Marc of Excellence Girardelli, the One-Man Gang From Luxembourg, Says World Cup Titles Mean More Than Olympic Gold

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Smaller than our Rhode Island, that speck of a state, Luxembourg measures 999 square miles and asks that you consider every square inch.

It boasts a 100% literacy rate and one of the world's highest standards of living. What it can't produce, it imports, from commodities as varied as alloys to Alpine skiers.

On the map, Luxembourg looks like an ink splat on the borders of Belgium, Germany and France. Yet, the nation of 400,000 is fiercely protective.

And no subject is touchier than that of its most beloved sportsman, Marc Girardelli, the greatest Alpine skier in the world today, perhaps ever.

Under the flag of Luxembourg, the five-time World Cup overall champion has won everything there is to win in skiing except an Olympic gold medal.

Girardelli is the Winter Olympics in Luxembourg. He is the nation's only representative here, where he will try again to become the first gold-medal winner from Luxembourg since 1952.

If a man was ever a country, it is Girardelli. In last year's final Nation's Cup, he finished seventh in the men's overall division, totaling more World Cup points than the countries of

Canada, Germany and the United States.

It matters not that there are few mountains to speak of in Luxembourg, no ski academies or, for that matter, much recreational interest in skiing.

It matters not that Girardelli lives in Switzerland, not Luxembourg, and does not take his Luxembourg citizenship all that seriously.

It is enough for Luxembourg that Girardelli stops by to pick up his mail.

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You will never have visa problems in Luxembourg as long as you never mention that Girardelli is Austrian born.

Do so in a public arena and you will probably receive correspondence on premium bond stationary and embossed letterhead from Alphonse Berns, ambassador of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg to the United States.

Berns is protector of Luxembourg's interests abroad; that is, protector of Girardelli.

"I take exception that people continue to mention that he is Austrian born and runs for Luxembourg," Berns said from his offices in Washington. "In fact, Girardelli went through the whole procedure to become a Luxembourger. It was pretty tough. We consider him a true Luxembourger. I have never heard in this country the reference to the 'Czech-born Martina Navratilova.' "

Girardelli did not dock in Luxembourg with grand designs to bolster its international image or GNP. The motivation to move was the scheme of Marc's cantankerous father, Helmut, who wanted the best for his talented skier-son, even if it meant pulling up stakes at the greatest ski academy in the world--Austria.

When Marc was 11, he was defeating all comers in ski races in and around his hometown of Lustenau.

Girardelli had spunk. When asked as a child if he wanted to meet David Zwilling, the 1974 world champion in downhill, Marc declined, saying he preferred to wait until Zwilling asked for his autograph.

Austrian ski officials got wind of kid wunderbar and insisted he enroll in a special boarding ski school in Schruns, 30 miles from home.

Girardelli's father preferred that Marc stay home. Helmut, a hotel owner, had been training Marc himself with techniques that later some would consider revolutionary.

After a last-straw dispute with the Austrian ski federation, Helmut decided in 1976 to take his 12-year-old and leave home.

Switzerland seemed nice. Germany, perhaps. But Helmut didn't know anyone in those countries.

He did have a government contact in Luxembourg, though, Aime Knepper, who arranged for Marc to ski there.

With one considerable snag.

Girardelli would be welcome as a racer, but not as a citizen, making him ineligible to compete for Luxembourg in Olympic or world championship competition.

Girardelli established residence in Luxembourg but the citizenship process took nearly 10 years, depriving him of opportunities to compete in the 1980 and 1984 Winter Olympics.

Even so, Girardelli says he has never regretted leaving his homeland.

"That was necessary," he says. "I'm not such a nationalist. The color of the passport is not very important."

There were discussions in Luxembourg about exempting Girardelli from the normal citizenship process, but the government ultimately denied him any special favors.

"That's why I hate the implicit references of his Luxembourg nationality as something you just have to show up in some office and you get," Ambassador Berns says.

Girardelli, renouncing his Austrian birthright, became a citizen of Luxembourg in 1985.

While Luxembourg hangs on his every turn, Girardelli maintains that winning an Olympic gold medal is not important to him.

Before the 1984 Sarajevo Games, in which he could not participate, Girardelli won five of eight World Cup slaloms and would have been a favorite for the gold.

"I don't think it was right," he says of his exclusion. "1984 was one of my best seasons."

Injuries before the 1988 Calgary Games doomed his medal chances there.

Girardelli did win two silver medals, in giant slalom and super-G, at the 1992 Albertville Games.

He says winning World Cup overall titles are the true indicator of his dominance. As is his custom, Girardelli started slowly this season but has come on strong of late and ranks third in the World Cup overall behind Norway's Kjetil Andre Aamodt and Italy's Alberto Tomba.

After the Lillehammer Games, Girardelli will resume his chase for an unprecedented sixth overall title.

When asked about the Olympics, Girardelli scoffs that his silver medals aren't even made of silver.

"At least the World Cup bowl is made of real glass," he says.

Recently, he reiterated those feelings in statements reprinted by Ski Racing, the International ski journal.

"Are there Olympics this year?" Girardelli was quoted as saying. "The athletes are not very important in the Olympics or World Championships. What is important is the opening ceremony, the closing ceremony, the lodging of the journalists and some parties."

Another Olympic chip for that shoulder, Marc?

Within the sport, Girardelli is considered by many the greatest all-around skier in Alpine history. Not only does he ski all four disciplines--slalom, GS, super-G and downhill--he is a threat to win any race he enters.

Included among his 43 World Cup victories are three downhills, 16 slaloms, 10 giant slaloms, seven super-Gs and eight combined events.

With his super-G victory at Wengen, Switzerland, in January, Girardelli moved into second place on the all-time World Cup victory list behind Sweden's Ingemar Stenmark, a slalom specialist who retired with 86 victories.

"He ranks up there with the best in the world, all time," longtime skiing analyst Bob Beattie says.

Yet, in some minds, Girardelli's place in history will be judged by his Olympic success.

Beattie, who knows the skier well, says one should not put much stock in Girardelli's bad-mouthing of the Olympics.

"It's great protection for racers," Beattie said. "Very few of them say, 'This is my dream, to win the medal,' because they know it's so tough, a crapshoot. It's great to say the goal is the World Cup because they have so many shots at it. I've heard this story so many times, and I don't buy it."

Dare we guess what a gold medal would mean to Luxembourg?

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Girardelli, 30, is running out of runs. His body has more bumps than a mogul course, yet he keeps coming around the mountain.

Actually, there should never have been a ski star named Girardelli, and thus, none of this political wrangling. His should have been the story of the promising career cut short in 1983 when, after a crash, his left knee was all but reduced to hamburger.

"Many people told me to look for another job," Girardelli says now.

He tore every ligament in the knee, the tendon that extends through the knee and cartilage on either side. The famed surgeon to the skiers, Richard Steadman, who performed the four-hour operation, says he has never seen anything quite like Girardelli's recovery.

"That's an understatement," Steadman said. "No one has ever come back to the level he's come back with that kind of injury. Nobody."

Two weeks after surgery, Girardelli hobbled away from Steadman's office on crutches. Steadman told Girardelli he could do some light knee bends.

Two weeks later, Girardelli returned and reported to Steadman that he had been doing 100 half knee bends daily.

Three months later, Girardelli phoned Steadman and wondered if he could begin skiing on his good leg. Steadman gave him the OK. Soon after, Steadman received a picture in the mail of Girardelli skiing on the surgically repaired leg.

"He didn't disregard it," Steadman says of the rehab program he designed for Girardelli. "He just carried it to the extreme. He stayed within the guidelines, but he pushed it pretty far."

Steadman says that Girardelli is one of the finest athletes he has ever encountered.

"He's very powerful. He would have made a fantastic running back in the NFL. There are two things that set him apart: His ability to focus is as good as anyone I've ever seen in sports, and his power."

Despite a career beset with injures, Girardelli keeps plowing back.

In 1987, he dislocated his shoulder so severely he thought his career might be over. He made it through the World Cup season only with the help of an Egyptian nerve specialist, Mohamed Khalifa.

With the bum shoulder, Girardelli still managed to win gold in combined at the world championships. After the season, Steadman performed a five-hour operation to repair the damage Khalifa could not.

The hit parade: In 1988, Girardelli damaged ribs. In 1989, he injured his kidney and bruised his right knee and suffered a concussion. In 1990, he underwent surgery to repair torn muscles and internal bleeding in his left leg.

Last season, Girardelli raced the last eight races with a torn knee ligament. Like the Buffalo Bills, Girardelli keeps coming back, like it or not.

Girardelli's workout regimen is legendary. Beattie says American skiers should take notes.

"The guy is so tenacious," Beattie said. "He's one of the strongest kids I've ever known. Last year, at the end of the season, he took 10 days off, then went back to training. There is a lesson there for everybody. The one thing you can do something about is conditioning. He does everything possible he can do to be as good as he can be."

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There is no telling how Girardelli might have fared had he stayed in the Austrian system. He certainly would have been a star, but, given the fierce competition and plethora of Austrian specialists, you wonder if he could have fought through the crowds to win five overalls.

"I don't know," Girardelli says. "Maybe I would have won seven or eight. I won many races when I was still with the Austrians."

Girardelli doesn't know how much longer he can keep going, but if he happens to claim a gold medal for Luxembourg, you can bet a certain Washington ambassador will be scanning the news services to make sure Luxembourg--all 999 square miles--gets its due.

Berns says, "Contrary to other sportsmen who have changed nationalities, it has to be said that Girardelli has never competed in an international event for any other country than Luxembourg."

It has been said.

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