and sweaty forehead and long, shaggy sideburns.

Around his neck, he’s wearing a simple rope, almost like an ornament and a memento of all the times in which, during the film, we have seen him almost dead swinging from the gallows.

He is the most scared out of the three.

 

Tension grows and His Majesty Sergio Leone’s editing, with many close-ups of hands, eyes, fingers and triggers, builds to a crescendo of outstanding beauty in the history of Italian and world cinema.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly has finally reached the terminus, the highly anticipated final scene.

In or out, because this town is too small for all of them and “when a man with a .45 meets a man with a rifle, the man with a pistol will be a dead man”.

 

There is something primitive and thrilling in duels, in head-to-head confrontations, because in those moments your past doesn’t count anymore.

Misdeeds and heroic deeds, successes and falls, everything vanishes in a flash.

In a duel, unwritten rules can be changed in a heartbeat, and everything you thought you knew vanishes, like a soap bubble popped by a clumsy finger.

Me against you.

Trigger against trigger.

Edge against edge.

Line against line.

To determine who is the best, without any ifs and buts, without the worsening of the snow conditions, without the sun suddenly disappearing, without timekeeping (or almost).

 

The masterpiece mentioned above is the third and final instalment in the popular ‘Dollars Trilogy’, as well as the Spaghetti Western movie with the most emblematic title in the history of the subgenre. It was released in the scorching summer of 1966, when the children used to play cowboys and Indians in the courtyard.

 

Less than 10 years later, the scene was repeated, this time at very different latitudes. Not in a cemetery in the desert, but in Ortisei. Not amidst burning sand and cactuses, but on the crisp snow in Val Gardena/Gröden. Not in the middle of nowhere, but surrounded by over 50 thousand enthusiastic supporters.

Without guns, luckily, but on skis as sharp as Hattori Hanzō’s swords.

The final race of that World Cup season was a parallel slalom and there was a three-way tie for first place in the overall standings. And they weren’t just any skiers.

 

The Good was Gustav Thöni, Italian pride, who with his Ringo-Starr hairstyle and his reserved manner was the key man of the Italian alpine skiing team. He had already clinched three World Cup overall titles, was the hero of the country, was going to ski in front of the home crowd and was the favourite for the race. The most expert, the one with the best tech skills. The star of the movie. The Clint Eastwood from Stelvio—he even resembled Eastwood a bit for his grim face.

 

Ingemar Stenmark was the Ugly, but he isn’t actually ugly at all.

He wasn’t ugly back then, when he sported a surfer hairstyle and had expressive eyes and a sly look. He isn’t ugly today, even without his surfer hairstyle, but with his usual sly look and expressive eyes.

He was however the enemy on the horizon, the one who was ready to become Thöni’s nemesis. In 1975 Ingemar was only 19 years old and, with a record-breaking exploit, he placed in ten World Cup races in a row, thus moving into a tie with Gustav in the overall World Cup standings with just one race left.

The year before, Ingemar had been 12th and in 1975 he came so close to winning the title—unbelievable, but that’s how champions are born.

 

The Bad, the third gunslinger who was leading the standings with the other two, was Franz Klammer of Austria.

He was actually bad—he was really talented, a gold addicted, and had a Gérard-Depardieu look.

That season, he triumphed in all WC downhill races, including on the Kandahar, the Streif, at Wengen and on the Saslong. He won the downhill title and had the chance to take his very first overall title.

He wasn’t the favourite, yet nobody would ever bet against that bull neck, that square jaw and that competitive force.

 

The parallel event started.

The Bad, Klammer, was immediately eliminated by Helmut Schmalzl of Italy who was born and raised in Ortisei and who would do anything to help Gustav.

It was a day full of tension, with people being accused of match-fixing and the athletes showing signs of tiredness.

Teamwork, however, was allowed and many athletes helped each other.

Tino Pietrogiovanna of Italy ran off the course on purpose so that Thöni could save some energy in view of the final.

In his second round, Stenmark faced Poland’s Bachleda. In the first heat, Stenmark goofed badly and was beaten by 2.5 seconds.

“It’s done!” thought the Italian supporters. But no, it wasn’t—in the second heat Stenmark won the round (some people weren’t really happy about it) and in the semi-final he faced Fausto Radici of Italy.

Everything went according to the script, and the final of the parallel event saw two of the greatest ever, Thöni and Stenmark, compete in a head-to-head battle for the World Cup title. An exciting ending, where the student and the master, the hare and the hunter, faced each other, with their fingers on the triggers, to get the final jackpot.

 

A small gap wouldn’t be so unbridgeable after the first heat, though the champion’s DNA became ravenous in the final battle and the two took risky, aggressive lines.

They raced ski tip to ski tip, past gate after gate, with not even an inch of difference between them, both showing off their great elegance and power.

Then, at the next to last gate on the course, the young Swede felt the pressure, made a mistake, straddled a gate and fell. Gustav won the race, he won the cup, he celebrated with the thousands of people who lined the course to enjoy that historic duel.

 

There have been many other historic duels after that one. Duels between the two, of course, but also between many other great tech champions, who have dominated the alpine skiing scene over the decades.

It was in a parallel slalom, held on Christmas Day 1984 in Milan, that Alberto Tomba delivered a standout performance.

The parallel made its debut in the alpine team event as well, at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang after the great interest it aroused in some previous editions of the World Championships.

Like the latest one, in Åre, where the Italian team got a bronze behind Switzerland and Austria—this bodes very well for the upcoming Cortina 2021 World Championships.

 

The fight one vs one is exciting. It’s simple and direct.

After the Western countries stopped making wars against each other, sport has become the ground for epic and heroism.

People’s thoughts, with their edges and roughness, are embodied in the values of the duellists.

Ali vs Frazier.

Federer vs Nadal.

Senna vs Prost.

It’s never just about sport.

 

That’s why the parallel represents the purest essence of the competitive spirit.

Citius, Altius, Fortius. Faster, higher, stronger.

That’s the Olympic motto.

Yes, faster, higher and stronger than you.

 

Although the real reason why we like direct confrontation is perhaps that beyond the armour, beyond the stereotype and beyond the simplifications, we are all the same.

As maestro Ennio Morricone, the late lamented giant of Italy, who composed an unforgettable soundtrack to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, showed us.

In fact, the musical theme of the film is always the same melody, but a different instrument is used for each of the three main characters.

 

A soprano recorder for the Good.

An ocarina for the Bad.

Human voices for the Ugly.

 

Because that’s exactly what the three characters are—the same song played by different instruments.

And that’s what we all are.

We love the parallel, we love the challenge and we are always looking for confrontation, eager to see who the fastest gun in the West is.

 

The Owl Post for Cortina 2021