50 Years Later
With vision and foresight, Henry Purcell requested that the 1966 Alpine World Ski Championships be held in Portillo. The World Championship were very important at this time, as it was one of only two events on ski racers’ calendars where all of the world’s skiers could come together to test their skills – the Olympics and the World Championships. After a great deal of negotiating, politics and promises by the International Ski Federation (FIS), the races were awarded to The Chilean Ski Federation and Portillo.
50 years later, we are reminiscing about the iconic races that took place on our slopes. The 50-year anniversary of the 1966 Alpine World Ski Championships in Portillo are a poignant piece of ski history and an intricate part of Portillo’s part. Read more for an inside look at the only Alpine World Ski Championships to ever take place in the Southern Hemisphere…
Purcell had much to do to prepare for the World Championships – design and build lifts, rooms and recreational facilities, prepare a downhill course, install communications systems, and improve the transportation system. In August 1965, a pre-event race was scheduled to test the new installations and to give the national teams a chance to try skiing in the summer, something that was very unusual for most teams in those days.
Nature has a way of laughing at mankind, and she went at it with a vengeance in Portillo that season. On August 15, a typhoon moved in from the South Pacific with winds up to 120 miles per hour, unusually heavy snowfall and avalanches that took out all but two of the ski lifts including the two newly built chairlifts.
The brand new 1,800-meter Juncalillo Poma double chair lost 13 of 24 towers plus the base and return stations. Five skiers were killed in an avalanche that destroyed part of employee housing. Ski teams that had gathered for the event were trapped in Portillo, and when the weather cleared, they had to ski out to the nearest train station 20 miles away.
The FIS was distressed and asked the Portillo owners what they intended to do. Dick Aldrich was entering into U.S. politics and decided to sell his stock to Bob Purcell, whose dream of Portillo remained undiminished. Bob was convinced that it could be done and gave the FIS his answer to rebuild and hold the 1966 World Ski Championships in Portillo. With an admirable spirit of generosity the FIS agreed to move forward with the plans.
The Poma factory, which had built all of Portillo’s ski lifts, sent a young Polish engineer Janek Kunzynski to Portillo to rebuild the lifts on site. To avoid future avalanche danger, the area had been redesigned, using the experience of men like Othmar Schneider. Portillo hired top avalanche expert Monty Atwater to head the avalanche control program during the World Championships. The Chilean Army offered artillery for avalanche control and a regiment of mountain troops to prepare the runs.
In August, 1966 FIS President Marc Hodler and Chilean President Eduardo Frei inaugurated the first major ski event south of the equator.
Nature blessed the events with days of bright sun, cold weather and perfect snow conditions. It was a spectacular event, especially for the French, who took 16 of the medals including all of the gold except the slalom, which went to Carlo Senoner of Italy. The women’s downhill went to Marielle Goitschel although she had to wait several years to claim her medal from Erica Schinneger who had the fastest time. Erica underwent a sex change shortly after the championships, and renounced her medal. Annie Famose won the Slalom, and Marielle won the Giant Slalom and the Combined. In the men’s races, Jean Claude Killy began his collection of medals taking the gold in the Downhill and the Combined. Guy Perillat won the Giant slalom.
The Giant Slalom was run on two courses for the first time in Portillo, as the FIS was experimenting with new formats. The World Cup circuit was invented in the bar of Portillo, during those happy sun-filled days, which meant that the world’s top skiers would race against each others many times a year.