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Greatest Racers: Olympics sort out the best

Toni Sailer in 1956
Who are the greatest racers? Look to the Olympics for the skiers able to 
 
conquer pressure. 
 
By John Fry
 
With 48 homers and 130 runs batted in, New York Yankees third 
 
baseman Alex Rodriguez was arguably baseball’s best player during the 2005 
 
season, notwithstanding how he did it. But once in the playoffs, over a time 
 
span roughly equal to that of the Olympic Winter Games, Rodriguez was a no-
hit flop. 
 
Mention the greatest skiers of all time, and you usually hear a recitation 
 
of racers with Rodriguez-like stats. . .for example, Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark 
 
winner of a record 86 World Cup races, and Austria’s Annemarie Proell, with a 
 
women’s record of 62 races won. And there’s Marc Girardelli with more overall 
 
World Cup titles and starts than any racer in history. But you won’t find Proell 
 
or Girardelli on my list of the greatest Olympic racers. Neither one won more 
 
than one gold medal in a single Winter Games. Stenmark didn’t even compete 
 
in the downhill. 
 
No, skiing’s superstars are athletes who don’t appear on lists counting 
 
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 in 
 
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 a movie star’s face, the 
 
handsome, six-foot poster-boy Sailer went on to 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.)
 
Killy, 24, was already an internationally acclaimed champion before 
 
his 1968 Olympic triumph in the French Alps above Grenoble. The previous 
 
winter, in capturing the first overall World Cup title, the Frenchman had 
 
won 71 percent of the races on the calendar, a feat never since repeated. The 
 
pressure on Killy before the Grenoble Games was unimaginably intense. All 
 
day long he was pursued by photographers, autograph seekers and worshipful 
 
fans. To escape, Killy went into seclusion a week before the lighting of the 
 
Olympic flame. When he showed up in the starting gate, he was psyched 
 
and ready. He pulled off the gold medal hat trick, albeit winning by narrower 
 
margins than Sailer enjoyed. 
 
“The greatest racers, in my opinion, win gold at the Olympics and World 
 
Championships,” insists 1970 World Champion Billy Kidd. “The events are 
 
followed on television and in newspapers around the world, and they demand 
 
something that doesn’t come into play in career-long performances and season-
long accumulations of points. . .the ability to win when the chips are down.” 
 
Killy’s and Sailer’s winning all the Olympic alpine races during less than 12 days 
 
and in less than five minutes of competition, are convincing proof to Kidd of 
 
their greatness. 
 
As in tennis and golf, women don’t ski-race with the same strength and 
 
speed as men, but their competitive fervor is no less. In 1952 at Oslo, fiercely 
 
determined Andrea Mead Lawrence won two Olympic gold medals at the age 
 
of only 19, an achievement never equaled by a man. She’s the only American to 
 
win twice in a single Olympics. . . alas, she fell in the downhill. 
 
Germany’s Rosi Mittermaier in 1976 and Liechenstein’s Hanni Wenzel 
 
in 1980 both narrowly missed performing the Sailer-Killy hat trick. After gold-
medaling in the downhill and slalom, Mittermaier came within one-eighth of a 
 
second of winning the giant slalom. 
 
Arguably, the greatest woman ski racer of all time is living among us 
 
today. She is Croatia’s Janica Kostelic, who won three gold medals and a silver 
 
at the Salt Lake Winter Games in 2002. 
 
Then there is 18-season veteran Kjetil Andre Aamodt, whose eight 
 
Olympic medals are a record in alpine skiing. 
 
The greatest perform under pressure, occasionally self-imposed. After 
 
Muhammad Ali talked big and Babe Ruth pointed his finger at the home 
 
run fence, they both delivered. Hermann “the Hermanator” Maier met the 
 
challenge at the 1998 Olympics. After a spectacular airborne, body-crunching 
 
crash in the downhill, he rose like a man from the dead and went on to win 
 
both the Super G and the giant slalom gold medals. Following a nearly fatal 
 
motorcycle crash that left him with a mangled leg, Maier raced again.
 
The great Olympic champions weren’t guys with prepared excuses 
 
built around the inevitability of averages. They went out and conquered 
 
off-days and the law of averages by winning multiple medals. I bow in 
 
reverence to the golden men and women of our sport. 
 
John Fry covered the ski races at four Winter Olympic Winter Games, and has written for 
 
40 years about the World Cup and the World Alpine Ski Championships.