The legend of the “Crazy Canucks” lives on in the hearts of all Alpine skiing fans. It’s the story of a daring group of Canadian downhill skiers - Ken Read, Jim Hunter, Dave Irwin, Dave Murray and Steve Podborski - who from the mid-1970s started challenging the best European specialists on their favourite Alpine terrain, accumulating victories and podium finishes on some of the toughest courses: the Streif at Kitzbühel, the Lauberhorn at Wengen, the Arlberg-Kandahar at Garmisch, the Saslong at Val Gardena, the OK at Val d’Isere among others.
Born in Ontario in 1957, Steve Podborski was the youngest and brightest among them. In World Cup events he recorded downhill first-place finishes for his continent between 1979 and 1984: two victories on the Streif (1981 and 1982), three at Garmisch (1981, 1982 and 1984), 20 podium finishes in total, including eight victories, but above all, he became the first north American to win the World Cup downhill, in 1982. In the middle of this brilliant run of results, Steve Podborski obtained what he considers his greatest result: a bronze medal at the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics.
On that day of 14 February 1980 at the top of Whiteface, “the weather was really bad. It was snowing and windy,” Steve recalls. “After getting to the start hut, I set off just after my team-mate Ken Read. He was the favourite, the best skier at the time. I saw him disappear into the snow and then suddenly heard the radios crackling. I turned to my coach to ask him what had happened. He looked and me and said: “Do you want to know?” I said: “Yes”. He told me: “Ken’s fallen.” So I was the last chance. I pushed off on my skis and thought: “Thank God it’s over. Now, I can ski, which is what I know how to do.”
Even though he believes he made a big mistake near the top of the course, Steve Podborski found his rhythm, skied towards the finish and saw a time of 1:46.75 appear on the board, which assured him of third place behind two Austrians, Peter Winrsberger (1:46.62) and Leonhard Stock, crowned Olympic champion in a time of 1:45.50. “It was totally overwhelming! When you’re a skier, or any type of competitor, you have to learn to lose much more than to win. Getting an Olympic bronze medal was a victory! I was delighted to have achieved that.”
What feeling could be more powerful than climbing on to the downhill skiing podium at the Olympic Games? “It was a whirlwind of emotions. And it wasn’t easy. There’s no way of preparing yourself for that. The Olympic Games are like nothing else you’ve achieved in your life. Above all it was a relief, and also a moment of great joy and pride. And it’s obviously something that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I’ve produced many better performances, but none that is recognised the world over as much as that one is.”
Steve Podborski with IOC President Thomas Bach in Sochi 2014 (Copyright: IOC/Ian Jones)
His competitive career ended at the age of 26 with an eighth-place finish in the downhill event at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics. He became a TV commentator, covering a number of editions of the Winter Games, was on Canada’s Bid Committee for the 2010 Vancouver Games, where he was Assistant Head of Delegation for the host nation, before being named Head of Delegation for the 2014 Sochi Games.