Franz Klammer: 1976 Olympic Downhill:
In skiing, it’s the Swiss Alps and the Austrian Alps that define the sport. The two nations ski teams are two of the fiercest rivals in the sporting world. Every 4 years at the Winter Olympics, the premier event is the men’s downhill. Here the Austrians and Swiss pit their best. In the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, the stakes rose. The downhill was to be run down the face of Patscherkofel, one of the premier downhill tracks in the world. The Austrian nation would accept nothing short of a Gold as they hosted the World.
Enter 22-year old Franz Klammer. In 1975 and 1976 he was the best downhill skier in the world. In 1975 he had dominated the event in a fashion never seen before by winning 8 out of the nine downhill races of the season. He won 4 more times in 1976 leading up to the Olympics. Nobody had ever had a string of victories like that. The pressure on the young farm boy from Mooswald was immense. He was the overwhelming favorite for Gold with the home crowd there to watch. Two days before his big race the makers of his skis, Fischer, wanted him to use their new design. The pressure intensified again when Klammer drew the 15th spot for his Olympic run. He would be the last of the real contenders to go off, an advantage in that he would know what time was needed, but a disadvantage because of the damage done to the course by the first 14 skiers.
In the end Klammer decided to use his old skis. “The risk was too great and the snow was wrong.” Klammer said. When Klammer’s time at the starting gate came he knew exactly what needed to be done. The Swiss rival, Phillippe Roux stood third at 1:46:69, Italy’s Herbert Plank second at 1:46:59, and the magnificent Swiss, Bernhard Russi first at 1:46:06. Russi had won the 1972 Olympic Gold Medal in Sapporo, Japan. He would win 31 downhills in World Cup competition. This was the man standing between Klammer had his Gold Medal. A Silver was not an option to the Austrians, especially to lose on their home field against their most important rival. “I’ve never seen so much pressure put on one man my entire life,” opined ABC’s Bob Beattie
What happened next was the creation of a legend. We’ll let Bernhard Russi describe; “I was down number three and was leading and one after another came down and I was still leading, still leading, still leading, still leading. And there was only one left…it was Franz Klammer.” Russi continued; “Franz Klammer was in the starting gate. He was behind at the first intermediate time, he was behind at the second intermediate time. Suddenly there were 60,000 people in the stadium and the whole mountain began to shake.” Klammer did not have classic ski technique, he came out of the gate fearlessly, right on the edge. He nearly went down on the first curve, but saved it on one ski. Just past halfway he nearly went off the course, but he kept picking up speed, reaching near 80 miles per hour at the bottom of the course. After trailing Russi by .20 of a second at the second intermediate time he made up more than half a second on the bottom portion of the course to win in 1:45.73. Many still call it the greatest downhill of all time.
Klammer would go on to have an unprecedented career. He would win 26 World Cup Downhills between 1973 and 1984. He would finish as the top downhill skier a record five times (1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1983). He would win on skiing’s toughest downhill course, Kitzbuhel, an incredible four times. He would retire in 1984 as Austria’s Greatest Athlete. He would also have to live with personal challenges. His younger brother, Klaus, was paralyzed from the waist down due to a downhill ski accident when the boy was 16. Klammer created “The Franz Klammer Foundation” which benefits seriously injured athletes in honor of his brother. Most of this was not known in 1976, when Franz Klammer had the weight of a nation on his shoulder as he embarked on his unforgettable journey down the slopes of Patscherkofel.
Ian Wooldridge the long-time sports writer for the London Daily Mail summed up Klammer’s feat best: “The greatest single sporting achievement in my lifetime and no doubt beyond.”