WHEN THE “BLUE AVALANCHE” OF ITALIAN RACERS
SMOTHERED THE COMPETITION BY HANK MCKEE
In the 2010-2011 season, it’s been a Croatian, Ivica
Kostelic, who’s changed the flag flown over podium
after podium. Thirty years ago, it was the Italians
— led by a new coach, Mario Cotelli, and a stable of
very young horses — doing the same thing.
Gustavo Thoeni, 1971.
The Italian men had not been major players before the ‘70s. Fact is,
they had barely been players at all. They didn’t own a Cup podium, let
alone a win, until Gustavo Thoeni, just 19, won in his first tour race, at
Val d’Isere. It was a revelation for the young group, and they surged
into the vacuum of Thoeni’s wake. Within four seasons they controlled
the slaloms and particularly the giant slaloms. From January of 1974
through the end of the season, three skiers in the top six was the worst
team GS performance. Three and four skiers in the top five was a more
common sight, and five of five made them an international sensation.
It all started in 1970, when the teenaged Thoeni stunned the established stars by winning four races — three giant slaloms and one slalom — to claim the GS title and finish a scant eight points behind the
great Karl Schranz for the overall. It was no fluke. Thoeni (whose father
also joined the coaching staff) and his whole generation of young racers were taking full advantage of better ski equipment, ignoring the
popular wisdom of the time that it was necessary to set up for turns.
Thoeni would win the next three overall titles and then narrowly miss
his fourth straight when an even younger teammate, Piero Gros, won
in 1974. Thoeni rebounded to win in ‘75. To this day he remains one of
four men to win four overall titles (Marc Girardelli owns five).
While Thoeni was the fuse that lit the Squadra Azzura, he was far from
the only volatile component. The aforementioned Gros, Herbert Plank,