On 13 February 1998, in the downhill at the Games in Nagano, Hermann Maier crashed off the course in spectacular fashion, and the images of this made the news all over the world. But the Games went on for him – just a few days later he won two gold medals, in the super-G and giant slalom. And the legend of the “Herminator” would live on for many years to come.
On Friday 13 February 1998, the Olympic downhill at the Hakuba Happo-One resort on Mount Karamastu finally took place after three postponements due to the capricious weather conditions. At last the sun was shining! Hermann Maier, who had emerged onto the elite international skiing scene less than two years previously, was on course to win the overall World Cup title for the first time in his career, and he was one of the favourites in this event. He was wearing bib number 4.
The man to race before him was France’s Jean-Luc Crétier. To everyone’s surprise, he literally stood up to slow down to take the seventh gate after around 16 seconds of the race, before once again crouching to pick up speed and skiing the rest of the course at full tilt. Aware that he had pulled off quite a feat, Crétier raised his arms aloft after crossing the finish line. And yet he was only the third man to race. Nobody knew it yet, but his time of 1:50.11 would remain unbeaten.
Maier was next to go. After 16 seconds, the Austrian champion was travelling at high speed (more than 105 km/h) when he reached the turn that would catch out many of the other racers. His line was far too straight, and he crashed off the course, flying through the air for several metres before landing in the snow behind the safety nets. Fears about his injuries were short-lived, however, when Maier stood up, covered in snow, and wagged his index finger as if to say, “I’m fine.” His right shoulder and knee were badly bruised, but more weather delays meant that he had recovered enough to compete in the super-G three days later. In the meantime, the pictures of his crash had been seen the world over.
Two gold medals after the crash
In the super-G, Maier was in a league of his own. The figures tell their own story. During the 1997-1998 winter season, there had been four World Cup races before the Games in Nagano, and he had won them all. By the end of his career, he had racked up a record 24 wins in this event, a total that nobody has equalled in the 22 years since. He was known for his strength, intensity and go-for-broke borderline reckless approach.
When Maier went through the start gate wearing bib number 8, Switzerland’s young Didier Cuche was leading with a time of 1:35.43. The Austrian seemed more cautious than usual as he skied down the 2,407m course, perhaps thinking about his crash three days earlier. But his movements were still fluid and fast, and he finished 0.61 seconds ahead of Cuche, a big gap. Maier’s compatriot, Hans Knauss, then equalled Cuche’s time, so they shared the silver medal. Maier, the bricklayer from Flachau, who had remained on the fringes of the Austrian team until his talent was finally recognised when he was 24, became Austria’s first super-G Olympic champion.
The giant slalom, held on 19 February, saw a change of location to Mount Higashidate in the resort of Shiga Kogen. Although the leading racer at the time in this event was Switzerland’s Michael von Grünigen, Maier overtook him that season, with three wins and six podium finishes in the seven World Cup races before the Games. And this time, there was no question about it. The man who would become known as the “Herminator” (in reference to his compatriot’s film role as the Terminator) produced the best time in the first leg and, starting last in the second leg, achieved the best time there as well. He succeeded the two-time title-holder, Alberto Tomba (who fell after 17 seconds in the first leg). His team-mate Stephan Eberharter, 0.85 seconds behind, and Von Grünigen, 1.18 seconds behind, stood beside him on the podium.
Now a national hero, double Olympic champion Maier was just at the beginning of a career that would see him dominate men’s Alpine skiing at the start of the 21st century. After his first crystal globe in 1998, he won two World Championship titles (downhill and super-G) the following year in Vail (USA), before setting a men’s points record (exactly 2,000, with 10 wins and 22 podium finishes) in 2000, a record which still stands today. He won his third overall globe at the end of the 2000-2001 season, this time with 13 wins.
A dramatic motorbike accident before a brilliant comeback
But this triumphal career came to a brutal halt on 24 August 2001, when he was involved in a terrible motorbike accident. His right leg was badly injured, and he narrowly avoided amputation. As a result, he could not compete at the Games in Salt Lake City in 2002, but managed to restart his sports career during the 2002-2003 season. He rediscovered his winning form in the super-G in Kitzbühel on 27 January 2003; won his fourth overall crystal globe at the end of the 2003-2004 season; was crowned giant slalom world champion in Bormio in 2005; won two new Olympic medals at the 2006 Games in Turin (silver in the super-G and bronze in the giant); and achieved his last victory in the super-G at Lake Louise on 30 November 2008.
In October 2009, aged 36, he tearfully announced that he was retiring. “It wasn't an easy decision, and it's difficult to let go. I'm ending a career which as a kid I could hardly imagine ever turning out better,” he said. The Herminator ended with a fantastic list of Alpine skiing achievements: 54 wins and 96 podium finishes from 268 races, 14 crystal globes, four Olympic medals, and six World Championship medals, including three titles.These are the thoughts of Marcel Hirscher, today regarded as the greatest skier of all time: “In a sense, he’s my predecessor. In many respects, Hermann is a benchmark for me. How did he solve this? How did he do it? Sometimes I ask him: ‘How was it back then for you?’ The biggest challenge for me was being a person of public interest. Ski racing is what fascinates me the most, but what I didn’t realise back then as an 18-year-old was that media events like this one are part of my job.” Hermann Maier, who became a sporting icon and Alpine skiing superstar in his country, went through all that before him.