Jean Claude Killy_Sports Illustrated cover

As soon as Jean-Claude Killy ended his run in the Alpine downhill competition at the 1968 Grenoble Winter Olympics, the first person to greet him was his mentor and friend, Michel Arpin. Arpin, who worked for ski manufacturer, Dynamic, adroitly hugged his friend, showing photographers his back pouch with the Dynamics logo.

A policeman, as instructed to do for all skiers, took Killy’s skis away in order to avoid the “unseemly” display of ski brands adorning an amateur Olympic champion. Arpin then, according to The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics, took one of his skis off and planted it in the snow so that photographers could capture Killy with the ski and the two yellow bars of the Dynamic brand.

Killy retired from competitive skiing not long after Grenoble, because he knew that it would be hard to sustain his World Cup skiing dominance and triple-gold medal Olympic achievement. He also knew that he had other worlds to conquer. He signed with sports management firm, International Management Group, and started his career representing such brands as American Express, Schwinn bicycles, United Airlines, Chevrolet, as well as Head, the ski equipment manufacturer which put Killy’s vaunted name on their newest fiberglass skis.

Jean-Claude Killy, from the tiny village of Val-d’Isere in the French Alps, was a super star, and was now getting paid enough to live the life of the jet set and do what he pleased. He married an actress, Danielle Gaubert. He competed as a race car driver. He acted in movies, and produced television programs. Eventually he moved into sports administration, joining the executive board of the Alpine Skiing Committee of the International Federating of Skiing (FIS), serving as co-president of the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics, president of the Tour de France organization, as well as a member of the International Olympic Committee.

Jean Claude Killy in the 1972 film Snow Job

Famed gonzo journalist, Hunter S. Thompson, spent some time with Killy in the midst of his transformation from world-class skier to world-class pitchman, catching Killy in a burst of unsolicited honesty. “Before, I could only dream about these things,” said Killy. “When I was young I had nothing, I was poor. . . Now I can have anything I want!”

Killy indeed started from humble beginnings. But he felt he had earned his way to the top, focusing on all aspects of how to be the greatest skier of his time, and making the same effort to be the best in his part of the world of business. Thompson recognized that drive in Killy in his profile called “The Temptations of Jean-Claude Killy.” Thompson was following Killy during a marketing tour for Chevrolet, noting that Killy’s ability to draw you in was Gatsby-like, and was an ability that made him rich. But Thompson also admitted that Killy worked at his new profession, as much as he did in his previous one.

The Temptations of Jean Claude Killy

Jean-Claude, like Jay Gatsby, has “one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced — or seemed to face — the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.”

That description of Gatsby by Nick Carraway — of Scott, by Fitzgerald — might just as well be of J.-C. Killy, who also fits the rest of it: “Precisely at that point [Gatsby’s smile] vanished — and I was looking at an elegant young roughneck, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. . .”

The point is not to knock Killy’s English, which is far better than my French, but to emphasize his careful, finely coached choice of words. “He’s an amazing boy,” I was told later by Len Roller. “He works at this [selling Chevrolets] just as hard as he used to work at winning races. He attacks it with the same concentration you remember from watching him ski.”

Jean-Claude Killy, Guy Perillat
Jean-Claude Killy, Guy Perillat 1 and 2 in the downhill at Grenoble

Jean-Claude Killy edged out his fellow Frenchman, Guy Perillat, by only 8 one hundreth of a second in the men’s downhill. In the second alpine event, the giant slalom, King Killy, as he had been called, won easily for his second gold event.

The big question remaining – could Killy match the accomplishments of the great Austrian, Toni Sailer, who won all three alpine events at the 1956 Cortina d’Ampezzo Winter Olympics. The answer was touch and go.

A few days after Killy won the giant slalom, the weather in the French Alps deteriorated. Visibility on the slopes was horrible due to shadows, fog and mist, which made it hard to see the gates that formed the route down the mountain. The visibility was so poor, some of the skiers pleaded with officials to postpone the slalom competition, to no avail.

There are two rounds of skiing in the slalom and Killy found favor with the Gods as the skies cleared during his first run, helping him secure a small lead with a time of 49.37 seconds. In the second round, Killy made it down the course without fault, with a slighly slower time of 50.36 seconds.

A threat to Killy’s gold medal trifecta, Norwegian, Hakon Mjoen, seemingly overtook Killy in his second run, only to be disqualified for missing two gates down the slope. There was only one more man who had a chance to beat Killy – the Austrian Karl Schranz. Silver medalist in the giant slalom at the 1964 Innsbruck Olympics, and World Cup Champion in 1969 and 1970, Schranz unfortunately found greater fame in this 1968 slalom event.Karl Schranz

Sailer Schranz and Killy
Austrian skier Karl Schranz being congratulated by teammate Toni Sailer (left) and Frenchman Jean-Claude Killy after winning the Olympic slalom event here. Later came the sensational disqualification of Schranz by the judges for missing a gate.

As Schranz made his way down the slalom course, at the 21st gate, he had to stop, according to Schranz told officials that a man in black walked onto the course in his path, forcing him to stop. Upon hearing that explanation, officials allowed Schranz a do-over. Taking advantage, Shranz skied the course to perfection, generating the fastest combined times of the two rounds, and entered the post-race press conference as the proud winner of his first Olympic gold medal. Killy was the reluctant winner of the silver medal.

Two hours later, Schranz’s world was turned topsy turvy. It was announced that Schranz had missed gate #19 in the second round, two gates earlier than when the mystery man in black impeded Schranz’s progress. Since the infraction occurred prior to the distraction, officials declared Shranz disqualified, and Jean-Claude Killy the gold medalist.

Schranz and the Austrian team, according to The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics 2014 Edition, were outraged.

Schranz claimed that if he did miss a gate or two it was because he had already been distracted by the sight of someone on the course. His supporters contended that the mystery man had been a French policeman or soldier who had purposely interfered with Schranz in order to insure Killy’s victory. The French, on the other hand, hinted that Schranz had made up the whole story after he had missed a gate.

In the end, a Jury of Appeal ruled against Schranz. The Austrian lost his gold, and Killy won his third gold of the Grenoble Winter Games, matching Sailer in 1956. As he was quoted in The Complete Book, Killy celebrated with the sustained intensity he brought to the slopes: “The party went on for two-and-a-half days, and the whole time I never saw the sun once.”


Jean Claude Killy slalom
Jean-Claude Killy


“100% always, on everything, yes.”

That was the response to a question during an interview with CNN in 2015. The interviewer wondered why one of the world’s most famous skiers had not been on the slopes since 1988, speculating that perhaps Jean-Claude Killy was either going to be great at what he did, or not do it all.

“It’s very difficult for a skier like me to go up and ski, just nicely, and not seeing my skiing what I would want it to be. I’m 100% always, on everything, yes.”

Killy is a one-time Olympian, but at his one appearance at the 1968 Grenoble Winter Olympics, the Frenchman swept the three alpine skiing events – the downhill, the grand slalom and the slalom, the only person other than Austrian great, Toni Sailer, to do so.

To reach such Olympian heights, Killy had to fall, many times. To Killy and his coach, falling meant he was pushing it. The head coach of the French ski team, Honore Bonnet, took in a 17-year-old Killy, a raw talent, but with tremendous potential, as he explained in this 1990 Sports Illustrated profile of Killy:

I took him on the team in 1960-61, and he never finished a race. He’d be ahead by two seconds halfway down, but he’d fall. I encouraged him. I told him that I selected people not by their finish but by their performance in the gates on the way down. I reminded him that, of course, if he wished ever to win he would have to arrange to also finish. But at the time I believed this young man had everything. Eventually I was proved right.

A year later, Bonnet saw evidence of this go-for-broke attitude in a race in Cortina, Italy. Even though Killy was only three weeks before his debut at the World Championships in Chamonix, France, he went “hell-bent” down the slopes, crashing in dramatic style about 180 meters from the finish, immediately getting up and crossing the finish line on one ski. He busted his leg, and missed the World Championships.

The 1964 Innsbruck Winter Games were Killy’s Olympic debut, and he was eligible for all three alpine events. He was actually a favorite in the Giant Slalom at the age of 20, but he lost a binding in that race, fell a the beginning of another, and never showed the promise his coach had seen.

But in 1967, it all came together.

Jean-Claude Killy profileOver the course of 1967, the year before the Grenoble Winter Olympics, Killy had become the most dominant downhill skier in the world. Inspired by the points system of Formula 1 motor racing, where drivers are rewarded for success over time, organizers created the World Cup season for skiing in 1967. And Killy took that first season by storm. Of the 17 world cup slalom, giant slalom and downhill races he competed in, Killy won 12. In all 1967 competitions he participated in, he finished as a top three finalist in 25 of 29 races, coming in first in 19 of those.

Said Killy in this interview, “if the World Cup hadn’t been invented, my 1967 season might not have been what it was. It was a greater achievement than my 1968 gold-medal hat trick at the Grenoble Winter Olympics, for which most people remember me.”

And for good reason. He took the risk, to try new things to gain an edge, even if it meant experimenting in the midst of competition. Here’s how he won his first gold medal in Grenoble, as he explains it to Sports Illustrated:

My start was tremendous, and I took every risk I could find on the course. I also had a little secret I knew about the finish line. Early in the practice runs, I had realized that if I cut a sharp line just at the pole on the right, I could actually gain a couple of meters. I had never taken this line during practice, because I didn’t want anyone to know about it.

As they say, fortune favors the bold.