In My View Death of a Ski Man

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On a hot summer day in 1966, Serge Lang arrived at my Manhattan office, and my life was never quite the same.

He appeared even more massive than his 240 lbs. and height would suggest. General de Gaulle, at 6 feet 4 inches, once commented that Serge Lang was the only person he'd ever met who could look him straight in the eye. Much of Lang's avoirdupois appeared to be concentrated in a beach-ball abdomen that teetered on legs that were less tree trunks than uncertainly attached branches. His skull was square and massive, framing a florid peasant's face that could have come from a Breugel painting. Having just arrived from Portillo, Chile, he lumbered through SKI Magazine's warren of office cubicles like a giant Centurion tank invading a small village.

A year earlier, Lang had written in SKI about a gifted unknown French racer named Jean-Claude Killy. Confidently arriving at my door, he didn't bother to introduce himself and immediately¿and loudly¿told me about the brilliance of Killy and how France had routed the once invincible Austrians at the recent World Alpine Ski Championships. Lang spoke in a deep, guttural half-shout. By contrast, his laugh was a squealing "hee hee hee hee" that punctuated ridiculous stories that he told with relish about athletes and bumbling officials. He had already been a journalist for 20 years, writing hundreds of reports on ski and cycling races in German, Italian and French.

We discussed racing's new World Cup, which had just received FIS approval at Portillo. Lang, whose principal employer was the French sports daily L'Equipe, told me about how the season-long competition was conceived.

"The newspaper already held a series of classic bicycle stage races in which the competitors accumulate points, and so it seemed like a good idea for skiing. By totaling results from different races over a winter, you can really know who are the best skiers. So we started a European series (in 1966). At the Hahnenkamm in Kitzbühel, I told Bob Beattie that it should be expanded into a World Cup, with North American races."

The idea appealed immediately to Beattie, the U.S. Ski Team head coach, because bringing elite international races to the U.S. would raise the caliber of American skiing and satisfy a growing television interest in the sport.

By now, Lang's huge hands were windmilling the air as he spoke. Many competitions over a whole season, he said, would be a superior way to judge racers compared to a single Olympic or World Championship event. And journalists understood that weekly changes in the standings would furnish grist for their papers.

"We want American exposure," he said. "Why doesn't SKI present a trophy?"

"For what?"

"Let's go to lunch and discuss it. I know a good Italian restaurant on Madeeson Avenue." Food and wine were Lang's loves, and his best ideas were invariably conceived over heaping plates of pasta and frequently refilled goblets of red wine. After lunch, I supplied Lang with the idea for The Nations Cup (an annual trophy awarded to the nation whose racers aggregate the most World Cup points).

The World Cup initiative could never have been sustained without Lang's battering-ram personality. Again and again, with bombast and cunning, he overcame the narrow views of resort owners and ski officials pushing their self-interests.

The 1967 World Cup involved only 17 races, requiring skill in the three alpine disciplines of downhill, slalom and giant slalom. Over the years, Lang was unable to stop the circuit's dilution to the 30 or more races today. One result was that by the early Seventies, gate specialists were consistently winning the overall World Cup title. Ingemar Stenmark infuriated Lang by winning the crystal globe three times while refusing to race downhill.

By 1982, Lang conceived an idea that would reward the all-round alpine athlete. He arranged a test of a new race format¿faster than giant slalom, but turnier than downhill. CCalled the super G, it would improve the chances of downhillers in competing against technical racers for the overall World Cup. Phil Mahre aroused Lang's fury by stating that the new race was "a waste of time, we don't need a fourth discipline." Six years later, the first Olympic medals were awarded at Calgary in super G.

Two weeks before he died, Lang mailed me the first 23 pages of what was to be a memoir of his life in skiing. He was born in 1920 to French parents, in the region of Alsace that he loved. He became an accomplished racer. As an 18-year-old, he watched Emile Allais win the World Championships. During World War II, he worked as a journalist in Switzerland, then covered the first post-war Winter Olympics in 1948. Like any journalist, he loved a scoop. Lang discovered from Killy his secret of hurling his upper body down the slope to gain momentum before the lower legs snap open the starting wand. We published the story on "Killy's Secret Start," infuriating our competitor, Skiing, which had just paid an egregious sum for the rights to Killy's exclusive stories.

On the eve of the 1968 Grenoble Olympics, Lang predicted in SKI that Killy would win all three alpine medals. The French star did capture his third medal¿after Karl Schranz was disqualified in the slalom. A bitter Schranz angrily stated that Lang had engineered his disqualification so that the journalist's prediction would come true. Serge roared with laughter.

He wrote passionately and opinionatedly about skiing, scorning the cold objectivity of American journalism. He wore his likes and dislikes on his sleeve. He adored tiny Honoré Bonnet, the charismatic French coach. He attacked ski theoreticians, such as coaches Georges Joubert and Franz Hoppichler. He fought with America's Willy Schaeffler, who dubbed him Papa Bear, then wept when Willy became incurably ill.

His own life was scarred by tragedy. He lost a daughter in an automobile crash 30 years ago, then his wife, Ann, died in 1989. Both worked for him. His is the First Family of ski journalism. His son Patrick now occupies his father's role, even down to emceeing the post-race press conferences that Serge once orchestrated, and mentoring his own daughter as a ski journalist.

Lang was a man of contrasts. I recall his ham-sized hands poised over a tiny Olivetti, wondering how his immense fingers could possibly locate the keys to tap out the words to describe the exploits of Gustavo Thoeni or Franz Klammer.

Over the years, the Langs owned two tiny Yorkshire terriers, Babsy and Babsou, that he cuddled in a lap the size of a Titanic lifeboat. On Sunday, Nov. 21, on the eve of the opening of the 33rd World Cup season in America, he went out of his house in the Alsace countryside to fetch firewood. When little Babsou returned without Serge, Jocelyne, his wife of a year-and-a-half, went to look for him. He lay on the ground. After 79 years, the heart that had sustained that immense body and those passionate convictions had finally stopped.

Skiing's calendar was once a few classic unconnected competitions: the Hahnenkamm, the World Championships, the Olympics. Key races were unknown in North America. Today, there are 300 World Cup competitions in freestyle, cross-country, jumping and snowboarding, as well as alpine racing. Serge Lang started the revolution.

In My View columnist John Fry was SKI's editor-in-chief when Serge Lang acted as the magazine's European correspondent. He later joined Lang on the FIS World Cup Committee.