Olympic and World Champion Toni
By Patrick Lang
Goodbye, Unser Tonaï!
The bad news was expected, but not so soon. Austrian skiing legend Anton
“Toni” Engelbert Sailer of Kitzbühel, the first competitor
to win all three alpine ski events in a single Olympics, died on Monday,
Aug. 24, in Innsbruck, after a long illness. He was 73. He is survived
by his son Florian and his second wife Hedwig.
A great sports hero
One of the greatest heroes of modern ski racing, Sailer became an idol
around the world when, at age 20, he scored Olympic gold in the downhill,
slalom and giant slalom races at the 1956
Games in Cortina, beating his rivals by several seconds. He followed
up by winning gold in the downhill, giant slalom and combined, and silver
in slalom, at the 1958 FIS World Championships in Bad Gastein, Austria.
Due to his speed and the black racing suits he often wore, the press
dubbed him “the black Blitz from Kitz.”
After winning a dozen events in North America during the spring of 1957,
Sailer began acting and singing. The public appearances led to charges
by some sports organizations that he had gone pro. So he gave up ski
racing after the 1958 season. His Hollywood looks led to starring roles
in more than twenty successful movies, and he also performed as a stage
Sailer considered a comeback for the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics, but
was forced to give up this project after finding out that he would have
a hard time regaining amateur status and Olympic eligibility.
He retired from show business in the mid-1960s to join the ski business.
He endorsed the Toni Sailer brand of fiberglass skis made in Montreal
by Fred Langendorf and Art Molnar.
Back on the ski tour
After the 1972 Olympics at Sapporo, where the Austrian Ski Team failed
to capture a single gold medal, Sailer was hired as alpine technical
director of the Austrian Ski Federation until 1976. Under his guidance,
a new Wunderteam dominated the World Cup tour, with such great champions
as Franz Klammer, David Zwilling, Hansi Hinterseer, Annemarie Moser-Proell
and many others. During this period he also acted as a member of the
World Cup Committee.
For many years Sailer ran the children’s ski school at Kitzbühel
and headed the Organizing Committee for the Hahnenkamm. In 1992, FIS
asked Sailer to serve as Chairman of the Alpine Committee, the highest
authority under the control of the FIS Council. His vision and passion
for the sport helped to establish new standards in ski racing, with
more modern rules and the introduction of Super-G, comparable to the
old single-run giant slalom. Sailer was also a driving force, along
with Serge Lang, in the introduction of prize money on the World Cup
tour in the early 1990s.
Toni Sailer was awarded the Olympic Order by the International Olympic
Committee in 1985, when he turned 50. In 1999 he was honored as Austria's
sportsman of the century along with Annemarie Moser-Proell. The Austrian
Ski Federation presented him a special prize last spring for his lifelong
contributions for the sport.
First win at 16!
Toni was only 16 in January 1952 when he celebrated his first triumph
in an international classic, the Grand Prix de Megève, where
he surprised the field to win the downhill and the combined. He triumphed
in other events in France that winter, in Alpe d’Huez and Barcelonnette.
Among the special prizes he won at these amateur competitions was a
huge refrigerator, which he brought home for his mother’s kitchen.
“You can’t imagine what that meant to us in that difficult
post-war period,” Toni told me years later, with a huge grin.
“I guess it was the very first private refrigerator at all in
Kitzbühel and maybe in Tirol. On Sundays, people came to visit
us just to see it. It was amazing. It worked for a very long time –
maybe thirty or forty years. It was incredible!”
An injury in 1953 slowed him down, but he was back in form for 1955,
winning his first of four Lauberhorn downhills at Wengen with a huge
margin over Anderl Molterer. In 1956, Sailer crushed all his rivals
on home turf at Kitzbühel, dominating the downhill, the slalom
and the combined prior his impressive Olympic triple crown at Cortina
“To be an Olympic champion was my main goal,” Sailer told
me. “I was tempted to give up racing already in 1956 but I had
to confirm my successes at the 1958 FIS World Championships which took
place in Austria. In those days, it was not a job to be a ski racer
and I started to think about having a real job after making my apprenticeship
as a tinsmith, like my dad. But then I quit after Bad Gastein to fully
focus on my career as an actor, that I fully enjoyed for many years.”
A true athlete
Sailer is considered by ski experts and historians as the first true
athlete among his colleagues. “He was a natural talent who could
have succeeded in many other sports,” explained his former team
trainer Fred Roessner, the founder of the first Austrian Wunderteam.
“Once we made a series of tests at the Austrian sports school
at Schieleiten, and we found out that he was able to run 100 meters,
without special training or equipment, in 11 seconds – which was
quite amazing! He was incredibly well balanced, quiet and smart, too.”
In fact, split times made during his downhill races showed that Sailer
gained most of his time on rather flat gliding sections, where he was
incredibly faster than all his rivals. He had an amazing feeling for
gliding. It was the first thing he taught his racers after becoming
their head coach in 1972. He helped established slalom champions like
Reinhart Tritscher and David Zwilling to also excel in downhill. He
spent much time observing them in training and made lots of tests with
them, especially with their boots.
A very generous person with a great sense of humor, Toni Sailer was
always keen to give back to the sport part of what he had received.
As a former champion, a trainer, a ski school director, an organizer,
a FIS official, he always worked hard to promote his beloved sport on
all continents. His contributions have been huge!
Nowadays, it’s difficult to imagine what Sailer represented in
the world of sport in the 1950s. He was loved and admired as a true
hero from a country fighting back from hard years, helping it to regain
sympathy on the international scene. In fact only very few champions
from the 20th century managed to reach his superstar status.
He will be missed!
A Tribute to Toni Sailer
By John Fry
Skiing's superstars are athletes who don't necessarily appear on lists
of most races won. They won races that most counted. At clutch time,
in the Olympics, they showed up.
Arguably, the best was 1956 champion Toni Sailer. The margins by
which the Austrian won his gold medals were staggering: 3.5 seconds
the downhill, a mind-boggling 6.4 seconds in the one-run giant slalom,
and 4 seconds in the slalom. At the 1958 World Championships, Sailer
almost repeated his Olympic hat trick, placing first in both downhill
and giant slalom, and second in the slalom. With jet black hair and
movie star's face, the handsome, six-foot poster-boy Sailer went on
act in films and, later, in television mini-series.
Sailer and Jean-Claude Killy are the only racers to have captured all
of the alpine gold medals available to be won in a single
Olympics. In their eras, there were just three. Super G and
special combined races hadn't yet been introduced.
Seven world championship medals in 24 months! No one else has ever
The ski world conventionally remembers Austria’s Toni Sailer as
the first racer to capture three gold medals in the Olympics, winning
all the alpine competitions at the 1956 Winter Games in Cortina, Italy.
After Jean-Claude Killy hat-tricked again in 1968, no man has again
three-peated. But recognizing Toni Sailer only for his Olympic result
is like recognizing Jack Nicklaus only for his six victories in golf’s
Masters. To gain an appreciation for Sailer’s dominance, you have
know what he did two years after the Olympics. In the 1958 World Alpine
Ski Championships at Bad Gastein, Austria, he was in a class by himself.
He won the giant slalom by four seconds, and he won the downhill as
well. And he was second in the slalom, missing gold by seven-tenths
of a second. The result was that he easily won the overall FIS World
Championship combined gold medal.
At the time Sailer raced, an Olympic victory resulted in the winner
also receiving a World Championship gold medal, so that his three 1958
gold medals, on top of the Olympic four, including the combined that
he’d won in 1956, gave him seven World Championship gold medals
in two years. . . something that no racer has ever achieved before or
since! And to top it off, during the same 24 months he twice won the
world’s toughest downhill, the Hahnenkamm.
How could a racer be so dominant, and by such huge winning margins?
Going fast is not the only way to win a ski race. The other is to travel
the shortest distance down the mountain. Sailer was ahead of his time
in perfecting the technique of taking a straight line between two gates,
using an uphill step to enter the turn normally. Watching Sailer’s
line in 1958 was a lesson that he never forgot, says America’s
Tom Corcoran, subsequently enabling him to become America’s top
giant slalom skier.
Sailer also had a powerful mental edge. The desire to win was so deeply
embedded in him, he explained to journalist Nick Howe, that the goal
of actually coming in first didn’t cross his mind. Rather, he
likened his skiing to throwing a stone. “The stone flies by itself
and it lands by itself,” said Sailer. “I get the prize because
the stone flew well. Why did it fly well? Because I threw it the right
The 1958 World Championships were Sailer’s final races. Stringent
amateurism rules of the International Olympic Committee’s forced
him to retire. “I have to make money,” said the 23-year-old,
by now Europe’s most famous athlete. And he did. Built like a
football player, Hollywood handsome, he became a successful movie and
TV actor, and a heartthrob for millions of women.