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Flying Franz

The man who gave himself "terrible frights"

by Mike Morrison
Franz Klammer contemplates, what will be, his gold medal run at the 1976 Winter Olympics

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During the 1970s and early 1980s, Austrian downhill-skiing star Franz Klammer won 25 races on the World Cup circuit. His five World Cup downhill titles (1975 1978, 1983) are still more than any other skier in history (no one else even has four).

If there's one moment, however, that defines Klammer's career, it is his spectacular, gold-medal-winning run at the 1976 Olympics in his own backyard at Innsbruck. Having won three World Cup races in 1976 (to that point), and eight out of a possible nine in 1975, Klammer was the odds-on favorite to win the gold medal.

He was (and still is) immensely popular in his native Austria, as evidenced by the 60,000-plus screaming fans that lined the course that day to cheer on their hero. And they were all disappointed to learn that Klammer would be skiing 15th out of the 15-man first seeding. Surely the course would be treacherously icy by the time of his run.

Switzerland's Bernhard Russi, the defending Olympic downhill champion and the third skier of the day, skied flawlessly, grabbing the early lead with a time of 1:46.06.

Eleven skiers came and went, pushing much of the snow off the course in the process, and Russi held onto the top time. And then came Klammer.

The man known as “Kaiser Franz,” “The Austrian Astronaut,” and “The Klammer Express,” crouched down in the starting gate and peered out over the icy course laid out in front of him. He knew what he had to do.

Klammer took off and perilously flung himself down the mountain. His 1,000-meter split was slower than Russi's, but Klammer continued down, taking several risks and balancing on the edge of disaster.

It all paid off. As he flew over the last jump and down the final stretch, the crowd's deafening yells told him all he needed to know. Klammer came in at 1:45.73, besting Russia by .33 for the gold.

“I thought I was going to crash all the way,” he would later say. “I gave myself terrible frights.”



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