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Last winter, in the course of preparing a travel story on Val d’Isère in the French Alps, I enjoyed the good fortune to interview the legendary Jean-Claude Killy. The Frenchman, now 57, won the first World Cup overall title in 1967 by recording the maximum possible points, and swept all three alpine races at the 1968 Olympic Winter Games-two feats never since repeated.
Killy-represented by Mark McCormack’s International Management Group (Tiger Woods, Wayne Gretzky, Pete Sampras)-has built a personal fortune, endorsing everything from Head Skis to Chevrolet cars. He has lived in the same home on the shores of Lake Geneva for 30 years. By his own admission, though, he has spent most of those years living out of a suitcase, constantly on the move. He was married to movie actress Daniele Gaubert, who died in 1987. He has lived with his companion, Sophie for the past 12 years. He has five grandchildren.
Few athletic champions have gone on to chalk up business and sports careers as broadly successful as Killy’s. He helped build a profitable international sports apparel company. He is an advisor to Coca-Cola on sports. He’s a director of the Rolex watch company. He recently retired as the CEO of the Tour de France bicycle racing circuit, one of the world’s top televised sports. He was chief organizer of the 1992 Olympic Winter Games of Albertville, France, which involved 2,170 athletes from 65 countries. He is one of the most influential members of the International Olympic Committee, and serves as the IOC’s liaison for the 2006 Winter Games at Turin, Italy. With the Salt Lake Games just weeks away, I asked him if the financial scandal of host-city vote-buying remains a problem.
KILLY No, I don’t think so. The opposite. The desire to forget about what happened is driving the Salt Lake organizers to produce a terrific Games-pleasing and smiling.
FRY The FIS (International Ski Federation) held a meeting last spring on how to reverse the decline of ski racing on television. You weren’t invited, but what’s the solution?
KILLY Television needs to focus on not more than 15 racers in any event, and they need to be seen longer on the screen. There has to be a new schedule, such as night slaloms. Broadcasters can’t sell advertisers at the times when major World Cup races take place-midday. So the sport is mainly carried on small, paid cable channels. I still favor the idea of running the slalom in four heats, counting a racer’s two best times.
FRY At the same time, the FIS World Championships and Olympics seem to be burdened with old, classic events that attract little public interest, such as the alpine combined.
KILLY Yes, half a slalom, half a downhill. It’s a shame to put such an event on television, or even make it a championship title. With bad things like that, the television people don’t want to buy your good things.
FRY Part of the problem is that Austria, a small nation, dominates international racing. The winners aren’t well-known personalities.
KILLY I don’t see that as a problem. What matters is the beauty of sport. Alberto Tomba was an Italian, but the French loved him. They love two-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, too. If an American skier did what Armstrong did, the French would love him, too.
FRY The FIS always has to balance the interests of member countries, often making the organization appear indecisive. Maybe the FIS should slice off the World Cup into a separate professional organization, insulated from politics, like the Tour de France, with a commissioner? Would you be interested?
KILLY I probably wouldn’t accept. It wouldn’t fit with my aspirations. I always want to discover new ground. The most exciting thing for me is to land in a country I’ve never been to. If someone said, ‘Go manage a tropical resort,’ I’d like to see if it were possible. Raise the bar for myself. I love to discover new territories. I wwould have been a perfect pioneer to walk from the east to the west of America…to discover what’s beyond.
FRY Where did your management skills come from?
KILLY Remember that between 1968 and 1976 I spent most of my time in the United States. I worked for some of the biggest companies-like General Motors, United Airlines, big advertising agencies. I was doing contracts with Mark McCormack and people like that. At Coca-Cola, I met directors like Warren Buffet. They are tough in their fields. Later, I owned half of a large sportswear factory. I applied it all in organizing Albertville. Over 30 years, it was better than doing an MBA.
FRY What are the most important lessons you’ve applied from sport to business?
KILLY Win some, lose some. The object is to win more than you lose, but never give up. Never, ever give up. Secondly, the answer is always there. The problem is to find it. Not to find it is an excuse for not succeeding. Every young kid who worked with me, I told him to find the answer, not to complain, just find the answer, please. There is one, always.
FRY You took up snowboarding.
KILLY Yes. In powder snow and off-piste, no piece of equipment can come down the mountain faster than a board. When someone invents a faster, better way to go down the hill, it is to be respected. It was ridiculous for skiing to fight snowboarding. It saved the ski business, including resorts and manufacturers.
FRY You’ve retired?
KILLY Perhaps. I’ve been traveling since I was 15 years of age, living out of a suitcase. I gave up school. I had back surgery a few years ago. One disc had gone. They screwed two pieces of metal on both sides of the spine. It took me two years to recover. My back is good now. But at some point you have to say to yourself, ‘don’t overdo it, or you’re going to kill yourself.’ I don’t want or need to be in the front line all the time. I hated traveling. I hated meeting people.
FRY But you did it in the end.
KILLY In the end, it was all I did. It wasn’t supposed to be like that. I’m not a public person. FRY You have two elements in your person: the public and the shy, retiring Jean-Claude Killy.
KILLY Absolutely. It’s the opposition between what I have become and what I was supposed to be.