STOCKHOLM, Sweden (AP) _ Ingemar Stenmark used to say that an athlete should retire while he’s still on top. So why didn’t history’s greatest ski racer quit seven years ago?
″I’ll race as long as I’m enjoying it,″ Stenmark said. ″I just didn’t want to quit when I was at my best because I still liked ski racing so much.″
For the record, he’s not that far past his prime, even at age 31 and seven years after winning two gold medals in the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid.
And, barring injury, Stenmark hints he just might stick around for the 1992 Olympics - although he would be 36. If he does that, he would be a decade past the age when a skier is considered over the hill.
Stenmark has a more immediate goal than the 1992 Olympics. The 1988 Winter Games are only three months away. Those games at Calgary, Alberta, represent a comeback for the stoic Swede, who was barred from the 1984 Games at Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, because his professional status didn’t satisfy Olympic eligibility requirements.
His absence was sorely felt by the Sarajevo organizers, who took the unprecedented step of escorting Stenmark on a tour of the Olympic facilities, a courtesy usually reserved for international dignataries.
Earlier this year, Stenmark agreed to transfer all his endorsement contracts to a Swedish Ski Federation account to improve his chances of regaining Olympic eligibility. Stenmark has about 15 such contracts, most involving ski equipment and about half are with foreign companies. It has been estimated that Stenmark makes about $1 million a year.
Stenmark’s return marks the first time in history that an athlete has been allowed to compete again after being banned from the Winter Olympics, according to former International Ski Federation (FIS) Secretary General Sigge Bergman of Sweden.
″The Games should definitely be open for everybody,″ Stenmark says. ″Being back in the Olympics means a lot for me. They give me more motivation. I think without the Olympics it would have been very hard to get motivated.″
As for the Games, ″I’ll try to do my best, and if I don’t win a medal it’s not a big problem for me,″ he says. ″I don’t have to prove anything. I’ve won all the races I’ve tried to win and right now I’m just skiing for fun. But I’d like to have a good result in Calgary.″
Stenmark is the graybeard of Alpine skiing, a year older than his longtime slalom sidekick, Bojan Krizaj of Yugoslavia. This will be Stenmark’s 15th season, a tenure unmatched in World Cup history. He broke through in March 1974 by placing second in the first slalom race he ever entered, and hasn’t slowed since.
In the intervening years, he has accumulated 85 victories, a staggering 56 more than his nearest challenger, Pirmin Zurbriggen of Switzerland. Stenmark’s popularity during his prime was such that Sunday church services in Sweden were delayed so his fans could watch him race.
Zurbriggen, who won two gold and two silver medals in the World Championships last February, believes that Stenmark could still be a winner.
″I think it’s good that Ingemar got another Olympic chance,″ says Zurbriggen, considered one of the best all-around skiers in history. ″He could win again in Calgary. Every time I see him race I realize that I have still a lot to learn.″
Despite three overall titles, eight titles each in slalom and giant slalom, five Olympic and World Championship golds, Stenmark says he feels as hungry as ever because of the chance at more Olympic glory.
″I had planned to go on competing on the World Cup circuit no matter what decision would be taken on my Olympic status,″ he says. ″The World Cup is interesting, but the Olympics are something special.″
So special, in fact, that Stenmark is reaching deep into his bag of training tricks to get ready for Calgary. In deference to his years, he has reduced his preseason snow training to about 20 days in order to ″survive″ the long season. This season, he spent the summer competing in international races in Australia, then began his season preparation in August. It marks the first time in 10 years he has devoted so much time to training.
″I feel more motivated to train this season because of the Olympics and I will work much harder than in the past,″ he said.
Swede Tomas Carlsson, who used to coach in the United States and now is with the Swedish Ski Team, asked Stenmark to join his squad on the Australian tour. Besides training and competing on real winter snow, Stenmark used the opportunity to test a new pair of old ski boots.
″I tested a pair from 1984,″ he says. ″I won two slalom races with these boots and I will use them this season. It was a perfect time to test new equipment in Australia.″
Training Down Under brought back some pleasant memories for Stenmark.
″I had a successful season, winning two world championships at Garmisch (West Germany) when I trained in Australia last time (1977),″ he recalls.
Having completed ″good, quality snow training″ meant that he could squeeze in a few more rounds of golf before beginning fall preparations. Golf is Stenmark’s other big passion. He’s a 17-handicapper.
Stenmark says that staying healthy has been the key to his long career. He has never been injured despite starting 242 races over 14 World Cup seasons, a remarkable string in a sport so demanding on knees and legs.
″I’ve had a few slight colds, but they didn’t prevent me from competing.″
He almost missed a race at Aspen, Colo., two years ago when he contracted a stomach virus.
″I couldn’t get out of my bed on race day,″ Stenmark recalls. ″But it turned out that the competition was canceled after the skiers complained about the surface. When the race finally was held (at Lake Placid the next week), I won it.″
End Adv Weekend Editions Nov. 21-22