A surprise slalom gold medallist at Sapporo 1972, the late Francisco Fernandez Ochoa remains the only Spanish athlete to have topped a podium at the Olympic Winter Games.
Nicknamed “Paquito”, Francisco Fernandez Ochoa was born in Madrid on 25 February 1950. The oldest of eight children, he grew up just outside the Spanish capital, in the town of Cercedilla, next to the small ski resort of Navacerrada.
His father ran a local ski school, and it was there that Fernandez Ochoa learned to ski with his siblings, including sister Blanca, who herself would go on to compete at four editions of the Olympic Winter Games.
After trying his hand at all the Alpine skiing events, “Paquito” chose slalom as his speciality. He made his Olympic debut as a 17-year-old at Grenoble 1968, where he also competed in the downhill and the giant slalom. The following year saw him make his FIS World Cup debut.
Setting the standard in Sapporo
By the time he returned to the Olympic stage at Sapporo 1972, Fernandez Ochoa had yet to win on the international circuit, though he did have several top-ten finishes to his name – enough to earn him a place among the seeds in Japan.
Handed the No.2 bib, the Spaniard took everyone by surprise on the first run, negotiating the gates with speed, agility and precision to beat reigning world champion Jean-Noël Augert from France by 0.41 seconds.
Italy’s Gustavo Thöni, the winner of the giant slalom three days earlier and the best male skier of his time, finished 1.33 seconds after him in eighth, behind his cousin Roland Thöni, who finished 0.78 seconds after Fernandez Ochoa.
A double World Cup winner, Gustavo Thöni produced a storming second run, stopping the clock at 53.59 seconds to put the pressure back on the Spaniard.
Fernandez Ochoa rose to the occasion, producing a faultless second run that was just 0.32 seconds slower than the Italian to beat him to the gold by over a second, with Roland Thöni taking bronze.
Hailed by the rapturous crowd, “Paquito” described his achievement as being “like a Japanese person conquering the bull ring”.
A family affair
Spain’s first Olympic champion since the 1928 Summer Games in Amsterdam, Fernandez Ochoa also became his country’s first, and so far only, Winter Games gold medallist.
He also has the honour of being the only Olympian to have been a flag-bearer at two opening ceremonies in the same year: in Sapporo and then again at the Summer Games in Munich a few months later.
Ninth in his slalom title defence at Innsbruck 1976, he continued to compete through to Lake Placid 1980, where he came home fifth in the combined. Meanwhile, in the World Cup, he registered four podium finishes, including a win in Zakopane in 1974, and 30 top-ten placings.
Following his retirement, his younger sister Blanca became one of the leading slalom skiers on the women’s circuit. She won bronze at Albertville 1992 – winning the second Olympic Winter Games medal for her family and for Spain.
A national hero, Fernandez Ochoa died on 6 November 2006 following a long illness. He was 56. His untimely death came just two weeks after a bronze statue of him celebrating his historic win in Sapporo was unveiled in his hometown.