Italian skiing legend
In the 1970s, Italy’s Gustavo Thöni was regarded as the greatest skier in the world. An Olympic giant slalom champion in 1972 and slalom silver medallist in 1972 and 1976, he is also remembered for an unforgettable downhill duel with Franz Klammer in Kitzbühel in 1975.
Gustavo Thöni was born in Trafoi in South Tyrol, in the shadow of the northern side of the Stelvio Pass. Like the majority of children in his village, he learned to ski shortly after taking his first steps, but he quickly stood out from his peers, triumphing in the giant slalom at the prestigious Topolino youth event at the age of 15.
Three years later, on 11 December 1969, the up-and-coming skier earned his first FIS World Cup victory in Val d’Isère. Shy and discreet in public, he tended to do his talking on the piste, seemingly calculating his manoeuvres between the gates to the nearest millimetre.
He would eventually capitalise on his considerable talent to become one of the most successful skiers in history, building an impressive CV that featured 69 podium berths, 24 victories in slalom, giant slalom and combined, four overall World Cup titles (in 1971, 1972, 1973 and 1975) and one second-place finish (in 1974), seven FIS World Championships medals (including five golds) and three Olympic medals.
At the 1972 Olympic Games in Sapporo, Thöni, who belonged to the Gruppi Sportivi Fiamme Gialle, the sporting branch of the Italian police force, started out by prevailing in style in the giant slalom on 10 February, finishing 1.13 seconds ahead of Switzerland’s Edmund Bruggmann.
Three days later in the slalom final, a modest first run saw the Italian lying eighth as Francisco Fernandez Ochoa (ESP) set the early pace. However, a stunning performance – as well as the best time – during the second run ensured Thöni of a well-deserved silver medal behind the Spaniard. In an era where the World Championships and the Olympic Games were held simultaneously, he proceeded to also capture the world combined title in Sapporo (JPN).
At Innsbruck 1976, he claimed a further world combined crown and another silver medal in the Olympic slalom event, where he finished 44/100th of a second behind compatriot Piero Gros.
That all changed on 18 January 1975, on the demanding Streif course in Kitzbühel (AUT), when he unexpectedly finished as runner-up, coming in just 1/100th of a second behind downhill specialist and rising star Franz Klammer, the local favourite. The gap equated to just 28 centimetres at the finish line.
The extraordinary race, which has since taken on mythical status in Alpine skiing circles, later inspired a 1981 film entitled Un centesimo di secondo, starring Thöni himself in the lead role.
Thöni was the Italian flagbearer at the Winter Games on three occasions: at the Opening Ceremonies of Innsbruck 1976 and Lake Placid 1980, and then at the Closing Ceremony at Turin 2006.
After retiring at the end of the 1979/80 season, which he concluded with an eighth-place finish in the slalom at Lake Placid, he opened a hotel in Trafoi and moved into coaching, taking a gifted young skier named Alberto Tomba under his wing. Under Thöni’s tutelage, Tomba would go on to scale new heights, winning two world titles in Sierra Nevada (ESP) in 1996, one overall World Cup title in 1995 and three further Olympic medals (in 1992 and 1994) to add to the two he had already earned at Calgary 1988.
Thöni subsequently became technical director for Italian skiing, and then general manager of the Italian national men’s and women’s teams, a role he fulfilled until 2000. His collection of trophies is now on display for guests to admire at his hotel, which also features his signature on its facade