Controversy flickered at the recent Vancouver Olympics, but nothing remotely as bitter as the ski dispute that enflamed the 1968 Winter Games at Grenoble, France. The acrimony ignited newspaper headlines around the world. Should Austria's greatest racer, Karl Schranz, have been disqualified in the slalom, allowing France's Jean-Claude Killy to perform his now legendary Olympic medal hat trick?
During the previous winter of 1967, Killy had completely dominated the new, season-long World Cup, winning 12 of the 17 races. Killy also won the World Cup overall title in 1968, before Schranz captured the next two World Cup overall championships, in 1969 and 1970. They were the two greatest men's ski racers in the world at the time.
Before the 1968 Games, therefore, speculation was rife that the Frenchman would capture all three alpine gold medals. And it looked like it would happen. Killy won gold in the first two races—the downhill and giant slalom. Could he also win the men's special slalom?
On the day of the slalom, the mountains above Grenoble were enveloped in a leaden, oppressive fog. Flags drooped limply on the slalom poles, stirred occasionally by a breeze that momentarily might allow a lucky racer to see where he was going. Many officials thought the two-run race should be canceled. But the 10th Winter Games closing ceremony, with its complex preparations, elaborate staging and pomp, and worldwide television coverage, was firmly scheduled for the next day.
In the first run of the slalom, Killy recorded the fastest time. Three Americans—Jimmie Heuga, Spider Sabich and Rick Chaffee, brother of Susie Chaffee—were in third, seventh and eighth positions, all less than six-tenths of a second behind him. So was Karl Schranz. After eight years at the top of international racing, a frustrated Schranz owned only one Olympic silver medal. This would be his last chance for gold.
So the stage was set for the decisive second run. Killy jumped out of the starting gate first, enjoying good light. "But at gates 17-20, nearly halfway down," he said, "the fog was tremendous. I slowed almost to a walk. About one-third of the guys disqualified there." Among them was Norway's Haakon Mjoen who had clocked the fastest time.
Schranz didn't even reach the finish line. He stopped below gates 19-20, claiming that a soldier or an official had crossed his path. He demanded another run. Schranz returned to the top and, in his retry, recorded a combined time a half second faster than Killy's. But his right to have taken the run was immediately protested.
As the crowd waited for the jury's decision, the terrible fog thickened, eating like acid at the snow and perhaps secretly at the confidence of the blustering, ramrod Schranz as he triumphantly proclaimed himself the victor. Killy, meanwhile, sat with friends, trainers and reporters, laughing and drinking champagne to celebrate his two gold medals.
After three hours, the jury decided. Schranz was disqualified. No soldier had crossed his path. The U.S. was awarded three top-10 finishes, the best performance of any nation in the slalom. And France's national hero, after all, won his three gold medals.
Schranz's reaction was immediate and angry. "If Killy were sportsmanlike, he would refuse the gold medal to which I have the right," he declared. Austria's best racer would never have another shot at Olympic gold. In a controversy as fiery as the slalom itself, International Olympic Committee Chair Avery Brundage accused Schranz of violating the IOC's amateur rules, and orchestrated his ouster from the 1972 Winter Games.
Schranz retired. Now a St. Anton hotelkeeper, he continues to believe he wuz robbed.
John Fry is the author of "The Story of Modern Skiing," about the revolution in technique, equipment, racing, resorts and the environment that revolutionized the sport after World War II. This is his final column of the 2009-10 winter ski season for the Idaho Mountain Express.