In 1966, there were two events each year where skiers from all over the world could come together in competition: The Olympics, and the FIS World Championships. Henry Purcell, then General Manager of Ski Portillo lobbied the governing body to award the races to the South American resort, and in Purcell's words, "After a great deal of negotiating, politics and promises, and surely with serious misgivings on the part of the FIS, the races were awarded to The Chilean Ski Federation and Portillo."
Purcell and his team had quite a bit of preparation ahead of them. The relatively undeveloped venue required new lifts, new lodging, a downhill course as well as updated communication and transportation systems. The resort teams worked tirelessly to put the necessary infrastructure into place for the upcoming World Championship, and to prepare themselves, hosted a pre-championship race in August of 1965. A year before the big event, the Portillo team hoped to dry run their new equipment, while offering skiers from the Northern hemisphere a chance to acclimate to skiing in summer, a relatively foreign concept to most of the teams that would compete in 1966.
Some teams had been present in Portillo for the storms, while others were on their way and stranded in Santiago due to blocked rail lines. Cabin fever began to set in, and the skiers in Portillo found ways to stay occupied and fit. Those stuck in Santiago grumbled about their lack of access to the mountain, in poor taste given the scale of the natural disaster. In a Sports Illustrated column from August 23, 1965, Reinaldo Solari of the Chilean Ski Federation is quoted:
U.S. Ski Coach Gordon Eeaton, stranded in Portillo with seven members of his team described the scene. The storm had dropped up to 5 feet of snow on the area per day.
The storm had all but wiped out the improvements and preparations that Purcell and his team had made, and the FIS asked the resort what it planned to do. Bob Purcell, owner of the resort (and Henry's uncle) gave the federation their answer...They'd rebuild and try again. The POMA factory sent an engineer to rebuild the lifts that had been destroyed, and the resort conferred with avalanche experts to ensure that their new construction was sound and out of harm's way. The Chilean army offered 300 artillery troops for avalanche control, and a regiment of mountain troops to prepare the runs. By the skin of their teeth, the crew was able to reconstruct what they had lost, and the 1966 World Championships were a go. In August of 1966, Chilean President Eduardo Frei and FIS President Marc Hodler inaugurated the first large scale ski event held south of the equator.
While foul weather had interrupted the dry run in 1965, mother nature was kinder to the main event. Low temps and sunny weather ensured that the runs were skiing well, thanks as well to their preparation by Chilean soldiers overnight. With all of the world's talent under one roof, many recall that the event felt like on big skiing family, a special World Championship, indeed.
The French Team won big in Portillo, claiming 16 out of the 24 medals. Icon Jean Claude Killy began his reign, winning both the downhill and the combined, with fellow Frenchman Guy Perillat taking the gold in GS. Italian Carlo Senoner claimed gold in the slalom.
In the women's races, Marielle Goitschel, won the giant slalom and combined, and received her medal for the downhill several years after the event, as the original winner Erica Schinneger underwent a sex change surgery shortly after the Championships and later renounced her medal. Annie Famose won the slalom.
We very much enjoyed this short film commemorating the 50th anniversary of the event. An improbable destination that against all odds, pulled off the first and only World Championship south of the equator, and put Portillo on the map for the global ski community.