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In sports, there are winners and there are champions. Jean-Claude Killy is a champion. Since 1968 no racer has ever matched the Frenchman’s athletic and charismatic domination of the sport. Including Hermann Maier.
Killy raced in the historic first two World Cup seasons of 1967 and ’68, then retired at the age of 24 after the Grenoble Olympics. Maier’s winning career didn’t begin until he was 24. Each man has won an average of nine World Cup races per season. Each has won the overall title twice. That’s where any pretense of equality ends.
Let’s start with the feat for which Killy is most famous: winning all three gold alpine skiing medals at the 1968 Winter Games. What did Maier do in his only Olympics? He took a respectable two out of five gold medals, but he lost the downhill in a crash of brawn over brain, making a mistake that the intelligent Killy never would have made.Great skiers win overall. Killy was a slalom champion as well as the world’s top downhill and giant slalom skier. Maier’s slalom appearances are so poor and rare that he might not know whether he DQ’d in a flush or a hairpin.
Sure, Killy lacks Maier’s bloated muscles, titanium skis and plastic boots and so couldn’t tear up the mountain like the Hermanator. So what? Is Pete Sampras a better tennis champion than Bill Tilden because his abs are bigger and his racquet is laminated with space-age materials? What establishes the historic champions is superiority over their rivals.
In 1967, Killy won almost twice as many World Cup points as his nearest rival, while Maier last winter won only 38 percent more points than his next best. True, the Austrian was the victor in about one-fourth of the races on the calendar, but it doesn’t compare to Killy, who won 70 percent of his races, a record 12 out of 17. Killy won his giant slalom Olympic gold by a margin of more than two seconds; Maier by less than a second.
Killy is quick, cerebral, private, intensely loyal to friends, sensitive, wryly humorous¿an illustrious symbol of our sport. He may be the first world champion to head the IOC. I hope Maier has an illustrious career too. But superior to Killy? Ridiculous!