James Jung, a friend of ACL, is an editor at Travel + Leisure and a nightlife blogger for NBC New York’s Niteside. His sports and travel writing has appeared in Slate, SKI Magazine and Outside.
Ski racing has always been my sport. I follow it the same way other guys follow football and baseball. Sure, sounds un-American, but if you grow up in a mountain town with a ski-mad Austrian father, it’s pretty unavoidable. All it took was one winter broadcast of ABC’s Wide World of Sports to expose me to the downhill–ski racing’s marquis event–and I was hooked.
Downhilling involves everything a young boy gets psyched about: speed, adventure, glamor and danger. Even Robert Redford was captivated, producing and starring in the somewhat campy but gorgeously shot and subtly stylish Downhill Racer in 1969. Really, to anyone who can appreciate an adrenaline rush, there’s no denying the sport’s appeal: tricked out like astronauts in their helmets and speed suites, downhillers tackle equally alien terrain–exposed mountain peaks, icy, undulating tracks and dicey turns that coil with the unpredictable frenzy of a Rally course, banking one moment and then falling away the next, causing racers to hurl through the air and reach speeds of 90 MPH.
But while Europe follows their exploits all season long in skiing enclaves like Wengen, Switzerland and Kitzbuhel, Austria, America only pays attention to the downhill every four years when the Winter Olympics roll around. Of course Sports Illustrated is always quick to catch the fever, and thankfully they’ve got a great archive of their ski racing-themed covers over on SI.com’s Vault. I’m a fan of them all, but–given that my tastes tend to skew old school–I’m particularly fond of the vintage covers below. Back before the US Ski Team became a corporately-funded contender on the international World Cup circuit, it was a rag tag crew of racers, with names like Billy Kid, Spider Sabich and Buddy Werner sounding more like the cast of a Wes Anderson-themed Western than a band of top-level skiers. Their uniforms, and the uniforms of their competitors, however, were anything but quirky: classic down jackets and vests, matching sweaters, thin leather gloves befitting a race car driver and utilitarian-looking crash helmets with leather ear flaps and adorned with country names or the crest of their local ski club. Quite a dashing look for a sportsman if you ask me, and one that will certainly not be replicated next week in Vancouver.
As for the main event itself? The downhill’s global appeal can can be tracked back to local boy Franz Klammer’s Gold Medal-winning run in the ’76 Innsbruck, Austria Games. Tipped as the favorite, Klammer (universally regarded as the greatest downhiller of all time) started last among the top seeded racers, and with the eyes of his host country watching his every turn and defending Olympic champion Bernhard Russi sitting in the finish atop a comfortable lead, the man known as the Kaiser threw down the gauntlet with a ridiculously reckless run. I’d do my best to describe it here, but you’ll get the picture better if you just watch the clip below. Enjoy. –JAMES JUNG
**Rumor has it that ABC announcers Bob Beattie (a former US Ski Team coach and the co-founder of World Cup Ski Racing) and Frank Gifford were so caught up in the race that they got completely shitfaced at the finish line and were made to sober up and redub their race-winning call for the telecast. Meaning the excitement on the clip below is, in fact, faked–”that’s what she said!”). The Men’s Downhill was rescheduled from today. The full schedule is here.