• May 26, 2020

Totally Rewind – Klammer versus the Mountain – Winter 1976

At the moment Franz Klammer crossed the finish line and the scoreboard ticked over to reveal his winning time, sixty thousand Austrian ski fans let out a raw throated yell that shook the mountain. In the millions of years since the rock had been raised up from the bed of the valley it had never heard such a noise.

It was a moment that was not predestined to happened. The 1976 Winter Olympics should have taken place half a world away under the crisp blue Rocky Mountain sky but in a state-wide referendum on 7 November 1972, Colorado voters rejected funding for the Denver games.

So it was that the Winter Games returned to Innsbruck just twelve years after it had previously held them. When the competitors arrived on top of the Patscherkofel the favourites would have been Klammer, as World Cup winner, and Bernard Russi, the Swiss skier who was reigning Olympic champion.

The top fifteen in the World Cup standings were seeded and given a random starting position amongst that number. Klammer had the bad luck to be drawn in the 15th position when the course had the possibility of being damaged by previous skiers. In contrast Russi was drawn to run third.

On the first section of the course Russi made a minor mistake on one of the jumps but then skied a smooth and very fast middle section. He lost a little speed on the last turn, but it seemed not to matter as he was nearly two seconds faster than the earlier skiers.

With fourteen of the fifteen seeds having descended no one had got within half a second of Russi. All that stood between him and a second successive was Klammer. From the moment Klammer propelled himself out of the start gate you could tell he was fast, but he was also wild. You could say he was skiing on the edge but in truth it looked like he had skied over the edge and was clinging to the cliff with his fingernails. He made the same mistake as Russi at the top of the course but then compounded with a more serious when he lucky to avoid falling at a subsequent jump. At the final checkpoint the Austrian was still two tenths of a second behind his Swiss rival. Then came the defining moment of the race. At the last turn Klammer risked everything and tried a wider line, one that got perilously close to landing him in the crash netting and straw bales. This had the effect of him gaining speed where Russi had lost momentum.

At the end of his run the Austrian TV commentators uttered only one word “jawohl” as the hordes of Austrian fans saw his time flash up as 1 minute 45.73 seconds. Klammer had taken close to half a second off Russi in the final section and was in the lead. Although he had to wait for sixty more skiers to race there was no reasonable chance that any would be able to challenge. Beer and Schnapps would flow like water from a Spring glacier in Innsbruck that night.

Klammer continued to dominate downhill skiing for the next few years but lost form in the season of the 1980 Winter Olympics. He was controversially left off the Austrian team in Lake Placid in favour of the unheralded Leonhard Stock. This proved a masterstroke for the selectors as Stock became Olympic downhill champion.

After a drought of three years, Franz Klammer returned to the top step of a World Cup podium in December 1981 and enjoyed a late career renaissance which culminated in a fifth and final World Cup downhill title in 1983. He won his final World Cup victory in January 1984 in Kitzbuhel and was rewarded with a place in the Austrian team for the Sarajevo Olympics. This time the magic of Innsbruck could not be repeated although he finished in a respectable tenth place. He retired from the sport after the following winter.

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