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With 48 homers and 130 runs batted in, New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez won the Most Valuable Player award last season. But in the playoffs, Rodriguez has famously flopped throughout his career.
Ask about the greatest skiers of all time and you usually hear a recitation of racers with stellar 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 of Luxembourg, who racked up more overall World Cup titles (5) and starts (423) than any racer in history. But you won’t find Proell or Girardelli on my list of the greatest Olympic racers. Neither won more than one gold medal in a single Winter Games. Stenmark didn’t even race in the downhill.
No, skiing’s true superstars are athletes who don’t appear on career lists counting most races won. They won races when winning counted most: at crunch time, in the Olympics, when the whole world was watching. Fail in an Olympic race and you have to wait four years before you can redeem yourself.
By this standard, the all-time best was arguably 1956 Olympic champion Toni Sailer. The margins by which the Austrian won his three gold medals were staggering: 3.5 seconds in the downhill, a mind-boggling 6.4 seconds in the one-run giant slalom, 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 born leading-man’s poise, the handsome, six-foot poster boy of the ski life went on to act in films and television.
Sailer and Jean-Claude Killy are the only racers to have captured in a single Winter Olympics all of the glittering alpine gold medals to be won. (In their eras, there were just three competitions—the super G and combined races hadn’t yet been introduced.)
Killy, then 24, was already a champion before his triumph at the 1968 Winter Olympics. The previous winter, in capturing the first overall World Cup title, the Frenchman had won 71 percent of the races on the calendar, a remarkable feat that’s never been equaled.
The pressure on Killy before the ’68 Grenoble Olympics was unimaginably intense. Wherever he went, he was surrounded by a crush of photographers and autograph-seekers. Killy went into seclusion for a week prior to the Games, then reappeared to perform his Olympic gold-medal hat trick—though he won by narrower margins than Sailer had.
“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 TV 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 stakes are highest. Killy’s and Sailer’s Olympic sweeps, carried out over 12 days and in less than five total minutes of competition, are proof to Kidd of their ranking among the greatest of the sport.
Women may not 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 19, an achievement never equaled by a male teenager. She’s also the only American to win twice in a single Olympics. (Alas, she fell in the downhill.) [NEXT]Germany’s Rosi Mittermaier in 1976 and Liechtenstein’s Hanni Wenzel in 1980 both narrowly missed winning all of the Olympic alpine races in a single Winter Games. 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 still racing today. She is Croatia’s Janica Kostelic, who won three gold medals and a silver—out of five alpine events—at the Salt Lake Winter Games in 2002. Since then, Kostelic has earned no fewer thaan five World Championship gold medals. I wouldn’t bet against her taking home four medals in this month’s Olympic races.
Also scheduled to race in the upcoming Winter Games is 18-season veteran Kjetil Andre Aamodt, whose seven Olympic medals are an all-time record in alpine skiing. He will have to beat his Norwegian teammate Lasse Kjus who, over a dozen days at the 1999 Vail World Championships, won twogolds and three silvers.
Occasionally, pressure to win is self-imposed. After Muhammad Ali talked big and Babe Ruth pointed a finger at the fences, they both delivered. Hermann Maier met the challenge at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. After a spectacular airborne 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. Today, following a nearly fatal motorcycle crash that left him with a mangled leg, Maier has risen again and will be vying for three gold medals at the Winter Games.
Will 2005 World Cup champion Bode Miller rise to the level of the all-time greats? Like Killy in his day, Miller is the only male racer today capable of winning in every alpine discipline. But each gate in the Olympics is a chance to fail. So Miller, who likes to compete in every event, may confront 270 gates during less than 10 minutes of competition. In races that are regularly determined by hundredths of a second, a single mistake at a single gate can spell defeat. It’s as severe a challenge as exists in any sport.
Like Olympic gold medalist Phil Mahre 22 years ago, the outspoken New Hampshire native doesn’t think that Olympic medals can deliberately be won. “In ski racing, Miller says in his new book, “you have on-days and off-days, and sometimes the Olympics fall on an off-day. It’s the law of averages. Maybe, but the greatest Olympic champions weren’t racers 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.
Past winners have risen to the ultimate Olympic challenge. Perhaps Miller can too. Meanwhile, I bow in reverence to the golden men and women in our sport.
The Super Seven
In a ski racer’s world, there may not be any greater pressure than that faced in the starting gate of an Olympic race. Here’s a list of the greatest racers in a single Winter Games, and the years in which they excelled.
- 1Toni Sailer 1956
2Janica Kostelic 2002
3Jean-Claude Killy 1968
4Rosi Mittermaier 1976
John Fry covered four Winter Olympics and has written for 40 years about the World Cup. He’s the author of The Story of Modern Skiing, to be published by University Press of New England in September.