The day Franz Klammer made us all yelp like sea lions


Then, as now, there was snow on the ground, ice on the inside of my bedroom window and everybody had flu. I’d been off school for over a week. I lay in bed 24 hours a day. My parents were at work. Relatives and neighbours called in periodically to check that I hadn’t been kidnapped, or set fire to anything. They brought Lucozade and those old-fashioned oranges with skin as tough as rhino hide and pith so thick that by the time you’d removed it all your fingers were knotted with cramp and there was nothing left to actually eat. Those oranges were more for exercise than nutrition.

I filled the long hours of the day by picking the encrusted snot off my nostrils, trying to identify the bitter taste of the gunk I coughed up (iron filings?), turning my pillow over every 20 minutes so I could feel the cool side against my face, reading Commando and War Picture Library comics and waiting for the BBC’s coverage of the Winter Olympics to start. It was 1976, Innsbruck.

In truth I wasn’t interested in much of the games, just the ski-jumping, the bobsleigh and the Alpine skiing. I was a normal 1970s boy – my attention was arrested by anything that involved speed, goggles and the prospect of crashes, preferably into hay bales. We were the generation rallycross was invented for.

Britain had, we were constantly assured, "a great tradition in the bobsleigh". After all, Robin Dixon and Tony Nash had taken the gold just 12 years before, and there’d been a silver as recently as 1924 (the year Belgium got the bronze). The other two events were a write-off, though. We had no ski jumpers, and our skiers were strictly non-League. Our best man, Konrad Bartelski was raised in that hotbed of mountain sports, Holland; our top woman, Valentina Iliffe, came from snowy Australia.

My patriotic allegiance was therefore switched to the Canadian team. The Canadians were nicknamed "The Crazy Canucks" and had the sort of self-deprecating, plucky, it’s-a-crazy-madcap-scheme-Ginger-but-it-just-might-work attitude the English could identify with. There had been a big Canadian airbase near our village during the war. Everyone liked the Canadians. They were like the British, only bigger.

Ken Read was probably the best skier, but I had a particular fondness for Jungle Jim Hunter. Jungle Jim had learned to ski despite coming from the plains of Saskatchewan, perfecting his aerodynamic stance by riding, in full ski gear, strapped to the roof of his dad’s pickup truck. He had improved his balance by tucking himself inside the wheel rims of the family tractor as it rumbled around the fields. Jungle Jim wore a sort of camo-pattern ski suit and his nickname suggested a character from a Victor comic who might have schussed down a hillside in Burma to surprise the Japanese: "Looks like we’ve caught the enemy with his pants down!" "Aiieeeeee!"

The Canadians raced well at Patscherkofel, but not well enough. Switzerland’s Bernhard Russi, the reigning Olympic champion, went down the 1.88 mile course at in a blur of red and a clarion of cowbells. He took half-a-second off the next best time, set by the Italian Herbert Plank ("What kind of name is that for an Italian?" my grandmother asked, as she shuffled into my bedroom with emergency rations of chocolate snowballs "He sounds more like a joiner from Boosbeck"). Read was fourth. Jungle Jim back in ninth.

Franz Klammer was the last of the big names to go. Looking back, I can see that the pressure on the 22-year-old was immense. He’d won eight out of nine World Cup downhills the year before, all three races in 1976. There were 66,000 spectators lining the course and surrounding the finish line, most of them Austrian. He was the favourite. The man who might have been his biggest rival, Switzerland’s Roland Collombin had broken his back 18 months before. Klammer was on home territory. He had one chance. If he messed it up then, frankly, he was buggered.

The buzzer went. The crowd yelped like sea lions. Klammer dressed in the lurid colours of a DC comic superhero – bright yellow bodysuit, red boots and helmet – careened down the mountainside with such blatant disregard for his own safety it was like he was a teenage hoodlum joyriding in a stolen body. He leapt, he bounced, he bumped. His skis flew out at odd angles. He teetered perpetually on the edge of disaster. At times he seemed to be falling more than skiing. It was a performance of such reckless bravado and wild freedom it’s hard to imagine that anyone watching – including Bernard Russi – wasn’t urging the Austrian to succeed. Behind at the split, he recovered to win by 0.33 seconds.

Of all the sport I watched in the 1970s nothing – not Gordon Banks’s save in Mexico, the Rumble in the Jungle or Emlyn Hughes hugging Princess Anne on a Question of Sport – made such an impression on me. Thinking about it now I realise something: I remember the whole of Klammer’s run at Innsbruck in vivid colour. Odd, because I know for a fact that the television I watched it on was black-and-white.