He remains the king of the downhill, the most successful skier of anyone in his discipline in the World Cup. But Franz Klammer's career took an exceptional turn when he won in front of a huge crowd during the Innsbruck Games on 5 February 1976. The story of a day like no other...
We would be right to consider him the greatest downhill skier of all time. From his first victory in the World Cup at 19 years old, to Schladming on 22 December 1973, to his ultimate success in the discipline, his fourth triumph on the Kitzbühel Streif on 21 January 1984, Franz Klammer won 25 downhill races – a record that still stands today, and that no-one has even come close to beating to date in the men's event.
“I always had this feeling in the starting gate. I knew I will do it,” he explains, “I was full of confidence, I knew I can pull it off, and at any time, I learned how to win a race: concentrate, just on your race, you and the mountain and not thinking about anybody else.” The feats of this exceptional downhill skier include this total domination of the 1974-1975 season, with eight victories in the nine races of the programme, a run, straddling the two following seasons, of 10 consecutive wins and another record: five small discipline crystal globes, won consecutively from 1975 to 1978, then in 1983.
With the Super-G, as a second speed race, not existing at the time, Klammer's career was only downhill (apart from a world title in the combined event in 1974), which explains why despite his overwhelming domination, the Austrian skier, born on 3 December 1953 in Mooswald (Carinthia), was never able to compete for the large general classification globe in the World Cup in an era particularly characterised by the success of the Swede Ingemar Stenmark.
The crowd's Klammer
A great career only becomes exceptional with the ultimate title – an Olympic gold medal. This is all the sweeter when it is won in front of more than 60,000 focused supporters and millions of Austrians gathered in front of their TV sets across the country. For “Kaiser Franz”, this moment of triumph happened on the 3,020m of the Patscherkofel in Innsbruck on Thursday 5 February 1976.
A huge crowd had amassed along the edge of the piste and at the finish line for the star event at the Innsbruck Games. The man to beat was the Swiss competitor Bernhard Russi, title-holder after his victory at the Sapporo Games in 1972 and who intended to retain his sceptre. Setting off in bib no. 3, he performed pretty well and crossed the finish line with a time of 1:46.06, giving him the lead. Each competitor who followed failed to best his time, until there was only one skier left who was capable of beating him: Franz Klammer.
In bib no. 15, a yellow suit, red shoes and a red helmet with a white stripe, Klammer set off to shouting from the crowd. He was behind Russi at the first time split and still behind at the second. “And suddenly, there were 60,000 people in the stadium and the whole mountain started to shake…,” Bernhard Russi explains.
Franz Klammer recalls, “By the time I walked into the starting gate, I knew I am going to win. I was so convinced that I can do it. But I knew I had to risk everything. I was so focused, I was so concentrated, just on the run and then half-way down, I was looking at the crowd, kind of now I'd better do something to win the race. So I changed the line completely. But I felt, you know, they were really pushing me.”
Passing the finish tape, the time showed 1:45.73. Russi was beaten by 33 hundredths of a second. “Really the whole mountain was shaking when Franz came down,” he recalls. “And I personally think there is somewhere that power from spectators they can pull him down. I think that gave him the extra kick, there was something in the air, he could not lose that race, no way. Finally he also skied a line in the final pitch which I’m sure he never recognised. Nobody went there to see if it was possible or not. He just went down the straight line which normally everybody said it’s just impossible, you can’t stand this. He just did it!”
An eternal legend
At the finish line, Franz Klammer started by looking at the huge crowd. “They were excited and I knew I won it. I really was happy of course, and relieved, that I did my greatest race, or my most important run. I've won so many things, without the Olympic title it would have been a good career, but not a great career.” The Olympic Games plus the FIS World Championships, Franz Klammer was also crowned World Champion on that day.
“Klammer Express”, his other nickname, continued to dominate his sport until 1978, then he suffered a loss of momentum which led notably to him not being selected for the very strong Austrian downhill team for the Lake Placid Games in 1980. But he bounced back with ferocity, and resumed his onward march. His fourth victory in Kitzbühel in January 1984 at the age of 30 was a record at that time, which would later be beaten by the Swiss competitor Didier Cuche, yet Klammer remains the only skier to have won four times across the whole Streif course. He suffered disappointment at the Sarajevo Games in 1984 with 10th place, and competed for the last time in March 1985 at Aspen with a World Cup record of 26 wins, 45 podiums and 87 top 10 places.
After his skiing career, he became a racing driver and raced touring cars until the 1990s. His greatest moment is certainly still his Olympic win in Innsbruck; however, his entire career remains a great source of inspiration for all the speed skiers that have followed. The legend of Kaiser Franz is eternal...