Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark is considered the greatest slalom specialist of all time – and perhaps the highpoint of his career was his double gold win at the Lake Placid Games in 1980.
Stenmark grew up in the mountain resort of Tärnaby, 60 miles from the Arctic Circle, and was on skis by the age of five. Aged 10, he informed schoolteachers he wanted to be a ski racer, only to be told it was a foolishly unrealistic dream.
His father disagreed, coaching his son until he was 13, before Italian Hermann Nogler spotted the determined youngster’s single-mindedness and talent and nurtured it.
Just four years later, the precocious and technically accomplished Swede was challenging the great alpine legend Gustavo Thöni on the World Cup circuit.
By 1976 Stenmark – who preferred the precision of slalom events rather than the all-out speed attack required in the downhill – had swept aside his competitors and won the world title. He took bronze in the slalom at the Innsbruck Winter Olympic Games, edging Thöni out of the medals – heralding a new era and a new champion.
In the 1978-1979 season he won 13 World Cup races, a record that still stands. By the time the 1980 Games came around he had recovered from a bad fall in Italy a year earlier, during which he had tumbled 200m down a mountain and suffered a serious concussion. The pressure was on the sport’s golden boy to add Olympic gold to his trophy cabinet.
After a poor first run in the giant slalom, held over two days, Stenmark – who later admitted to suffering crippling nerves before his turn – lay in third place behind Andreas Wenzel and Yugoslavia’s Bojan Krizaj.
But this was to work to his advantage, as the pressure lifted from his shoulders. The following day he pulled out all the stops in his second run and took gold by more than a second.
Three days later came the slalom. American Phil Mahre, competing with a metal plate and four screws in his left ankle joint after a bad fall the previous year, skied first and recorded a fast time of 53.31. Stenmark, skiing the 13th run, was half a second slower and in fourth place.
Mahre looked to have achieved a stunning victory – but once again Stenmark pulled out a lightning fast and unbeatable second run of 50.37. Mahre couldn’t repeat his first round heroics, and Stenmark won.
‘The Silent Swede’ had become one of only four men to win both slalom events at a single Games. But he told journalists afterwards: “History is not important. The important thing is that I am satisfied with myself.”
However, years later Stenmark said: “An Olympic gold medal is the finest reward you can win as an athlete. For me to win in Lake Placid was most of all a relief. I had won so many races in the World Cup I felt under enormous pressure to do well.”
By the time he retired in 1989 he had won a record 86 World Cup races, making him the most successful slalom skier of all time.