Prior to the start of the 1956 Games, there was much hype in Switzerland surrounding Madeleine Berthod and her prospects in the women’s Alpine skiing competitions in Cortina. The Vaud native had already laid down a marker four years earlier in Oslo, where she finished in a laudable sixth place in both the downhill and slalom. In the intervening years, she moved up to a different level altogether, winning national titles and establishing herself as the greatest female Swiss skier of her generation. In 1954, she earned two silver medals (in the giant slalom and combined) at the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in Åre (SWE).
Berthod started off her Cortina campaign on 27 January with the giant slalom final on Mount Tofana’s Canalone run. The clear pre-race favourite, she initially fell and missed a gate, but somehow picked herself up, and climbed back up the hill to rectify her error. Astonishingly, despite the hiccup, she still managed to finish just outside the medals in fourth place. Germany’s Ossi Reichert took gold, while the disappointed Swiss press treated their readers to headlines such as “Oh, Madeleine!” and “Don’t cry, Madeleine!”.
On 30 January on Col Drusciè, she was forced to watch from afar as her compatriot, Renée Colliard, emerged from the two legs with a well-deserved Olympic slalom title. Seemingly less at ease in the highly technical discipline, she finished in a disappointing 17th place.
On 1 February 1956, Berthod marked her 25th birthday in memorable style by finally clinching an Olympic gold medal. Wearing bib number 6 in the downhill, she struggled in the early stages of the 1,552-long run on Mount Tofana, which featured a vertical drop of 502m. “I didn’t get off to the best of starts,” she would recount afterwards. “At the top of course, there was a series of gates that made me think I was in some kind of amazing giant slalom. After that, there was a long schuss followed by a huge jump at the entrance to the forest. It continued with a long succession of moguls in the forest. It was so icy, and very difficult to stay upright.”
Despite the difficulty of the course, Berthod held her own, keeping up an ideal tempo to cross the line in a remarkable time of 1:40.7, a benchmark that none of her rivals would come close to equalling. Frieda Dänzer (SUI), over four seconds behind (the largest gap between first and second in a Olympic women’s Alpine event), took silver for a Swiss one-two, while Canada’s Lucille Wheeler came in third.
As the Olympic Winter Games also doubled as the 1956 World Championships, Berthod automatically became world champion in the downhill and combined. Unsurprisingly, the Swiss media were ecstatic, as the following headline reveals: “Madeleine Berthod, finally Olympic champion on her 25th birthday, triggers fan frenzy!” Named Swiss Sport Personality of the Year at the end of 1956, she brought the curtain down on her skiing career shortly afterwards, got married, had three children and became a veterinarian like her husband.