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Mueller Leads Swiss to a Downhill Sweep : Tiny Nation Takes the Top Four Spots in World Championships

Times Assistant Sports Editor

The race, it is said, belongs to the swift. In skiing, it belongs to the Swiss.

This tiny nation, known for its Rolex watches, Bally shoes, Suchard chocolates and banks with celebrity clients such as Lt. Col. Ollie North, has also become the world’s premier ski racing power.

Any doubt about this was dispelled on a brilliantly sunny, blue-sky Saturday in the Alps as 29-year-old Peter Mueller led a Swiss sweep of the men’s downhill medals at the World Ski Championships.

In fact, a Swiss monopoly of the first five places was averted only because Canadian Rob Boyd managed to finish fifth.

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The big losers were the Austrians and American Doug Lewis, who was trying at least to repeat his bronze-medal performance in the last world championships at Bormio, Italy, in 1985. The top Austrian, Leonhard Stock, was eighth. Lewis, who wound up 29th, was not even the highest-placed American (Mike Brown was 21st).

But Lewis will probably be permitted to return to the United States. There was some question Saturday night whether Stock and his teammates would be allowed back into Austria, a proud skiing nation that gave the world Karl Schranz and Franz Klammer.

Schranz, incidentally, was here to watch the debacle, and he said afterward: “This is a grave national problem. It was worse than I ever imagined it would be. Of course, we have not won any World Cup downhills this season, so I was not sure about the gold medal. I thought Mueller would win, but I expected that maybe (Austrian Helmut) Hoeflehner would be second, with (Swiss Pirmin) Zurbriggen third.

“Now, we must go back to work. We must train harder.”

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Schranz, a two-time World Cup champion who for the past two years has been the representative of Austria’s secretary of state on his country’s ski federation, added: “Our downhillers had become too complacent. They know how to ski. It is all up here (tapping his forehead). But it is good to have the Swiss and the Canadians and sometimes the Americans do well. It is good for the sport.”

He didn’t sound altogether convincing with his last remark.

Lewis, 23, of Salisbury, Vt., has not exactly been burning up the World Cup circuit himself this season. He has scored one point in eight races, getting that for his 15th place at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, West Germany, early last month.

“I thought I had a chance here,” Lewis said. “I was also an underdog at Bormio. I like being in that position. I had a good training run yesterday, in the top 15 times, and I figured I might just be able to sneak in and steal a medal again.

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“But I went off course in the middle, and there’s no way you can get back in the race when you do that. It’s typical. I’ve really been struggling. I haven’t even been able to find the right skis. The Rossignol (Ski Co.) people are working hard to help me, but so far no luck.”

Lewis, an accomplished musician, said he has been training so hard that he hasn’t had time for either the cello or the piano in more than two years, “except for now and then in a hotel lounge.” He added: “We’ve been traveling constantly since November.”

America’s other downhill star, Bill Johnson, is out for at least the rest of this season after two major operations, and Lewis, who plans to continue racing at least through the 1988 Olympic Winter Games, has doubts that Johnson will be at Calgary with him, either.

“I don’t know,” Lewis said. “Bill had surgery on both his knee and back. It’s going to take a lot of hard work, and I’m not sure he can do that anymore. The one thing he has going for him is his mind. He can get really determined sometimes and surprise you.

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“He and I are totally different. I always work hard and take advice or help from everybody. But Bill . . . I don’t know.”

Saturday, it was left up to Canada to uphold some measure of North American prestige in the downhill. Boyd, who won’t be 20 for two more weeks, didn’t actually come from left field for his fifth place. He has already won a World Cup downhill this season, at Val Gardena, Italy, and said the course here wasn’t so terrifying. “It was nothing like Kitzbuhel (in Austria) last weekend,” he said. “I wasn’t even sure I was going to make it down there.”

Saturday, he held second place for a time, behind Zurbriggen--but all the Swiss hadn’t come down yet. When the smoke had cleared, Mueller was first in 2 minutes 7.80 seconds, followed by Zurbriggen, 2:08.13; Swiss Karl Alpiger, 2:08.20; Swiss Franz Heinzer, 2:08.34; Canada’s Boyd, 2:08.50, and still another Swiss, Daniel Mahrer, 2:09.06.

The new world downhill champion is a compactly built, blond-haired veteran of the international racing wars. Mueller translated his own answers to questions from the media into three languages--French, German and English--and said the course was “difficult because there were so many bumps.”

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He added: “On each one, it was easy to get off your line and then hard to regain a new one.”

The most spectacular bump was at the top of the final slope, where the racers became airborne for up to 50 feet and then had to negotiate a sharp left turn before the final schuss to the finish.

It may have been where Zurbriggen lost it by taking too much air. He had the fastest intermediate times through the fourth checkpoint, leading Mueller by .05 of a second, but Mueller won by .33.

Today, Zurbriggen, the current World Cup leader, who will be 24 next Wednesday, will get another crack at a gold medal-in the combined. To do so, he will have to ski faster than his old nemesis, Marc Girardelli of Luxembourg, in the downhill portion of the two-race event. Girardelli holds a 1.16-second lead over Zurbriggen, carrying over from last Tuesday’s combined slalom.

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The men will compete after the women’s downhill, and guess which nation has most of the favorites. Hint: It starts with an “S,” and it’s not Sweden.

About the only question concerning Switzerland’s Maria Walliser, Michela Figini and their teammates is whether they were able to get enough sleep Saturday night. At a rather late hour, the incessant clanging of cowbells was still reverberating through the cold air and echoing off the peaks surrounding this high plateau, where more than 40,000 partisans from Geneva, Zurich and elsewhere have gathered for a weekend of ski racing and other excesses.

But the way the Swiss have been skiing, they could probably win the gold with a partied-out Heidi.


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