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Women's Champ Was A Man!


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The feelings of uncertainty and worry weren’t new, but they worsened in the early summer of 1966. Erika Schinegger, premiere downhiller of the Austrian national ski team, was training for the World Alpine Ski Championships. Schinegger was a powerful skier, who occasionally clocked times better than the men. Popular with her teammates and blessed by a lively sense of humor, she looked younger than her 18 years. She had curly brown hair piled up like a sloping haystack and spoke in a deep voice.

At training camp, Schinegger’s roommate was a blue-eyed girl with white, velvety skin. One evening, after a hard day of skiing and gym work and ready to go to bed, the girl undressed in front of Schinegger. It was a normal act among female teammates, but Schinegger had been troubled by such scenes.

“She stood there perfectly naked,” Schinegger recalled 22 years later in the autobiography Mein Sieg Uber Mich (“My Victory Over Me”). “I started trembling as if an earthquake had freed something in me.”

Bewildered, the teenager suppressed her feelings, determined to focus on ski racing. In three months, she would fly to Portillo, Chile, for the FIS World Alpine Ski Championships. Her goal: To win the downhill gold medal.

Schinegger had been born to a prosperous farming family in Austria’s Kaernten mountains, home to future champion downhiller Franz Klammer. The infant Erika was delivered by a country midwife, who announced to the family, after a cursory examination, “Congratulations, a girl!” At age 8, she made her first pair of skis from barrel staves. At age 12, starting in an impossible 314th position, she won her first race.

When she wasn’t helping with farm chores, the youthful Schinegger watched hours of televised races, memorizing the techniques of the era’s stars-Toni Sailer, Anderl Molterer, Francois Bonlieu. At the age of 16, she was invited to join the Austrian National Youth Team. She rapidly became a leader, smoked cigarettes with downhill star Olga Pall and was the life of the party. She became an employee of the Kneissl ski company, receiving free skis, travel expenses and a small salary…and the promise of big money if she won a gold medal.

At Sun Valley in 1965, she won a downhill. Afterward, with Karl Schranz and Jean-Claude Killy, she was interviewed on Salt Lake City television. “The American trip started the happiest period of my entire young life,” Schinegger recalls in the autobiography.

The August 1966 FIS World Alpine Ski Championships in the Andes proved a disaster for Schinegger’s teammates. The French, led by their new star, Jean-Claude Killy, won a record 16 out of 24 medals. The only Austrian chance for a gold medal was in the women’s downhill-a brutally steep course. “The speed of the racers was close to the maximum tolerable in a women’s race,” wrote the dean of ski journalists, Serge Lang.

France’s Marielle Goitschel and Annie Famose had recorded the fastest times. When Canada’s Nancy Greene broke her coccyx in a frightening fall and was being carried off the course, Schinegger waited in the starting area. So far none of the Austrian girls had done well. “It’s all up to you,” her coach said.

Schinegger catapulted herself down the Andean mountainside, letting her skis go…not trying to control them precisely. She flew downward, skimming the bumps. With the crowd screaming, she crossed the finish line. She had beaten Goitschel by an eighth-of-a-second. Elated, the Austrians hoisted Schinegger on their shoulders, celebrating the team’s sole world championship victory.

Austria named Schinegger Athlete of the Year. Her equipment suppliers paid her 100,000 schillings ($6,500 today)…under the table, of course. Winning money in a race violated Olympic rules, but it was common among top racers at the time. Additionally, Franz Kneissl presented her with a gold-and-diamond brooch. Her hometown gave her a building lot. She bought a Porsche. A young farmer mailed her a letter proposing marriage.

Once again, though, Schinegger was beset by doubts. She had never menstruated nor developed breasts. Again she focused her thoughts on one goal-this time, to win all three alpine gold medals at the 1968 Olympic Winter Games (as Killy would do). In training runs, she was often as fast as the men.

“Anyone who outskis me cannot be a woman!” protested Karl Schranz, who was distrustful, clairvoyant-or perhaps both.

Schinegger faced a new challenge. Before competing in the ’68 Olympics in Grenoble, France, athletes had to undergo a gender test. When the results of the first saliva test came back, the examining urologist exclaimed, “I’m going crazy. There’s a man racing on the Austrian ladies’ team!”

Under suspicion, Schinegger was retested. When the confirming results came in, Austria’s highest ski officials asked her to resign “for personal reasons.” Soon the rumors became newspaper and television reports. The reigning women’s world downhill champion was not a woman.

But what was she?

A shocked Schinegger entered an Innsbruck hospital for X-rays. An abdominal incision confirmed that she bore male sex organs inside. After months of painful surgery, Schinegger emerged from the hospital in men’s clothes. And had a new name, Erik.

For a young person, whose whole life success had come from ski racing, the experience had been degrading and poisoned by cynicism. Schinegger’s hometown withdrew its gift of a building lot. Franz Kneissl, Schinegger claims, had promised money to a surgeon who could make him a biological woman in order to safeguard the ski manufacturer’s claim to the gold medal.

Erik resumed racing on the men’s Europa Cup tour and won three races in the winter of 1968-69. Whether he might have become the first person in any sport to reign as both a men’s and a women’s world champion will never be known.

Head coach Franz Hoppichler told Schinegger he wasn’t wanted on the Austrian team. His presence was an “embarrassment.”

Retiring from racing, Erik, 21, became a ski instructor. He dated girls, and in 1975 married in a ceremony attended by a thousand guests, including Franz Klammer.

Should Erik Schinegger retain the 1966 women’s World Championship downhill gold medal? A female Russian gold and bronze medalist, who was discovered in 1967 to bear male chromosomes, lost her medals. And today, when athletes are being stripped of their medals for using masculinizing anabolic steroids, is it any less illicit to compete in a women’s race with a natural, God-given supply of male hormones?

One answer can be found in a Canadian Academy of Sport Medicine 1997 statement on sex testing. “Individuals raised as females, who are psychologically and socially females from childhood,” says the Academy, “should be eligible to compete in women’s competition, regardless of their chromosomal, gonadal and hormonal sex.”

“Erika didn’t attempt to deceive anyone,” says Nancy Greene, although there were some who thought so. In agreement is Marc Hodler, who was FIS president during the Portillo world championships. Hodler says the name, E. Schinegger, will remain in the FIS record book as the 1966 women’s world downhill champion. Notwithstanding, Schinegger voluntarily surrendered the 1966 downhill gold medal, so that in 1996 it could be presented to second-place winner Marielle Goitschel at the French ski team’s 30th anniversary celebration of the Portillo races.

Today, Erik Schinegger is a father of two and happily operates a restaurant and ski school in his home village of Agsdorf, the survivor of an experience that would have destroyed lesser lives. Man or woman, recalls World Cup champion Nancy Greene, Schinegger’s personality was the same. . . “generous, fun-loving and outgoing.”