Sailer skis into history

Picture by IOC

Born in Kitzbühel (AUT) on 17 November 1935, Toni Sailer was a natural-born skier, demonstrating great promise on the slopes from an early age and going on to record regular victories in elite competitions during his teenage years. As the Austrian’s successes multiplied, such as his brilliant victory on the fearsome Lauberhorn downhill run in Wengen (SUI) in 1955, he became known as “the Blitz from Kitz”.

Invited to join Austria’s formidable Alpine ski team at the age of 20, he began his Olympic adventure in Cortina with the giant slalom on 29 January. The lengthy 2,660m course on the Illio Colli run on Mount Faloria featured 71 gates and a vertical drop of 623m.

Sailer was the 18th skier to set off. By that stage his fellow Austrian Andreas Molterer had posted an impressive time of 3:06.30 that looked as if it would be hard to beat. Molterer, despite being surrounded by a swarm of fans congratulating him on a potential victory, told his admirers to wait for Sailer to complete his run, having seen his team-mate’s talent up close. And he was right to be cautious. Sailer put in a mind-blowing performance, negotiating the gates in style while continuing to build up speed, and winning in 3.00.10. His six-second advantage remains the greatest gap between first and second in an Olympic giant slalom final. With Walter Schuster (AUT) securing the bronze, Austria had secured a clean sweep of the medals.

The slalom competition, held on 31 January on Mount Tofana’s Col Drusciè run, attracted a record number of 176 entrants, including Sailer, who set off wearing bib number 15. Exhibiting great fluidity while handling the 79 gates, he took an early lead after the first run, and increased his advantage after the final run, despite the number of gates being raised to 92. The star-in-the-making obtained his second gold of the Games, finishing four seconds faster than Chiharu Igawa (JPN), whose stunning second run enabled him to surge from fifth place to the runner-up spot. Stig Sollander (SWE) was third, six seconds behind Sailer.

Then, on 3 February, Sailer wrote his name into history, achieving an Olympic Alpine men’s treble that has only ever been matched by Jean-Claude Killy (FRA) at Grenoble 1968. Faced by a daunting 3,461m-long Olimpia-Tofana downhill run, which is still used to this day for women’s FIS World Cup events, “the Blitz from Kitz” lived up to his nickname, dealing with the vertical drop of 902m with technical brilliance and breakneck speed. Managing to keep his balance when it often seemed as if he must surely fall, Sailer raced like a rocket to the finishing line and took gold by a three-second margin. Raymond Fellay (SUI) and Molterer completed the podium.

At the time, the Winter Games doubled as the FIS World Championships, meaning that Sailer had, in the space of five days, become a three-time Olympic champion and four-time world champion (as he was also awarded the combined world title in Cortina, an event that did not as yet feature on the Olympic programme). His feats also accorded him instant hero status back home in Austria. He subsequently embarked on a successful acting and singing career, starring in over 20 films and releasing several songs that performed well in the Austrian charts.

His greatest talent remained his skiing, of course, and in 1958, during the World Championships in Bad Gastein (AUT), he again rose to the occasion, winning gold in the downhill, giant slalom and combined and picking up a silver in the slalom, bringing his total medal haul at that level to eight (including seven golds). After hanging up his skis, Sailer initially combined hotel management and sportswear business interests with his entertainment career, before fulfilling the role of technical director at the Austrian Ski Federation during the 1970s (the nation’s golden period, when Franz Klammer and Annemarie Moser-Pröll came to the fore). He also worked with International Skiing Federation (FIS) to modernise the World Cup and oversaw the famous Hahnenkamm race in his native Kitzbühel for 20 years. Awarded the Olympic Order in 1985, he was named Austrian Sport Personality of the Century in 1999. He died at the age of 73 on 24 August 2009; his funeral was held at the Hahnenkamm finish line.