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Alpine skier Rosi Mittermaier’s medal prospects didn’t look great at the start of the 1976 Winter Olympics, which had been hastily transferred from Denver in the US to Innsbruck, Austria, after the American city baulked at the cost of staging the event.
Aged 25, she was the oldest athlete in the competition – her third Olympics – yet had never won a major downhill event.
But, like politics, a week is a long time in sport. By the Closing Ceremony on 15 February, the German veteran, nicknamed “Grandma” by her younger rivals, had pulled off an astonishing double coup – one of the shocks of the Games.
Mittermaier had had a long career in international skiing, having shown world-class promise as a teenager in West Germany. After qualifying for the 1968 Olympic squad at the tender age of 17, she failed to break into the top 20 in any Alpine event that year. Afterwards she enjoyed moderate success, winning 10 individual World Cup races between 1969 and 1976, the year she was crowned world champion on the combined event.
But in Innsbruck she stunned spectators by winning downhill gold for the first time in her international career in a time of 1:46.16, upstaging the highly rated Brigitte Totschnig of Austria by a half-second.
Four days later, she achieved the unthinkable in her best event, the slalom – clinching gold with her second run, having trailed teammate Pamela Behr in the first race. Such was her prestige that she needed a police escort to safely get back to her hotel.
Could the darling of the German media (“Our Rosi Lays Only Golden Eggs,” ran one newspaper headline) pull off a triple in the giant slalom and equal the achievements of Toni Sailer and Jean-Claude Killy? Excitement and expectations ran high.
Unfortunately for Mittermaier, Kathy Kreiner had other ideas. After an impeccable run, the Canadian flashed across the finish line in 1:29.13. When Mittermaier’s turn came three runs later she dug and drove with her poles, but lost precious seconds by approaching a gate on the lower part of the course too flat, and ended just 12 one-hundredths of a second off the lead.
The dream of a clean sweep was over all too quickly – but the double gold medal win by “Grandma” put her competitors in their place in Innsbruck. Kreiner was almost apologetic. However, she and bronze medallist Danièle Debernard hoisted Mittermaier aloft on their shoulders, providing an iconic image of Winter Olympic sportsmanship.
Mittermaier retired soon after the 1976 Games. She went on to publish an autobiography and record an album of folk songs, and became a spokesperson for skiing-equipment manufacturers, as well as writing books on Nordic walking techniques.