For nearly 40 years, Franz Klammer’s performance at the 1976 Innsbruck Games has stood as the defining episode of modern ski racing. But while the reckless daring of his gold-medal downhill run is justly celebrated, the decisive factor may have been more mundane: innovative technique.
Klammer says he’d been working for years to bring carving methods to the downhill discipline and had located the pressure points that made his 222-cm Fischer C4s arc despite their minimal sidecut. How much he would need such skills on the Olympic course was unclear when he woke up on Feb. 5, the day of the men’s downhill. Throughout the week of training runs at Patscherkofel, the Austrian coaches had campaigned for a straighter course, bickering over gate placement with the chief race official, Erich Demetz of Italy.
Klammer was still every bit a 22-year-old farm kid that day, but he was already the world’s fastest downhiller. Having drawn bib 15, he had the latest start position in the top seed and was the last of Austria’s four starters. So when, after 14 racers, the fastest time belonged to Switzerland’s Bernhard Russi, Klammer knew he was his nation’s last hope.
Klammer’s wild descent thrilled spectators, but all the famous recoveries were costly, and at the final split he was 0.19 seconds off Russi’s pace. Having pushed the risk-recovery calculus to its limit, Klammer was acutely aware of the same thing Russi, resting on a hay bale at the finish, could feel where he stood: the entire forested hillside trembling under the sustained roar of the largest crowd assembled in the vicinity since World War II.
Then came the Bernegg section. Just before the narrow trail widened into a clearing where the course made a long right turn, Klammer unexpectedly swung wide to his left, tucking close against the fence to set up, then loading his weight onto his left ski to initiate an exquisite carved turn the likes of which had never been seen. For a full six seconds Klammer etched a single long groove into the washboarded ice.
That turn sent him like a ragged missile into the final sections, catapulting him across the finish and into Austrian lore, 0.33 seconds ahead of Russi. The crucial momentum had come from the most patient and subtle maneuver in a run better known for its wild abandon.
The influence Klammer had on ski-racing pedagogy in Austria found its measure in the late 1990s, when the children of 1976 came of age and utterly conquered the World Cup. The echo was loudest on Dec. 21, 1999, when the men’s tour swung through Patscherkofel for a super G in which the top nine finishers were, to a man, Austrian. All had been born between 1967 and 1974; all had grown up worshipping Klammer. And when they reached the finish, the great man was there, standing ready to congratulate them.