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Jean Vuarnet, the man who revolutionised downhill skiing

Jean Vuarnet pulled off two firsts in winning downhill gold at Squaw Valley in 1960, unveiling his innovative “egg position” and a pair of shiny metal skis. Born in the Tunisian capital city of Tunis on 18 January 1933, Jean Vuarnet was still an infant when he moved with his family to the ski resort of Morzine in the French Alps. A law student in Grenoble, he also became a top-class skier, earning places in the Grenoble Université Club and France teams and revealing his rich promise at the very highest level by winning downhill bronze at the 1958 FIS World Championships in Bad Gastein (AUT).

Skiing pioneer

In a bid for more speed, the Frenchman then honed his revolutionary “egg position”, now known as the tuck, a lower stance in which he squatted down with knees bent, arms outstretched and fists clasped together. Though the position would be adopted by every downhill skier in the years that followed, Vuarnet was the only competitor to use it at the 1960 Olympic Winter Games at Squaw Valley (USA). And it was not the only innovation he unveiled on the slopes of California that year.

Out with the old, in with the new

During the 1959/60 season, the French ski manufacturer supplying the French team provided Vuarnet with wooden skis that he found far too flexible.

“It was a disaster,” he told the French media. “So I went to their factory in Voiron and had a good look around. I came across a pair of metal skis that were just my size. They’d been tossed aside but they looked OK to me. I took them and tried them out in the Émile Allais Cup in Megève. One of the skis got bent but I still managed to finish fifth. So I called the manufacturer and asked them to send me a new pair because the Games were coming up.”

Worth the wait

He got his hands on his new skis just a few days before the downhill race at Squaw Valley and went on to become the first skier in Olympic history to win gold on metal skis. “It was a lovely day, I was on top form and I had the right equipment, at last,” said Vuarnet, taking up the story. “I’d only gone 60 metres when I made a mistake. I went out too fast and I slipped. I said to myself: ‘I’ve had it’. When I got to the bottom there was total silence. The loudspeaker was broken, the crowd was quiet and the scoreboard wasn’t moving. The No7 of Germany’s Hans Peter Lanig was still at the top. And then, all of a sudden, it moved. The No7 slipped down a place and up popped the No10 at the top. No10 was me.”

Clocking a speed of 115 km/h in the fastest section of the course, Vuarnet crossed the line in a time of 2:06.0, beating Lanig by half a second, with fellow Frenchman Guy Périllat taking third place a further four tenths behind.

A life-changing victory

Vuarnet’s stunning victory at Squaw Valley thrust him firmly into the limelight. On returning to France, he teamed up with a sunglasses manufacturer to launch an eponymous line of eyewear that used a new type of glass and enjoyed success around the world. The Olympic champion then took charge of Morzine’s tourist office and founded the resort of Avoriaz on the slopes above it before developing Les Portes du Soleil ski area, which straddled the French/Swiss border. In the early 1970s he was appointed manager of France’s Alpine skiing team and vice-president of the French Ski Federation.

In 2010 a 4.5m-high glass and steel sculpture was unveiled in Morzine in the presence of the man himself. The artwork depicted the great Frenchman in a pose now familiar to skiing fans around the world: the tuck position that had marked a milestone in his sport some 50 years earlier.



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