Franz Klammer – Ski Hero

Even non-skiers remember him – the King, or, more appropriately, the Kaiser of downhill racers, the one and only Franz Klammer. In Austria, particularly in his native Carinthia, he is still a living legend. Autograph hunters still mob him even though it is now – incredibly – almost 40 years since the world watched, hearts in their mouths and their mouths agape, as Klammer, arms akimbo, skiing beyond even his limits and getting away with it, skied the race of his life to win gold in the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck. Twenty years later, he was still getting “goosebumps” watching an action replay on a big videoscreen during celebrations in Telluride, Colorado to mark the anniversary of his epic victory. But perhaps strange to relate, another downhill gave him very nearly as much satisfaction, although far fewer people remember it – the Hahnenkamm of 1984 when Klammer – his career seemingly at an end – “came back” to win….a feat even the greatest champions rarely accomplish. So which of these two great victories – Innsbruck or Kitzbuhel – was the most satisfying to the man himself? Even Klammer had to think about it when we chatted in the finish area at Kitzbuhel just before this year’s 60th Hahnenkamm race.

“In 1984 I hadn’t won Kitzbuhel for seven years” he said. “I was trying, trying, trying, but every time something went wrong and I lost the belief in myself to win the race again. But then in 84 – it is my beloved downhill, you know, this is the downhill for me and I wanted to win it very badly once again. And then 84 came up and I was good in training already – and then all of a sudden it went through my body my mind – I will win the race!

“Let’s say a minute before the start. Then ! It sounds cocky but I knew at the start – that’s my race today! But you have to race it. It’s not given. So you have to do the job first. I was determined. I was going so hard at every turn, I was going maximum risk. And the commentator said: ‘Franz Klammer is wheeling down the hill!’

“My arms were wheeling to keep my skis on track! And if you compare 1973, 76 and 84 – Schladming, Innsbruck and Kitzbuhel – and you put them together and compare them, they are all similar! 1973 was my very first downhill victory. I went out of the starting gate to win the race – not just to ski the race, but to win the race. And this is a completely different approach. I had this approach when I won race after race. I had this approach, but then I gradually lost it.
“Eventually, I started lacking confidence. It was not from one day to another, but it happened gradually until one day it was not there any more. I still won some races, but I couldn’t win many races in a row any more. But then in 1984, I was here in Kitzbuhel and somehow I knew I would win the race.”

But why did Klammer have this sudden uncanny certainty?
“Because time was running out and I thought I’d better do something !” He laughs at this notion. A big Klammer chuckle. But why 1984? Wouldn’t the following year have been just as appropriate?

“I was keen for it to be 84 because to leave it till the very last race its not good. You have to do it. In 1985 I lost my ski in the first turn” – another burst of laughter.”I was the favourite too ! You must keep harvesting for as long as you can. You can’t wait too long – then its wasted!”
I reminded Klammer that champions rarely come back. “But Mohamed Ali proved them wrong – and you proved them wrong” I said.

“It’s almost impossible to come back” he agreed. “Even if you still have the same spirit and the same fire, you’re not able to do it every time. You are able to do it when you’re young – you are able to repeat it and repeat it and repeat it because you are just invincible! “ (he pronounces it “inwincible”)

“But then, one day it’s proved that you’re not invincible. And then it’s hard work to bring this same feeling back. First of all you’re surprised. That’s a different thing.You ask yourself why? What’s the reason? Why is it different now? You have to work very hard to find out what’s the reason, and to start from the bottom again.

“It’s a very big problem to build up confidence again.”
But what is so special about the Hahnenkamm, I asked.
“It’s when you are up in the starting gate. Because it’s brutal right away – you have to jump out into the cold water and swim.The very first time I came to Kitzbuhel, I said no, I’m not skiing this downhill. Everybody’s crazy who is skiing down here. I thought ‘these guys are crazy!’ And then I tried it the very first time and I said, ‘OK – it’s possible, its makeable.’ And then I felt comfortable and then I really loved it. In Wengen, you know, you have time, its very gentle, like you get into luke-warm water and then its getting cold eventually. But here it’s just cold from the start and you have to survive, immediately. And that’s where it’s special.
“And then the middle part of the downhill – the Alte Schneise and then the Laerchenschuss – is big turns and that’s the most important thing in Kitzbuhel. So you have to win the race there.

“Let’s say about you have a margin of just two feet – if you miss these two feet you miss the turn. And that’s with a speed of 75 – 78 mph. So that’s very difficult – and I won all my races on this turn. I can show you exactly where I mean. I always put all the emphasis on these little things, you know. Everyone thinks Kitzbuhel is just the top and the bottom. But you win the race in the middle. And that’s very important – especially in races you know you can win. So you have to get this right.

The most frightening parts are at the top and the bottom – absolutely – and this is where you show off ! You have to do the work in the flats, and at the top and bottom you show off.

“Aren’t you frightened of the course?” I asked.
“Now ? Yes !!” (This gets the biggest laugh of the day)
“They say you’re not a true champion until you’ve won the Hahnenkamm” I said.
“I agree – because I won it four times!” laughs Klammer.
So does Herman Maier have to win here to be a true champion?

“I think so. Ask Bernhard Russi. He feels really sad that he won so many races and he didn’t win Kitzbuhel Or Peter Mueller. It’s like Ivan Lendl wanting to win Wimbledon – but he couldn’t win Wimbledon. And that’s the problem. You work so hard on that and you’re getting close but you don’t win it.

“But I am quite comfortable and relaxed because I won it four times!
“I was at the top for several years. Nobody could beat me. But it’s natural in sport that sometime new is coming along and doing it all again. Now Maier is here and everybody’s chasing him. It’s a tough job to stay at the top
So here comes the big question. “If, when you get to heaven, Franz” I said, “God asks you to hand one trophy back, which will it be – your Olympic gold or your 1984 Hahnenkamm trophy?”

After a moment’s thought, he replies: “I give back everything because I use it up while I’m living, you know ! But seriously – Its so difficult to answer that question – the Olympic run changed my entire life. But the 84 victory was a huge event for me personally because it was such a big satisfaction. But the important thing was Innsbruck. So then, let’s keep Innsbruck !”

© Arnie Wilson