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Toni Sailer, Olympic and World Champion

Passing Date: 
Monday, August 24, 2009

Olympic and World Champion Toni Sailer, By Patrick Lang

The bad news was expected, but not so soon. Austrian skiing legend Anton “Toni” Engelbert Sailer of Kitzbühel, the first competitor to win all three alpine ski events in a single Olympics, died on Monday, Aug. 24, 2009 in Innsbruck, after a long illness. He was 73. He is survived by his son Florian and his second wife Hedwig.

A great sports hero

One of the greatest heroes of modern ski racing, Sailer became an idol around the world when, at age 20, he scored Olympic gold in the downhill, slalom and giant slalom races at the 1956 Games in Cortina, beating his rivals by several seconds. He followed up by winning gold in the downhill, giant slalom and combined, and silver in slalom, at the 1958 FIS World Championships in Bad Gastein, Austria. Due to his speed and the black racing suits he often wore, the press dubbed him “the black Blitz from Kitz.”

After winning a dozen events in North America during the spring of 1957, Sailer began acting and singing. The public appearances led to charges by some sports organizations that he had gone pro. So he gave up ski racing after the 1958 season. His Hollywood looks led to starring roles in more than twenty successful movies, and he also performed as a stage actor.

Sailer considered a comeback for the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics, but was forced to give up this project after finding out that he would have a hard time regaining amateur status and Olympic eligibility.

He retired from show business in the mid-1960s to join the ski business. He endorsed the Toni Sailer brand of fiberglass skis made in Montreal by Fred Langendorf and Art Molnar.

Back on the ski tour

After the 1972 Olympics at Sapporo, where the Austrian Ski Team failed to capture a single gold medal, Sailer was hired as alpine technical director of the Austrian Ski Federation until 1976. Under his guidance, a new Wunderteam dominated the World Cup tour, with such great champions as Franz Klammer, David Zwilling, Hansi Hinterseer, Annemarie Moser-Proell and many others. During this period he also acted as a member of the World Cup Committee.

For many years Sailer ran the children’s ski school at Kitzbühel and headed the Organizing Committee for the Hahnenkamm. In 1992, FIS asked Sailer to serve as Chairman of the Alpine Committee, the highest authority under the control of the FIS Council. His vision and passion for the sport helped to establish new standards in ski racing, with more modern rules and the introduction of Super-G, comparable to the old single-run giant slalom. Sailer was also a driving force, along with Serge Lang, in the introduction of prize money on the World Cup tour in the early 1990s.

Toni Sailer was awarded the Olympic Order by the International Olympic Committee in 1985, when he turned 50. In 1999 he was honored as Austria's sportsman of the century along with Annemarie Moser-Proell. The Austrian Ski Federation presented him a special prize last spring for his lifelong contributions for the sport.

First win at 16!

Toni was only 16 in January 1952 when he celebrated his first triumph in an international classic, the Grand Prix de Megève, where he surprised the field to win the downhill and the combined. He triumphed in other events in France that winter, in Alpe d’Huez and Barcelonnette. Among the special prizes he won at these amateur competitions was a huge refrigerator, which he brought home for his mother’s kitchen. “You can’t imagine what that meant to us in that difficult post-war period,” Toni told me years later, with a huge grin. “I guess it was the very first private refrigerator at all in Kitzbühel and maybe in Tirol. On Sundays, people came to visit us just to see it. It was amazing. It worked for a very long time – maybe thirty or forty years. It was incredible!”

An injury in 1953 slowed him down, but he was back in form for 1955, winning his first of four Lauberhorn downhills at Wengen with a huge margin over Anderl Molterer. In 1956, Sailer crushed all his rivals on home turf at Kitzbühel, dominating the downhill, the slalom and the combined prior his impressive Olympic triple crown at Cortina d’Ampezzo.

“To be an Olympic champion was my main goal,” Sailer told me. “I was tempted to give up racing already in 1956 but I had to confirm my successes at the 1958 FIS World Championships which took place in Austria. In those days, it was not a job to be a ski racer and I started to think about having a real job after making my apprenticeship as a tinsmith, like my dad. But then I quit after Bad Gastein to fully focus on my career as an actor, that I fully enjoyed for many years.”

A true athlete

Sailer is considered by ski experts and historians as the first true athlete among his colleagues. “He was a natural talent who could have succeeded in many other sports,” explained his former team trainer Fred Roessner, the founder of the first Austrian Wunderteam. “Once we made a series of tests at the Austrian sports school at Schieleiten, and we found out that he was able to run 100 meters, without special training or equipment, in 11 seconds – which was quite amazing! He was incredibly well balanced, quiet and smart, too.”

In fact, split times made during his downhill races showed that Sailer gained most of his time on rather flat gliding sections, where he was incredibly faster than all his rivals. He had an amazing feeling for gliding. It was the first thing he taught his racers after becoming their head coach in 1972. He helped established slalom champions like Reinhart Tritscher and David Zwilling to also excel in downhill. He spent much time observing them in training and made lots of tests with them, especially with their boots.

A very generous person with a great sense of humor, Toni Sailer was always keen to give back to the sport part of what he had received. As a former champion, a trainer, a ski school director, an organizer, a FIS official, he always worked hard to promote his beloved sport on all continents. His contributions have been huge!

Nowadays, it’s difficult to imagine what Sailer represented in the world of sport in the 1950s. He was loved and admired as a true hero from a country fighting back from hard years, helping it to regain sympathy on the international scene. In fact only very few champions from the 20th century managed to reach his superstar status.

A Tribute to Toni Sailer

By John Fry

Skiing's superstars are athletes who don't necessarily appear on lists
of most races won. They won races that most counted. At clutch time,
in the Olympics, they showed up.

Arguably, the best was 1956 champion Toni Sailer. The margins by
which the Austrian won his gold medals were staggering: 3.5 seconds in
the downhill, a mind-boggling 6.4 seconds in the one-run giant slalom,
and 4 seconds in the slalom. At the 1958 World Championships, Sailer
almost repeated his Olympic hat trick, placing first in both downhill
and giant slalom, and second in the slalom. With jet black hair and a
movie star's face, the handsome, six-foot poster-boy Sailer went on to
act in films and, later, in television mini-series.

Sailer and Jean-Claude Killy are the only racers to have captured all
of the alpine gold medals available to be won in a single
Olympics. In their eras, there were just three. Super G and
special combined races hadn't yet been introduced.

Seven world championship medals in 24 months! No one else has ever done it.
The ski world conventionally remembers Austria’s Toni Sailer as the first racer to capture three gold medals in the Olympics, winning all the alpine competitions at the 1956 Winter Games in Cortina, Italy. After Jean-Claude Killy hat-tricked again in 1968, no man has again three-peated. But recognizing Toni Sailer only for his Olympic result is like recognizing Jack Nicklaus only for his six victories in golf’s Masters. To gain an appreciation for Sailer’s dominance, you have know what he did two years after the Olympics. In the 1958 World Alpine Ski Championships at Bad Gastein, Austria, he was in a class by himself. He won the giant slalom by four seconds, and he won the downhill as well. And he was second in the slalom, missing gold by seven-tenths of a second. The result was that he easily won the overall FIS World Championship combined gold medal.

At the time Sailer raced, an Olympic victory resulted in the winner also receiving a World Championship gold medal, so that his three 1958 gold medals, on top of the Olympic four, including the combined that he’d won in 1956, gave him seven World Championship gold medals in two years. . . something that no racer has ever achieved before or since! And to top it off, during the same 24 months he twice won the world’s toughest downhill, the Hahnenkamm.

How could a racer be so dominant, and by such huge winning margins?
Going fast is not the only way to win a ski race. The other is to travel the shortest distance down the mountain. Sailer was ahead of his time in perfecting the technique of taking a straight line between two gates, using an uphill step to enter the turn normally. Watching Sailer’s line in 1958 was a lesson that he never forgot, says America’s Tom Corcoran, subsequently enabling him to become America’s top giant slalom skier.

Sailer also had a powerful mental edge. The desire to win was so deeply embedded in him, he explained to journalist Nick Howe, that the goal of actually coming in first didn’t cross his mind. Rather, he likened his skiing to throwing a stone. “The stone flies by itself and it lands by itself,” said Sailer. “I get the prize because the stone flew well. Why did it fly well? Because I threw it the right way.”

The 1958 World Championships were Sailer’s final races. Stringent amateurism rules of the International Olympic Committee’s forced him to retire. “I have to make money,” said the 23-year-old, by now Europe’s most famous athlete. And he did. Built like a football player, Hollywood handsome, he became a successful movie and TV actor, and a heartthrob for millions of women. 

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