Mike Rowbottom

One of the blue riband Winter Olympic events, alpine skiing, got underway at the Beijing 2022 Games today, offering its traditional, potent mix of heady triumph and calamitous adversity.

For openers at the Yanqing National Alpine Skiing Centre, Beat Feuz added his name to the list of Swiss victors in the Olympic men’s downhill, joining Bernhard Russi, Pirmin Zurbriggen and Didier Défago.

And Olympic history was made as the man in second place, 41-year-old Johan Clarey of France, became the oldest man to win an alpine skiing medal at the Games, beating a record previously held by Bode Miller of the United States, who earned bronze in the men’s super-G at the Sochi 2014 Games, aged 36.

Shortly afterwards, Sweden’s Sara Hector lived up to her billing as one of the favourites for the women’s giant slalom on a day when her biggest rival, defending champion Mikaela Shiffrin of the United States, was disqualified after missing a gate on the first run.

If that was a shock, there was also horror as, after one relatively unharmful fall by Tessa Worley of France, twice giant slalom world champion, there was a far more serious one involving Nina O’Brien of the United States.

The 24-year-old from Denver, making her Olympic debut, was treated by four paramedics and taken from the course on a stretcher after colliding with the penultimate gate and screaming in pain at what appeared to be a bad leg injury. She was later described as being "alert and responsive" by a US team spokesperson.

Such falls come with the territory in Olympic Alpine skiing events. One of the most well-known occurrences of this grisly phenomenon took place at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano and involved the dominant figure in men’s racing at the time, Austria’s Hermann Maier.

The 25-year-old former bricklayer - whose awesome size and power earned him the nickname of The Herminator - looked as if he had hit a wall just 17 seconds into his opening run in the men’s downhill, flying off the sunlit course at a turn which caused problems to a succession of racers, landing partially on his head and then tumbling head-over-heels several times before crashing through two layers of safety netting and coming to a rest, prostrate on his front, 125 metres further on.

If you believed in portents, they were not good. The race was on Friday 13th, and Maier was skiing fourth - a number which represents death in Japanese culture. The Herminator, however, was unterminated, eventually leaving the course under his own power.

He landed on his feet in a sense, as this spectacular occurrence was part of the reason why he soon ended up on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine and earned him even greater worldwide renown.

Austria's Hermann Maier -
Austria's Hermann Maier - "The Herminator" - was nearly terminated by a fall in the men's downhill at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games, but recovered to win the giant slalom and super-G titles ©Getty Images

The other part of the reason was that, despite having to miss the following day’s slalom because of shoulder and knee injuries, Maier recovered sufficiently to win the men’s giant slalom and super-G titles in what was the most dramatic story of the 18th Winter Olympics.

Speaking after his triumphant return to the Nagano slopes in the super-Giant slalom that took place three days after the downhill, he reflected: "It was a problem for me mentally.

"I needed to come through the first gate to overcome the barrier of being in competition again. 

"I wasn't scared to go out there again, but I was anxious.

“The crash is something which keeps going over and over in my head - even more so now that I have won the gold. 

"I do not know how I escaped from it to be able to race again.

"It was the worst accident I have ever had. I walked away from it because the next competitor had to come down, but the doctors spent all day treating me."

But while he was able to face up to a 650-metre descent through 35 gates, the idea of watching his own nasty video - something that has been replayed worldwide - scared him to death.

When you’re at the Olympics, you go to the edge - and almost beyond - to win.

Ten years ago at the Laureus World Sports Awards in Abu Dhabi, I was able to ask Austria’s Franz Klammer about his recollections of the win-or-bust effort he had made to capture the men’s downhill at the 1976 Winter Olympics on the home slopes of Innsbruck – an Olympics where the 22-year-old was the poster boy and favourite.

Austrla's Franz Klammer at the 1976 Winter Games in Innsbruck, where he won the men's downhill title in daredevil style ©Getty Images
Austrla's Franz Klammer at the 1976 Winter Games in Innsbruck, where he won the men's downhill title in daredevil style ©Getty Images

Klammer had ramped up the pressure to deliver by winning eight of the nine World Cup downhill events the previous year, eclipsing Switzerland's reigning Olympic champion Bernhard Russi.

The latter had won the Olympic downhill title four years earlier after Austria’s own multiple world champion Karl Schranz had been banned from taking part at the 11th hour by the American International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage on the grounds of "commercialism".

Schranz was welcomed back to Vienna by a crowd of 100,000 supporters, and the American Embassy in the Austrian capital was subjected to protests and bomb threats.

Just to add to Klammer’s pressure, the defending champion had already taken a commanding lead with an inspired performance.

The Austrian soon fell a fifth of a second behind his Swiss rival's time over the 3,145 metres course. 

But a final 1000 metres that fell little short of lunacy in its risk-taking saw the home hope get gold by the margin of a third of a second as 60,000 spectators sent bellows of triumph echoing around the neighbouring mountain-tops.

At the time, Klammer told reporters he had skied so close to a fence that he heard "a shout or scream from a lady", adding: "I thought I was hitting her with a pole...I thought I was going to crash all the way...Now I've got everything. I don't need anything else."

Twenty five years on in Abu Dhabi, he commented: "Being a home favourite is great. It's a lot of pressure, but it's more satisfying if you are able to pull it off.

"But you don't have to even think about others. 

"That just slows you down. 

"What you have to do is get yourself into the best possible shape. 

"Then it's all about the physical challenge, and technique. 

"You have to be fully prepared physically. 

"And the execution is what you have to do. 

"It's just mental strength - no fear of losing.

"I had to take it to the edge at Innsbruck, otherwise I wouldn't have won it.

"But when you are on top of your game, everything seems to be slower. 

"You have all the time in the world to make decisions.

"If you are not on top of your game, the slope and the turns seem to come rushing towards you."