50 Years World Cup: Lauberhorn Wengen – A long story…

11 January 2017 22:00
Mattia Casse in Wengen
Mattia Casse in Wengen -
Agence Zoom

On Saturday January 14th - 1967 the first ever men’s World Cup downhill took place on the majestic and nearly endless Lauberhorn run dominated by some of the most impressive alpine peaks in Switzerland  – the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau - which dominate the valleys of Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen and attract each year hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world.

Fresh from his victory at Adelboden, France’s Jean Claude Killy over-powered his rivals during the Lauberhorn event that weekend, dominating both races, a feat he repeated at the following ‘Classic’, the Hahnenkamm at Kitzbühel. Those two impressive ‘doubles’ remain unique on the World Cup tour. The star from Val d’Isère went on to win three more downhill races that winter at Megève, Sestrière and Franconia, and was unbeaten in the specialty on the international circuit. He enjoyed a total of 12 victories in the 15 World Cup competitions he finished that winter.

Only six month earlier, in August 7th – 1966, the skier from Val d’Isère aged 22 at that time, celebrated a rather unexpected triumph in the speed event at Portillo in occasion of the first – and probably last – Alpine Ski World Championships hold in the southern hemisphere. While Killy’s talent as giant slalom and slalom specialist was clearly established at that time, only few people believed in his potential as a true downhiller – giving even more credit to his win in the prestigious Lauberhorn downhill which meant a lot to him and his friends.

An old ‘Classic’.
Together with the legendary Arlberg-Kandahar races, the Grand-Prix Emile Allais at Megève or the Hahnenkamm, the Lauberhorn event already represented one of the most prominent international highlights in the alpine season – also because it took place in a region considered by experts as one of the cradles of alpine ski racing in the Alps.

Even though many alpine races – including downhills - had already taken place in other European resorts as Kitzbühel in April 1906 or in Crans-Montana in January 1911, Wengen is considered with his twin resort Mürren, located in front of it above Lauterbrunnen, and St. Anton am Arlberg, as a key player in the development of the discipline in a time when Nordic Skiing was clearly dominating the snow scene.

Five years after the first skiing match above Wengen between racers from the Kandahar Club of Mürren and local skiers from the small village, and two years after the first Kandahar races at St. Anton in 1928, local racer Ernst Gertsch launched the Lauberhorn competitions to put his resort on the ski map. The 30-year-old won the slalom in that first event of 1930 while his friend Christian Rübi dominated the downhill - and Great-Britain’s Bill Bracken the most precious combined.

With the strong support of British tourists found of the Berner Oberland region for decades and other foreign visitors coming from nearby countries as France, Italy or Germany, the Lauberhorn Race soon became the most prominent alpine ski event in the Alps in a difficult time for the sport not always well considered by the Nordic Countries.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of pioneers as England’s Sir Arnold Lunn, the Scandinavian finally accepted to include Alpine Skiing within FIS (International Ski Federation) in 1930 at the FIS Congress at Oslo. From 1931 to 1936 the British visionary organized the first annually International Ski Events which officially became FIS World Championships in 1937 (also called World FIS Games) at Chamonix when the Norwegian Major Nikolai Ramm Oestgaard was serving as FIS President.
A leading role in the 1950s.

While WWII interrupted most ski competitions in Europe, the Lauberhorn event continued to be organized during that sad period which strongly reinforced its position as a leading international alpine meeting on the modest circuit that existed at that time in the Alps.

Top alpine champions from around the globe gathered again at Wengen in the 1950 as alpine ski racing became more and more popular – when Austria’s elite lead by superstars as Toni Sailer, Anderl Molterer or Christian Pravda were dominating the main events.

Swiss TV soon broadcasted the races live making it a well-liked sport event in the country and very popular too in the rest of Europe as TV spectators were strongly impressed by the breathtaking scenery surrounding the longest downhill course on the tour. Ernst Gertsch was happy that his race was included in the first World Cup schedule and mentioned it straight away on the front page of the official program given out to teams and officials.

Great wins for Marc Girardelli.
Most of the overall World Cup champions also excelled in that remarkable event – some of them achieving amazing performances as Marc Girardelli, who managed to win in all disciplines organized in Wengen – downhill, Super-G, slalom and combined! Sweden’s Skiing Legend Ingemar Stenmark captured the slalom three times in a row from 1975 to 1977 while Alberto Tomba excelled there in 1992 and 1995.

Downhill winners as Karl Schranz in 1969, Hermann Maier in 1998, Lasse Kjus in 1999, Stephan Eberharter in 2002 and 2003, Bode Miller in 2008 or Carlo Janka in 2010 as well as combined winners like Benjamin Raich in 2006 or Ivica Kostelic in 2011 – the Croat ‘Ace of Spade’ also won the slalom there that year - clinched the big crystal globe at the end of those seasons!

The 1970s were particularly thrilling with Franz Klammer crushing the rest of the field on the long run from 1975 to 1977 establishing an amazing advance record of 3,54 seconds in January 1975 beating Italy’s Herbert Plank a year after coming in 2nd behind Roland Collombin.

It was also in Wengen that the first downhill victory by an US male skier was celebrated in January 1984 when the late Bill Johnson beat the rest of the field on route to a fantastic Olympic triumph a month later at Sarajevo!

Four years earlier, Ken Read was the first Canadian to win the downhill in January 1980 – a week after his major victory at Kitzbühel! Back in December 1975, Ken was also the first male athlete from North America to excel in downhill at Val d’Isère…

Interestingly enough, two downhills took place that year on the superb Lauberhorn ribbon and he lost the second one by mere 2/100 of a second to Switzerland’s Peter Müller. The brilliant champion from Zürich went on to clinch his second downhill globe later on at Lake Louise, beating Read by only 9 points!

Read, who travelled to Europe earlier this month to watch his son Erik scoring good results in Zagreb and Adelboden, will attend the competitions this year with his former colleagues from the glorious days of the legendary ‘Crazy Canucks’  -  ‘Jungle’ Jim Hunter, Steve Podborski and Dave Irwin. The group was kindly invited by the organizing committee to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the spectacular crashes three of them sustained below the spectacular ‘Hundschopf’ Jump in the first of two speed races in January 1976. It was logically named ‘Canadian Corner’ to remember that incident …

The myth goes on!

© PkL - FIS