Veteran Olympian Crétier signs off with surprise gold

Alpine skier Jean-Luc Crétier caused a huge upset at the Olympic Winter Games Nagano 1998. Having never won a major race previously, the Frenchman held his nerve to claim a stunning downhill gold.

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Scheduled to take place on the first Sunday of the Games, the men’s downhill on Mount Karamatsu was repeatedly postponed due to adverse weather conditions. By the following Thursday, the patience of the competitors, coaches and the media had been tested to the limit. Every day they had dutifully made the bus trip up the mountain only to come straight back down again because of snow, rain or thick fog.

The run of his life

At last, on Friday, brilliant sunshine lit up the course. Among the band of frustrated skiers who finally took to the slopes was Jean-Luc Crétier. A seasoned campaigner at 32, he had been part of France’s Alpine ski team since the 1980s and had represented his country in both the downhill and super-G at Calgary 1988, Albertville 1992 and Lillehammer 1994.

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Crétier had never won a race or an Olympic medal. In fact, he only had five top-three World Cup finishes to his name. However, three of those had come in the months leading up to Nagano 1998: two second-place finishes at Beaver Creek (USA) and Wengen (SUI) and third place in Kitzbühel (AUT).

Crétier had done his homework on the Mount Karamatsu course, taking careful note of the tricky section 16 seconds in, where the course fell away sharply at the entrance to a turn. As he waited at the top of the mountain, his coach gave him one last piece of advice: “Better swing wide round there, eh!”

The Frenchman showed all his tactical acumen in negotiating that challenging turn, reducing his speed and virtually standing up as he swung round it. Resuming his tuck position as he exited, he proceeded to hurtle down the course in a display of precise, fluid skiing.

“It was like something out of a film,” he recalled. “Everything went amazingly well.”

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No luck for The Herminator

Crétier flew down the second half of the course and crossed the line 1.23 seconds faster than the current leader, Austria’s Fritz Strobl. He then faced a long wait to find out if he could hold onto one of the medal positions.

Next out of the gate was another Austrian Hermann Maier, the favourite for gold. “The Herminator” made a bold start but approached the turn too fast, flew into the air and crashed through safety barriers before landing face-down in the snow, narrowly escaping injury.

Images of Maier’s spectacular wipeout were shown around the world, but in typical fashion, he dusted himself down and won super-G gold three days later, adding the giant slalom title three days after that.

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Quitting at the top

Crétier, meanwhile, waited patiently at the bottom of the run as others also crashed at that tricky turn. Only Norway’s Lasse Kjus and Austria’s Hannes Trinkl came close to his time. His victory confirmed, an elated Crétier was carried aloft by his team-mates, as he became the first Frenchman to win the downhill event since Jean-Claude Killy 30 years earlier. Kjus finished 0.40 seconds behind to take the silver, with Trinkl a further 0.12 seconds back in third.

During the following World Cup season, Crétier fell in the downhill at Val Gardena (ITA) and suffered an injury that prompted him to retire, but he was able to do so as an Olympic champion.