Exclusive: Austrian Army the Backbone of Racing Efforts at World Championships


Schruns, Austria Feb. 4, 2001--The handsome boy in the seat opposite on the train from St. Anton was tired. He wore a simple army uniform. There were crampons lashed to his military backpack, which rested close beside him. His name tag said STROHLE.

Asked if he's come from St. Anton, he said yes, in halting English; he'd been working on the downhill. The men's and women's downhills had both been postponed because of too much new snow. More than five meters in places at the top, he said (nearly 16 feet). When it began snowing Friday, the night before the men's competition he had been rousted out of bed at 1:30 am, ridden the train for an hour and was on the mountain shoveling out fencing, buried beneath snow drifts by 3:45 am. His efforts, and those of 200 other soldiers had not been enough to permit a race on Saturday. Or Sunday.

Tomorrow he would get up at 4:30 am, and be working at 6:00 am again, together with 300 soldiers this time. Groomers, or "piste machines" as he called them, could not remove the heavy layers of new snow. Their tracks would wreck the hard, carefully prepared race surface beneath. He pulled a crumpled Tyrollean newspaper from his pocket, and displayed the front-page picture of the troops working under lights. Asked if he had knew Werner Margreiter, the Austrian official in charge of all course preparations for the 2001 World Championships, Strohle thought he may have seen him once.

Asked if he thought the course would be ready for the next day's Combined Men's Downhill, the young soldier said he did not think so. There was too much snow to move. Suddenly alarmed, realizing that the one asking questions might be from the press, he said he was not allowed to speak to the media and that all information about races and courses could only come from the office of the Organizing Committee.

Reassured, he explained that all healthy Austrian males were obligated to serve eight months in the military. He has been on active duty for five months, and according to his calculations, had 88 days remaining. Working in St. Anton was not such bad duty, he admitted. He could be working in the woods or shooting rifles somewhere. At least he got to see the races.

He got off the train in Tschagguns and walked quickly up the hill to his home, his dinner and short night's rest. His pay is 3000 shillings per month, $200.