Underdog Stock causes a shock to take downhill crown
After his gold medal-winning heroics at the 1976 Games in Innsbruck, downhill star Franz Klammer became an Austrian hero and an international sporting celebrity. Such was his status that four years later, Olympic squad coach Karl Kahr was forced to explain on national TV his decision to leave the ace performer out of his Lake Placid team.
Kahr’s two main problems were that Klammer had lost some of his edge following a bad skiing accident that left his brother paralysed, and the sheer abundance of quality skiers at his disposal. Throughout the 1970s a seemingly endless stream of daring and talented men and women graced the slopes under the Austrian flag.
Leonhard Stock had once been considered a huge talent, but he had been dogged by serious injuries, and by 1980 his chances of Olympic success had been written off. However, he was nothing if not persistent, and after suffering a complex fracture to his shoulder while training in Val d’Isere in December 1979 he was quickly back on his skis and eager to prove a point.
Ahead of the Games, the Zillertal-born skier was dragooned into the four-man downhill unit as a reserve, with the very faint possibility that he might compete in the giant slalom. It had been assumed that Peter Wirnsberger, Werner Grissman, Harti Weirather and Sepp Walcher would be racing – with Walcher seen as Austria’s best hope of winning skiing’s most prestigious event.
But Stock upset the apple cart in spectacular fashion. Somewhat inconveniently for his coach, he recorded the fastest times in pre-Olympic training at Lake Placid ahead of the Games. The day before the race he sailed down the 3,009m course in record time, much to the astonishment of his teammates.
The night before the men’s downhill event, Kahr made the toughest call of his career and bumped world champion Walcher, replacing him with Stock. It provoked a blazing row among the squad. “Certainly I was mad,” admitted Kahr after the race.
At noon the next day came Stock’s big moment. As a relative unknown he was very far down the starting list. Like Klammer four years previously, this gave him the advantage of skiing on a compacted, icy surface.
Such a perilously fast run was only an advantage to racers with the skill and courage to operate at the limits of their abilities. No-one expected Stock to do anything. In fact, commentators on US TV were discussing future races when the young Austrian began to make his way down the mountain. He ignored the covering of fresh snow and held both his line and his nerve on the icy run. Just 105 seconds after starting his run, he was the king of skiing.
Against colossal odds the 21-year-old Stock had won the glamour event of the Winter Games. His stunning win on Whiteface Mountain catapulted himto stardom and put him on the cover of Time magazine – it was one of the great Olympic underdog stories.
Stock told reporters after the race: “I am a big fighter. I fought to get on this team, and I fought today and won. It was all worth the fighting.”
The Austrian just missed out on the medals at Calgary in 1988, and didn’t win another downhill race until 1989. A few years later he retired to run a hotel, with his name forever etched in Olympic history.