Athletes and chefs are the last emissaries of French supremacy, and compensate for inadequacies in other fields. The Olympic skiers are the French astronauts; their victories against the clock make up for the absence of a manned space program. Killy, national hero and winner of the Legion of Honor, is the French John Glenn, and his contract with Chevrolet is viewed as less than treason, a temporary aberration.
—SANCHE DE GRAMONT
The French: Portrait of a People (1969)
Twenty-two years have gone by since Jean-Claude Killy won three gold medals at the Grenoble Winter Olympics and launched a post-Olympic career as stand-in astronaut, global sex symbol, boy millionaire, tabloid idol and TV huckster of everything from champagne to Chevrolets. Yet even today, if you were to speak the single word " Killy" on just about any street corner on earth, someone in earshot would know who he is. Or, more likely, who he was.
Because what this most glamorous of all downhill racers has become in the third decade of his fame is more than even the most devoted of his old fans could have predicted. Killy at 46 is no longer an athlete (and he never claimed to be a chef), but he is still a national hero and, in the eyes of his compatriots he is living, breathing proof of French supremacy. Killy is copresident of something called COJO, which is shorthand for Le Comit� d'Organisation des Jeux Olympiques, meaning the organizing committee for the 1992 Winter Olympics, which will be held in the region of the French Alps called the Savoie.
Copresident sounds ineffectual and ceremonial, like a title for a lightweight. But in this case it is not. Killy is no Dan Quayle. Nor is he simply a portable superstar who is rolled in for pep talks and sales pitches, though he does those, too, and nicely, thank you very much. Killy in his new career is, essentially, the boss of all he surveys, and his domain is only slightly less complex—and slightly less costly—than a manned space program.
The International Olympic Committee awarded the XVI Winter Olympics to a theretofore little-known French town called Albertville in the fall of 1986. Albertville will serve as the nominal capital of a vast Olympic playground, which will cover 1,000 square miles of mind-boggling mountain beauty and heart-stopping mountain roads. The Games will be scattered among a collection of 13 villages and venues in the Tarentaise Valley between Albert-ville in the lower flatland and Vald'ls�re high in the mountains, just below the Italian border. The price tag for this sprawling Olympic venture is $690 million, the logistical challenges are daunting, and success is by no means guaranteed. However, if Killy and his 170 CO JO colleagues can pull it off, the average Frenchman's belief in his nation's innate superiority may once again reach the insufferable heights of the de Gaulle era.
The Killy of today bears little resemblance to the spirited daredevil who once dropped his pants in midair while executing an exhibition jump in front of hundreds of spectators in Wengen, Switzerland. One of his most trusted confidants is Jacques Chirac, former prime minister of France and the mayor of Paris. Killy is on a first-name basis with dozens of the world's mightiest corporate executives and is a sometime dinner companion of the likes of Francois Mitterrand, the president of France.
Of all the powerful and influential people Killy has dealt with as copresident of COJO, the person he is closest to and admires the most is Juan Antonio Samaranch of Spain, the shrewd former diplomat who is the increasingly imperious president of the IOC. Indeed, a number of Killy watchers, notably the sports-marketing genius Mark McCormack of International Management Group ( IMG), believe that after Albertville the logical next step in Killy's career is the presidency of the IOC.
Watching the new Killy shining with Samaranchian polish, one can forget that inside the smooth cosmopolite lives a wild and wily mountain boy, a clever little truant who would flee school to go skiing or to hunt chamois in the farthest reaches of the Savoie, where blizzards sometimes lasted for six days and the winter wind blew so hard that it was known as la Temp�te Verte ("the wind that spins evergreens"). But it is the canny mountain Savoyard on the inside who made it possible for the Olympic power broker on the outside to form a working coalition out of big business, big politics and the smalltown mentality of suspicious Savoyards. "We are moving on a much higher plane of action than they are used to," says Killy. "It made the Savoie nervous, when it all began. The Savoyards were concerned that the big boys might take away their Olympics. I think they are not concerned anymore."
The Savoie is a historical and political aberration, a perpetually turbulent territory that did not become a permanent part of France until 1860. Before that it drifted between French and Italian rule for several centuries under the aegis of the House of Savoy and its various lunatic dukes. Roughly speaking, the Savoie Alps are the area between Lake Geneva to the north, the Rhone River to the west and the Arc and Isere river valleys to the south, with Italy lying to the east just across the crest of the Col de l'lseran, which looms above Val-dTsere, Killy's home village.
From the Middle Ages until 60 years or so ago, Val, as the village is called, was a pocket of poverty and low expectations, occupied mainly by shepherds and woodcutters. Early in the 20th century, life became so mean that even these tough-minded survivors began abandoning the place for menial jobs in Paris. By the early 1930s the population of Val had fallen to 112. Then, a skier named Charles Diebold, an Alsatian who had been a ski trooper during World War I, arrived, opened a ski school and—lo—Val-dTsere found new life as a ski resort.