SI Vault
William Oscar Johnson
February 16, 1976
In Winter Games of human size, pride spurred an Austrian and a Vermonter to superhuman efforts—and a good Detroit skate to a garland of medals
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February 16, 1976

On Came The Heroes

In Winter Games of human size, pride spurred an Austrian and a Vermonter to superhuman efforts—and a good Detroit skate to a garland of medals

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As the 12th Winter Olympiad opened "in Innsbruck last week, the Games seemed truly reduced to human size for the first time in many years. Gone was the previous aura of monumental ceremony that seemed designed more for popes and angels than mere men. In part, this was because of a mild air of ennui that wafted over the second Olympics to be held in the valley of the Inn River in 12 years. There were empty seats at most events. There was a remarkable lack of traffic jams. And the soldiers and police, though heavily armed, seemed to grow more relaxed as the week went on.

At one point the local daily gossiped breathlessly that President Gerald Ford had slipped into town and was attending the events in disguise. It was not so; the nearest thing to a presidential-style public appearance last week was made by the mayor of Innsbruck, jolly, ruddy Dr. Alois Lugger. One day he climbed into a four-man bobsled for a ceremonial ride down the bob-luge run in the hillside community of Igls. Settled into place, he unbuttoned his trousers to ease his ample belly. He completed the hair-raising ride and then rose triumphantly from the sled, his arms aloft—only to have his pants fall down to half-mast.

Still, if the Games were memorable because of their mortal dimensions, some of the performances notably were not. Indeed, three approached the heroic. First, an Austrian farm boy performed the expected with such flair and daring that men will talk of his feat for years. Then a Vermont farmboy did the unexpected with a performance so surprising that some people called it the greatest American Olympic upset in history. And then a cheery young lady from Detroit accomplished both the expected and unexpected and won three medals.

Few athletes will ever face the pressure that came to bear on Franz Klammer, 22, the world's premier downhill racer. Klammer carried the weight of a nation on his shoulders when he crouched in the starting hut at the top of the course that plunges down the face of Patscherkofel above Innsbruck. A crowd of 60,000 carpeted the mountainside to watch the race in which the man they call the Astronaut had to win a gold medal in order to uphold Austria's position as the world capital of skiing—to say nothing of his own pride as a downhiller. Only a gold would do; a silver would mean disgrace.

Naturally, it was Klammer's own excellence that had put him in this terrible bind. Last season he had been amazing on the World Cup circuit, winning eight consecutive downhills and dominating the event as no man had before—not Toni Sailer, not Jean-Claude Killy, not Karl Schranz. This year, Klammer had started slowly, then hit his stride to win four races. All this had made him one of the highest-paid amateur skiers in the world, earning perhaps in excess of $150,000 a year from equipment manufacturers. It was a far economic cry from his childhood in the village of Mooswald, where he grew up mowing hay and milking cows by hand. One of the first things his family bought when Franzi attained affluence was a milking machine. Then they built a hotel with his earnings.

But all the money Klammer had earned and all the races he had won seemed pale compared with the stakes in the balance in the Olympic downhill. Austrians felt that the very fate of their winter tourist industry rested on his winning a gold medal. It has long been demonstrated that the expenditure of millions of dollars hinges on the success of the Austrian ski team. Klammer knew the Patscherkofel course well; he won a downhill there in 1975. Now the run had been changed slightly: a few turns had been flattened out and it was about 10 seconds faster. And the surface was more treacherous as it became increasingly icy—and increasingly rough—during the week before the showdown. By the day of the race, several sections of the course were potholed and corrugated, presenting a murderous washboard quality.

For a downhiller of Klammer's ability, these things seemed to bode no special crisis. Such conditions are common, and the major challenge, as it always is, would be to take the curves, bumps and banging over the ice at 70 mph while still maintaining a low, compact tuck as much of the time as possible. Besides skill and daring, winning depends on the ability to minimize air resistance, to make oneself as clean and bulletlike as possible. The competition is so close—the result is measured in time segments ticking quicker than an eye blink—that any speck of unnecessary resistance that catches the wind might cost a man a race. Thus it was that two days before Klammer's grand test, the makers of his skis, Fischer, suddenly revealed new "magic" skis on which Klammer would conquer the Olympics. The skis had specially engineered holes poked into their shovels. The theory, it was said, was to further reduce wind resistance by letting air flow through these holes. Well, perhaps the aerodynamics of the downhill made this a possibility, but most people saw the magic ski as a transparent ploy either to psych out Klammer's opponents or to gain Olympian reams of publicity for Fischer. Bernhard Russi, 27, the superb Swiss racer who won the gold medal in 1972, declared coldly, "If I had a ski with a hole in it, I would throw it away."

Whatever the magic properties of the hole, Klammer wore his regular old skis on the day of the race, later allowing that "the risk was too great and the snow was wrong" for the experiment.

The suspense was maximized—as was the squeeze on Klammer—when he drew starting spot No. 15, last man in the top seed. This meant that all of his significant competition would go down before him. Although he is known as a racer of powerful confidence, Klammer does not consider the Patscherkofel his best course. During the opening ceremonies the day before, as he held the Austrian flag next to U.S. flag bearer Cindy Nelson, Klammer whispered to her that he thought either of two Swiss—Philippe Roux or Russi—could beat him. Roux was clocked at 1:46.69; the veteran Russi flashed down in 1:46.06. When Klammer finally stood ready to propel himself out of the starting hut, Russi was the man to beat. Italy's Herbert Plank was second with a 1:46.59.

Klammer burst out of the start like a wild man. He took the first third of the 3,020-meter course in desperate fashion, constantly opening his tuck as he was flung into the air like a flailing rag doll over the jumps, his skis clattering over the jarring ice. He ran the first half of the course in 1:13.24, a dangerous 19/100ths behind Russi. He took still more chances in the next section and slipped even farther behind.

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