Biddle Duke’s article last week about the World Championships being held in Schladming Austria highlighted how seriously Austrians take Alpine ski racing. When events like the World Championships are held in Austria, the Austrian skiers are under great pressure to perform. The same was true in 1976 when Innsbruck, Austria hosted the Winter Olympics. You may recall that Denver was supposed to host the 1976 Olympics, but that’s a story for a future column.
Most of the home country pressure in 1976 fell on a 22 year-old downhiller from Mooswald, Austria, named Franz Klammer. The previous season Klammer had won 8 of the 9 World Cup downhills making him the prohibitive favorite at the Olympics. By the way, the one downhill he didn’t win that season was because he lost a ski!
The men’s downhill was the first alpine skiing event held at the Olympics and Klammer drew the 15th starting position. In those days the top seeds drew for the first 15 slots so Klammer would be the last of the top seeds to race. This was generally seen as a disadvantage since the course would degrade with each racer.
On race day after 14 racers, Bernhard Russi of Switzerland was in the lead. Russi had won the downhill gold at the 1972 Olympics and appeared to have a good time on the Innsbruck course since he led the nearest competitor by more than half a second. Klammer in his yellow speed-suit sprang out of the starting gate and the mostly Austrian crowd of 60,000 began to roar. He was fast, but a couple of mistakes including catching too much air off a bump left him .2 seconds behind Russi’s time two-thirds of the way down the course. All downhillers know that to win you have to take chances and for the last third of that Olympic downhill, Klammer did nothing but take chances. He let the skis run taking the fastest line and just hung on! When he crossed the finish line he beat Russi’s time by .33 seconds to take the gold. That meant that Klammer had made up over a half second in the last third of the course.
Regular contributor Gary Tomlinson was very quick to correctly identify Franz Klammer as the winner of the men’s downhill.
Many have labeled Klammer’s downhill Olympic win as the greatest downhill run ever – some have even called it the greatest ski race ever! What made it so memorable? Well, for one thing, you didn’t have to be a skier to recognize that Klammer was on the edge of disaster for almost the entire run. The run was one long series of recoveries, but Klammer never backed off! Regardless of the sport, people recognize when an athlete puts it all on-the-line to achieve a win.
For American TV viewers Bob Beattie’s frenetic commentary only added more hype to Klammer’s run. At a recent event held in Aspen to honor Bob Beattie, Klammer commented: “I always question myself, did my run make Bob more famous, or (his) commentary make me famous?”
Klammer would go on to have a remarkable downhill career setting records that have only been beaten in recent years. He won a total of 25 World Cup downhills – a record Lindsey Vonn broke last year. He won the famous (and notorious) Hahnenkamm downhill 4 times – Didier Cuche won his 5th Hahnenkamm last January.
Today Franz Klammer is a paid ambassador for several ski resorts and corporations. He also manages the Franz Klammer Foundation for severely injured athletes. Klammer’s younger brother was paralyzed as the result of a crash during a downhill training run in 1977. Klammer says, “Klaus had no insurance, but doctors cared for him because his name was Klammer. Others are not so lucky. I want to help.”