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Sarajevo 1984

Unlikely hero Johnson follows through on skiing gold promise

Bill Johnson skied his ways into the record books at Sarajevo by becoming the first American man ever to win an Olympic gold medal in Alpine skiing – and it all played out just as he predicted.

Johnson’s journey to the peak of his sport began in his troubled teenage years when he picked up a pair of skis and began racing competitively. Racing down the slopes of Mount Hood in his native Oregon, the youngster realised he had found a positive way to harness his energy.

But it was a brush with the law aged 17 that truly set him on the path to Olympic glory. After being found guilty of trying to steal a car, a sympathetic judge recognised his talent and offered him the choice of being locked up or attending a ski academy. Johnson wisely chose the latter.

A couple of years later, his talent and fearlessness in the no-guts-no-glory downhill event had earned him a place on the USA Ski team, and he made his debut in the World Cup in 1983, placing a respectable sixth. His stock was rising – as was his unshakeable self-belief.

Johnson arrived at Sarajevo telling anyone who would listen that he’d win gold. The young American was brimming with confidence, having pulled off a shock win in the Lauberhorn race at the World Cup in Switzerland a month before.

Though that victory was remarkable, his record for the season was patchy, and his event was still dominated by Swiss and Austrian skiers including veteran race legends such as Franz Klammer and Sweden’s Ingemar Stenemark. Johnson’s detractors in the media accused him of misplaced arrogance.

When the race was finally held on Mount Bjelasnica, having been cancelled three times because of bad weather, Klammer, racing third, quickly fell out of contention.

Johnson seized his chance, recording a blistering run on a course more suited to speed demons than technical skiers. His time of 1:45.59 was a shade faster than his closest rival, Peter Muller of Switzerland – and he clinched gold.

The miraculous win stunned the established European skiing hierarchy and thrilled TV audiences back home. Klammer, perhaps forgetting his own stunning Olympic triumph eight years previously in Innsbruck, described it as a “minor catastrophe”. It was Johnson’s crowning moment.

His Olympic gold and two more World Cup wins in Whistler and Aspen saw him finish the season in third place.

His achievement in Sarajevo remains one of skiing’s great sporting moments, and this unconventional hero’s victory went on to inspire a US movie.

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