The 2014 winter Olympics at Sochi has had its fair share of distractions somewhat obscuring the always interesting stories behind competitive sport. Pictures of inadequate toilet facilities, rancid water, Olympic rings that don’t open and overbearing Russian presidents have distracted from the games inherent value, the celebration of human capacity and courage. I have no doubt, though, that great accomplishments will soon take over from the other nonsense and give us some really stirring memories.
Sport is unique in that characteristic – creating a universally shared suspense and awe at what the athlete, challenged, can achieve. The venue is intense competition without violence. The Olympics, specifically, allowing nationalist fervor without the need for rancor. In some venues of course, the lack of violence does not imply the lack of pressure or the lack of danger. There is perhaps no more dangerous venue to the athlete than the Alpine Ski Downhill, and perhaps no less forgiving of an error.
There have been many great downhills in my memory that etch intense memory, but nothing comes close to the accomplishment of Franz Klammer at the 1976 Winter Olympics. The story has all the components of an epic, the tension of watching something unbelievably special unfold. As acts of profound human accomplishment in the face of overwhelming pressure, the Kaiser at Kitzbuhel has them all beat.
Austria is a nation of skiers and assumes their champions will represent the country as champions at the pinnacle of the sport. The test for the Austrian athlete is demanding – win and be immortalized, or lose and be forgotten. In 1976, the Olympics came to Austria at Innsbruck, and fittingly, the one of the most epic two minutes in sport, the Men’s Downhill, was placed at the most demanding course for that event in the world, the Streif run on Hahnenkamm mountain in Kitzbuhel. The Streif, a run with a 840 meter vertical drop and average 27% angle of decline with maximums of 40 degree inclines can break the will of the most courageous skier. The word, loosely translated from German as “graze” or “streak”, lives up to its foreboding reputation from the very outset, with the skier instantaneously assuming top speeds approaching 140 kilometers an hour. The course enters almost immediately into the famous ‘mousetrap’ where a jump of nearly 300 feet leads to an almost immediate left turn, resulting in severe gravitational compression and many falls off the course. The run continues with steep drops, hairpin turns and infamous limited visuals that can bring the bravest skier to feel apprehension not only for failure but for injury or worse. In a race often determined by hundreds of a second in outcome, a moment of hesitation can be fatal to success.
In 1976, the most prideful Alpine skiing nation hosted the greatest skiers on its greatest downhill course, and put forth its greatest champion. Franz Klammer known as the Kaiser for his domination of World Downhill from 1974 onward, was the greatest of Austria’s formidable team, and was holding the entire nation on his shoulders when he took the last run at the Streif on February 5th, 1976. He trailed the defending Olympic champion, the great Bernhard Russi of Switzerland, by a half second, with the course rutted, icy, and extremely treacherous from the courses of so many previous competitors.
Klammer was considered unconquerable in the downhill event, having won 8 of 9 on the world championship circuit and genetically bred for this particular downhill and its terrifying turns. Regardless, it is difficult to identify with the pressure he felt when he stared out of the starting gate down at the mousetrap and the perils beneath.
Of course, that’s where champions live – the place the rest of us can only dream of. Klammer, with the weight of his country and his own sense of history on his shoulders, determined to leave all caution behind, and release his skills at their maximum, regardless of personal risk – and see what would happen. What happened of course was epic. The world watched a person defy physics skiing at the edge of control and disaster, and determining go even faster. On two occasions, he seemed completely out of body control, hurtling sideways, and heading into hay bales and fences. Most of the time he somehow controlled speeds of 60 to 80 miles an hour on one ski, absorbing ruts and ice with perilous angles. His goal after all, was not to finish, not to survive – but to win.
The grainy video does not do the original visual full justice but the announcers let you know what is being witnessed, because they know the fine line this man has chosen between victory and perhaps death. It is perhaps even more intense in local television broadcast. The Kaiser at Kitzbuhel made all of humanity shimmer that day in the glory of a man conquering his own mortality, and a nation explode in the pride of watching someone prove to be even better than advertised. With such moments, sport reaches perfection.