Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

Jean-Claude Killy revisited Olympic history a couple of weeks ago. It was located on the slopes of Chamrousse, which hosted the men’s Alpine skiing events at the Grenoble Winter Olympics. Of which the impossibly dashing Frenchman won three. All three.

Last month, as part of the 50th anniversary commemoration of those Games, Killy, now 74, returned to the fabled ground where he became only the second man - following Austria’s Toni Sailer in 1956 - to earn triple Alpine skiing gold in a single Olympics.

It was, as francebleu.fr reported, a trip filled with emotion - and shared with other legendary French skiers such as Marielle Goitschel, who won her third Olympic gold in the Grenoble slalom, and Jean-Luc Crétier, gold medallist in the 1998 Nagano Games downhill.

"It brings up a lot of memories, it's a bit of nostalgia, but it's nice," said Killy.

Last year Killy gave an extended interview to Yves Perret for the International Skiing History magazine on his performance in year before he produced his timeless Olympic flourish.

In 1967, competing in the new World Cup - skiing’s first use of a season-long series of competitions to determine the world’s best - Killy won 12 of the 17 races, including all of the downhills, and the Hahnenkamm and Wengen combineds, something no man has since done.  He finished on the podium in 86 per cent of the races he entered, a record that’s never been surpassed.

Killy told Perret: "It was a greater achievement than my 1968 gold-medal hat trick at the Grenoble Winter Olympics, for which most people remember me."

Asked when he became aware of the exceptional nature of that 1967 season, he responded: "I never really grasped it entirely. I didn’t realise what I’d achieved. Of course, there were the numbers: winner of 19 races out of 29, including 12 World Cups out of 17, and seven of the season’s combineds for a total of 26 first-place finishes.

"But I never said to myself, 'Wow, that’s fantastic!' It’s taken me 50 years to realise how remarkable it was.

"In Grenoble in 1968, by comparison, things were actually relatively simple. There were three races within a set period of time, at a date identified well in advance, with an objective that was fairly clear.

"The 1967 season was a more complicated, elaborate construction. Comparing them is like comparing a sprint and a marathon."

Jean-Claude Killy pictured with silver medallist Guy Périllat after winning the first of his three Winter Olympic gold medals in the downhill at Grenoble 1968  ©Getty Images
Jean-Claude Killy pictured with silver medallist Guy Périllat after winning the first of his three Winter Olympic gold medals in the downhill at Grenoble 1968 ©Getty Images

A relative sprint it may have been, spread as it was over just eight days, from February 9 until 17. But what days they were…

Killy entered those home Olympic Games with a huge weight of expectation upon him, particularly after his all-conquering efforts of the previous year.

Twenty years earlier, on the occasion of the first Winter Olympic downhill race in St Moritz, his compatriot Henri Oreiller, a member of the French Resistance during the Second World War, jauntily warned his fellow skiers that he was so confident of winning they might as well not bother racing against him.

It was an approach that was mirrored at the 1984 Olympic Games in Sarajevo when Bill Johnson of the United States announced, "I don’t even know why everyone else is here. They can hand [the gold] to me. Everyone else can fight for second place." Both men went on to win  - the only possible option after such comments.

But while Killy - or "King Killy" as he was already widely known - had plenty of cause for confidence on the eve of Grenoble, he was not about to give it large in the manner of his late compatriot. After all, he had already experienced how the Olympics could bring high hopes thudding to earth.

When Killy was seven, his mother had left the family home in Val d’Isere, leaving his father, Robert, to bring him up along with his brother and sister. He was soon dispatched to boarding school, which he hated, often playing truant. The only thing he wanted to do was to ski.

His father Robert, a former Spitfire pilot for the Françaises Libres - or Free French, ran a ski shop. When his eldest son was 15 he agreed that he could leave school and pursue his dream. Within a year, Killy was in the French junior national team, although he established a reputation of being a reckless racer who often failed to complete the course.

Shortly before the 1962 World Championships, for which he was selected in the giant slalom, he crashed in the downhill at Cortina d’Ampezzo after hitting ice 180 metres before the finish. He went down, rose immediately, and finished the race on one ski - and the fastest time. However, his other leg was broken.

Two years later, aged 20, he competed in three events at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck - falling in the downhill, losing a binding in the slalom and finishing fifth in the giant slalom, where he had been favourite. He was also hampered by recurrences of amoebic dysentery and hepatitis, ailments that he had contracted in 1962 during a summer of compulsory service with the French Army in Algeria.

Jean-Claude Killy, pictured en route to the Olympic gold medal in the downhill at Grenoble 1968, was always known as a skier willing to take risks, often being rewarded for his courage and daring ©Getty Images
Jean-Claude Killy, pictured en route to the Olympic gold medal in the downhill at Grenoble 1968, was always known as a skier willing to take risks, often being rewarded for his courage and daring ©Getty Images

So nothing was taken for granted at Grenoble 1968. But, as he later explained, his determination to succeed there was intense. Nothing spoke of that determination so graphically as his unique "catapault start" to the first event, the downhill, where he made use of his upper body strength to burst out of the starting gate, hitting the bar while already moving.

Characteristically, Killy hurled himself down the slope, eventually earning the gold medal ahead of his compatriot Guy Périllat by eight hundredths of a second. On such margins are downhills won. The date was February 9 - which on Friday will be 50 years to the day and fittingly will also be the Opening Ceremony of Pyeongchang 2018. 

"My hope was to win a gold medal," Killy recalled. "I had it - it totally freed me because the goal was reached."

The jubilant headline in the France Soir edition of February 10, 1968, proclaimed: "Killy: Je veut tout", adding: "After his victory in front of Périllat in the descent, he aims at the giant and special."

Then, in the giant slalom - which for the first time included two runs rather than one - a wider margin of more than two seconds secured another gold medal for Killy.

"The third gold medal, the special one, will be much more difficult," Killy said on the eve of his final slalom racing. He wasn’t wrong.

It was difficult for everyone on the day of what was a highly technical course. The skiers asked for the event to be postponed. Denied.

The heavens smiled on Killy - there was a brief break in the weather as he went on his first run, after which he held a small lead on 49.37sec, with Austria’s Alfred Matt second on 49.68.

But for the second round, Killy had the awkward task of going first - and waiting. He appeared to have been beaten by Hakon Mjon, but the Norwegian was disqualified for missing two gates in the mist.

Let’s allow David Wallechinsky, in his inimitable Complete Book of the Winter Olympics, to take up the story:

"Then came the turn of Karl Schranz, the biggest threat to Killy’s goal of a triple crown. But something curious happened as Schranz sped through the fog, something that has never been fully explained. According to Schranz, as he approached the 21st gate, a mysterious figure in black crossed the course.

"Schranz skidded to a halt and, with three witnesses in tow, walked back to the starting point to ask for a re-run."

Jean-Claude Killy claiming his second Olympic gold medal at Grenoble 1968 in the giant slalom ©Getty Images
Jean-Claude Killy claiming his second Olympic gold medal at Grenoble 1968 in the giant slalom ©Getty Images

His request was granted, and he went on to beat Killy’s time. The Austrian was declared unofficial winner, and even went through the official post-race press conference. But two hours later he was disqualified for having missed two gates prior to his encounter with the mysterious interloper.

"The Austrians were outraged," Wallechinsky continues. "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."

There was a four-hour meeting of the Jury of Appeal, which decided in Killy’s favour by 3-1.

Two French and a Swiss judge favoured the Frenchman; the Norwegian member went with Schranz, and the British referee, Colonel Robert Readhead, abstained.

"The Austrians made a scandal - I think the French Embassy had broken windows in Vienna," Killy recalled.

For many years, Schranz was reported as saying one of his medals was in Val d'Isère,

"He's a friend, and when he said for the first time ‘my gold medal is in Val d'Isère', I sent him a note,” Killy said. “I told him, 'Listen Karly, if you need this medal, I willingly lend it to you. I send it to you, you can you keep it as long as you want, I'll lend it to you, but it's mine."

Killy had achieved what France desired - three gold medals at his home Olympic Winter Games. "The party went on for two-and-a-half days,” he later said, "and the whole time I never saw the sun once."

By his own admission, Killy was still in party mode when he appeared live on television in the aftermath of his triumph.

"We had already drunk a little too much," he told francebleu. "It was the end of an epic, the end of an era, of a certain life. I was going to change my life totally! And so I allowed myself a little relaxation that night."

At the age of 24, at the height of his powers, he retired. But the change was anything but a sudden decision.

In the run-up to the Games Killy had skied close to the edge of antagonising the curmudgeonly International Olympic Committee (IOC) President of the time, Avery Brundage, in the vexed area of amateurism.

Killy was far from being alone in planning to leverage his prowess with product endorsements after the Olympics - and he had put as much in place as possible beforehand while attempting to remain within the strict rules. A contract signed with an Italian ski manufacturer before the Olympics aroused Brundage’s ire, and the International Ski Federation informed Killy that it violated the rules.

Killy, perhaps for the first time in his life, went backwards, and the Italian company were appeased with "payments for damages" supplied by the French Ski Federation and French Sports Ministry.

Once his retirement had freed him from the Olympic straitjacket, however, Killy was able to capitalise on his genius. After signing up with the IMG Agency in May 1968 he travelled to the US and signed commercial contracts with, among others, Chevrolet, United Air Lines, Bristol-Myers, Ladies Home Journal, Head Skis, Lange boots, Mighty Mac sportswear, Wolverine gloves and after-ski boots. He was the face of American Express cards in a TV advertising campaign.

He also landed a contract with Moet & Chandon which meant that he always had to be pictured with their champagne on his table. He was allowed to drink it too.

Killy also made forays into film, starring as a ski instructor in the 1972 crime movie Snow Job. He played himself in the 1983 flim Copper Mountain: A Club Med Experience, starring Jim Carrey and Alan Thicke.

He had too a short career as a racing driver between 1967 and 1970, participating in several car races including at Monza. In team with fellow Frenchman Bernard Cahier, Killy was seventh overall in the 1967 Targa-Florio in a Porsche 911 S and first in the GT classification.

France’s sporting darling was approaching life with the same vigour as a downhill slope.

Jean-Claude Killy pictured with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Sochi, for which the Frenchman chaired the IOC Coordination Commission ©Getty Images
Jean-Claude Killy pictured with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Sochi, for which the Frenchman chaired the IOC Coordination Commission ©Getty Images

As a mark of his achievements, the area where he had won his Olympic medals, including the Val d’Isere and Tignes resorts, was named Espace Killy.

Killy’s business life inevitably converged with sport in his later life. He became a director of the Tour de France between 1992 and 2001, a Board member of Coca Cola France, chief executive of the Paris-Dakar Rally.

He also became Grand Officer of the Legion d’honneur in 2000.

He was Co-President of the Organising Committee for the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, a long-time member of the IOC until 2014, when he became an honorary member.

As a full IOC member, Killy chaired the Coordination Commissions for Turin 2006 and Sochi 2014. 

During his involvement in the latter Olympics  he reportedly developed a friendship with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin. The two were pictured chatting amiably together before taking part in a training session with the Russian ice hockey team in Sochi last year.

While skiers who have pursued their own Olympic course - perhaps notably Austria’s Hermann Maier - may have emulated Killy’s breakneck approach to skiing, and in particular the downhill, he stands as a unique figure in Olympic history.

Reflecting on his Olympic triple years afterwards, he said: "I did not think it would be so big." 

Well, he knows now.

Such was the force of his catapault exit from the starting cabin at the Olympics, some said it was left trembling after his departure. In a sense, he has done the same thing with his sport.