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(Ski Racing) Chasing the Line: Story behind Franz Klammer’s historic 1976 downhill gold

Chasing the Line: Story behind Franz Klammer’s historic 1976 downhill gold

By |October 25th, 2021|5 Comments

Bib number 15 moved into the starting gate atop Patscherkofel, high above the Tyrolean village of Innsbruck. His yellow racing suit wasn’t as crisp and flashy as the other golden Austrian uniforms. He slid his Fischer C4s back and forth, stretching his legs. There was a sense of calm – an indicator of confidence – as the 22-year-old athlete put his poles over the starting wand.

Across all of Austria, there was nary a single person on a village street. School playgrounds were quiet and the capital of Vienna was empty. Every set of Austrian eyes were tuned in to ORF across the far corners of the land. Alongside the ski track outside Innsbruck, 60,000 fans lined the piste.

The next one minute, 45.73 seconds would change Franz Klammer’s life forever. It would also usher in a new era of ski racing as a global sport while hundreds of millions of viewers watched his ‘Klammer Style’ run to Olympic gold.

The 1976 Olympic downhill was arguably the most anticipated Winter Olympic event in history – a matchup with the veteran, defending gold medalist Bernhard Russi of Switzerland, and the upstart young Austrian farm boy Franz Klammer. Today, more than 45 years later, its legend still lives on, an enduring story of what many consider to be the greatest ski race of all time.

The story of the Austrian legend comes to the big screen this month with the release of “Chasing the Line.” The feature-length film debuted with a screening Sept. 27 at the Zurich Film Festival. It will premiere Oct. 26 in Villach, Austria, near Klammer’s childhood home of Mooswald. Berlin-based Picturetree International is managing global distribution. Showings in the United States and Canada are pending.

Impact of the Kaiser

Few past stars of ski sport command attention today like Franz Klammer. Everyone knows the Kaiser. While the 1976 downhill gold medal is his calling card, the long term athletic success he achieved has rarely been rivaled, even a half-century later.

Here’s the scorecard: 25 World Cup downhill wins – the most by any man in history (Stephan Eberharter has 18). Five World Cup downhill crystal globes (most ever for men). Four Hahnenkamm downhill titles (only Didier Cuche has more, with five). Klammer came into the 1976 Olympics with three straight World Cup downhill wins and back-to-back Hahnenkamm titles. A season earlier in 1974-75, he won an unprecedented eight World Cup downhills. In 1974, he took home World Championship gold in combined at St. Moritz, silver in downhill.

In many ways, Klammer was an unlikely champion. He didn’t grow up in the shadow of the towering Tyrolean Alps. Instead, he was born in the southernmost Austrian state of Carinthia, a region with lesser-known mountains and a bit outside the ski racing spotlight. His tiny village of Mooswald, north of Villach, was situated in the mountains but without a ski lift. But young Franz loved the snow, skiing to school in the winter and climbing up hills on his own to come racing back down.

“My mother put me on skis when I was two years old,” reminisced Klammer. “Ever since I can remember, I have been on skis. It was the best babysitter because I was already out there on skis, skiing up and down to a little village up in the mountain. No lift, no nothing. We were hiking all day long and skiing.”

He rode his first chairlift at eight, and he didn’t start ski racing until he was 14. “And then I knew immediately that ski racing would be my life.”

Origin of a film

For nearly a half-century, the story of the country boy finding gold has begged for the silver screen. But repeated attempts have failed. The fear of many was that the remarkable success of the Austrian ski racer would get passed by over the generations.

Christian Kresse, the tourism chief for the state of Carinthia, wanted to change that and to bring Klammer’s story to the screen – a process that began nearly eight years earlier.

“Franz is a testimonial for skiing,” said Kresse. “Like Muhammad Ali for boxing, Wayne Gretzky for ice hockey or Tiger Woods for golf. Franz – everyone knows him!”

In his heart, Kresse believed in the story. He remembered that day in 1976 as a six-year-old boy, crowded together with his kindergarten classmates watching on a miniature television at school. “I remember, after he won, we all went outside and played like we were Franz Klammer!”

But Kresse, a notable figure in marketing, found it hard to bring his dream to closure. Twice he took the concept to filmmakers and twice it went nowhere.

“I thought, ‘Franz is the most famous Carinthian and we should do something with him,’” said Kresse. “I wanted to make a film. Two or three times we tried to bring a good story. But they were not attractive. Franz’s wife said, ‘no, sorry, that is not a story.’”

Three years ago, Kresse tried one more time. At a trade show in Berlin, he met Vienna filmmaker Jakob Pochlatko of epo-film, a third-generation family-owned production company.

“He approached me to ask if I had a concept on how to make a film about Franz Klammer,” said Pochlatko. “I’m a passionate skier myself. I worked as a ski instructor when I was a student. And so this was, for me, the spark that lit the project. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was just the idea of making something about Franz Klammer.”

But Pochlatko also saw the challenge. “Just the idea of making a film about Franz Klammer is not very easy from a filmmaker’s perspective,” he said. “He’s one of the very few persons who seemed to do everything right. And still, he does everything right! He’s loved by everybody and he had an amazing career. This is not a good story for a film because you need the emotional roller coaster. And that was the main obstacle to tackle before developing a script.”

Challenge in hand, Pochlatko took the film concept to director and screenwriter Andreas Schmied of Samsara Filmproduktion. About that same time, Klammer had seen a film Schmied had directed about a Carinthian ice hockey player, Harrinator, that had been released that year. A fan of the Klagenfurt ice hockey team KAC, Klammer liked the film. Pochlatko tracked down the director to talk about his engagement in telling Franz’ story.

“The Klammer story, yah, it was epic,” said Schmied, a Styrian-born writer and director who, like most Austrians, was on skis before he was two. “It’s in the hearts and minds of Austrians – it’s still there. You grow up with it.”

“The most important week in my life! That’s what I liked.”

– FRANZ KLAMMER

Schmied literally grew up with the Klammer legend.

“Franz’ legendary race was one month before I was born,” he said. “When I told my mother that I’m doing this film, she said all these memories came up. They were at my grandparents’ (house) and they watched the race with the neighbors. Everybody was in front of the television set. I was kicking in her belly because my mother was so excited the whole time.”

The opportunity for Andreas Schmied, along with his wife Elisabeth, to write the screenplay for the Klammer story was both good fortune and a big challenge. It was a brilliant lifetime story of a young boy who had stunning athletic success. But it was also complex.

“The project really came to us with a big burden,” said Schmied, echoing Pochlatko’s concerns. “Others had tried to make a film about Franz Klammer for quite some time and nobody quite got it correct. They tried to do some kind of a glamour biopic.”

Andreas dug into the story with his wife Elisabeth, a former journalist who is now a screenwriter and novelist. Schmied, now a principal in Samsara Filmproduction, had previously produced five feature films in Austria. He and Elisabeth dissected the story to determine how they could tell Klammer’s story and keep the attention of an audience 45 years after his famous ride down Patscherkofel.

“I had to look into it – is there even a movie there?” he said. “First of all, biopics fail because they are almost like passion plays. The bad ones are almost like ‘little Franz gets his keys and then he’s a teenager. And there is this one teacher who says, ‘follow your dreams,’ or whatever. This is where most biopics fail.

“So they took a chance, thinking ‘what if we did a full-length feature film and just focused on one race?’ “We pitched Franz on the idea,” said Schmied. “We said that the best film, as far as our research goes, is simply behind the scenes at the Olympics.”

Klammer had seen many film proposals over the years, but they all hit hurdles. This one was different. “I thought, that’s a fun thing just to make a film with one week from my life,” he said.

“But the most important week in my life! That’s what I liked.”

A Story for Carinthia

The story of Franz Klammer is the story of ski racing in Carinthia. As he drove through the Austrian countryside from Klagenfurt to Villach, Kresse was quick to point out a little-known fact about Carinthian skiing. Klammer, along with fellow Carinthia natives Fritz Strobl and Matthias Mayer, form a unique trio of Olympic downhill champions – more than any other Austrian state, even the Tyrol.

Strobl, who grew up in the southern Carinthia village of Steinfeld, was only three-and-a-half years old when Klammer won on Patscherkofel. But he was inspired, going on to win Olympic downhill gold on the gnarly Grizzly Run at Snowbasin in 2002 and became a rare double Hahnenkamm sieger. Klammer and Strobl became lifelong friends, sharing a hunting lodge in late September before the film’s debut in Zurich.

Mayer, a Hahnenkamm champion who won Olympic downhill gold at Rosa Khutor in 2014 and doubled up with super-G gold at PyeongChang, grew up literally on the other side of the mountain from Klammer’s home.

“He was a very legendary skier,” said Mayer, the son of Helmut Mayer, the 1988 Olympic super-G silver medalist in Nakiska. “It was always a big goal for me to be like Franz Klammer. And he’s still a big hero today.”

Mayer echoed the pride of his Austrian state. “It’s very special that Franz grew up in Carinthia, just 10 minutes from my house.”

Every year, Mayer joins legions of followers to the local Tour de Franz cycling event. “We go for a beer and some nice talks,” said Mayer. “He is not only legendary as a skier, he’s just a very great person.”

Creating a storyline

The Klammer story was, well, pretty perfect. But it lacked an antagonist – someone to create tension. And, it needed a bit of a love story. Andreas and Elisabeth Schied found both.

The antagonist role was cast with Fischer Skis owner Josef ‘Pepi’ Fischer, the second-generation owner of the famed Austrian ski company. Fischer, who passed in 2020 at the age of 90, had been known as a hard-driving, innovative ski industry leader. He took over after the sudden death of his father in 1959. One of his early moves was to position Fischer as an elite ski product, investing in racing and having the good fortune in 1964 of Austrian Egon Zimmermann winning downhill gold on Patscherkofel on Fischer skis, vaulting the small company into the spotlight.

A dozen years later, Fischer had a strong racing product. And Klammer was winning big on its C4 skis. But Pepi Fischer wanted more. While Klammer had been consistent in his success on the skis, Fischer and his team had innovated a new product. Klammer, a simple young man, was more comfortable with the C4s. So, the necessary conflict was born.

Franz Klammer with “Chasing the Line” star Julian Waldner and ORF’s Rainer Pariasek (ORF) during the October 2021 SportsPerson of the Year Awards in Vienna. (GEPA pictures/ Walter Luger)

The love story proved to be a real one, focusing on the role of Klammer’s now wife of 42 years, Eva. Their story was truly one for the big screen.

In the summer of 1975, in the lead-up to the Olympics, the Austrian team held a training camp in Tunisia where he coincidentally met a young girl from Vienna.

“We met in Tunisia, in Africa, on the beach, recalled Klammer. “And she says, ‘well, what are you doing?’ I said, ‘well, I’m skiing.’ ‘Are you winning something?’ she says. ‘Yes. And what are you doing?’ ‘I’m studying medicine.’ And that was all we talked about. But in that year, 1975, I had won all the World Cup races. So she really had no clue who I was.”

The face the public has seen of Franz Klammer for 50 years has been one of a daring downhill ski racer. Behind that, though, is a true love story that contributed to his athletic success. Even today, he is emotional in telling it.

“I always thought, ‘I will never be able to find a woman who I’m going to love,’” said Klammer, pausing to collect his thoughts. “But, with Eva, it was immediate. She was always supporting me. She never came to the races. But she was always a huge support from the beginning, sitting always in the background and just being there. So that was the important thing.”

They were married in 1979. “And she is still playing one of the most important roles in my life. I hope it lasts forever.”

Storyline in hand, casting the right actors became the next challenge. “I knew that Franz Klammer – his victory and his legend – basically would be enough to sell the movie on his name and this emotional story. So I really wanted to give the audience a real feel for the people in the story.”

During casting, Schmied and casting director Nicole Schmidt looked for actors and actresses right down to their age and the details of their regional dialect – something tricky that changes over time.

The first choice to play the role of Franz was Julian Waldner. “He was from Carinthia, the right age, almost the right build, he won a couple of ski races when he was a boy. I couldn’t believe my luck.”

For Eva, they went with a young actress from Vienna, Valerie Huber. “She was one of the first people who came in and she just blew me away,” said Schmied.

A key to any film is casting. And Schmied and Schmidt hit it out of the park. “All the other actors we found – they were perfect,” said Schmied, lighting up with excitement. “Maybe nobody knows them, but I think everybody will know them after the movie is out because they’re so good.”

Klammer and Eva spent significant time with the screenwriters and the actors, especially Waldner. “We became close friends and it was fun,” said Klammer. “He was so eager to play the Franz Klammer and do it right.”

Klammer style

While much of the storyline of the film is the tension Klammer felt and his burgeoning romance with Eva, producer Pochlatko knew that the true heart of the film was how he portrayed one of the most thrilling ski runs of all time 45 years later. So he reached out to fellow Austrian filmmaker Gerald Salmina, producer of the 2014 film Streif: One Hell of a Ride, to manage second unit shooting at Patscherkofel last February.

“He did all the action shots,” said Schmied. “We had really long talks about how the movie should be filmed. He was really experienced and I learned so much from Gerald in the sense that he told me what’s going on in the minds of downhill skiers and how they how they how they operate.”

There was plenty of passion and experience with Salmina, whose Mount St. Elias and Streif were captivating works. Like most Austrians, he had a special place in his heart for Franz Klammer.

“I remember the race – we were in the living room watching on TV in black and white,” said Salmina, who was 11 at the time. “Nobody was doing anything. We were hardly breathing. It was totally, totally quiet. The whole family was sitting in front of the TV.

“I think he won for everybody, you know? He won for the nation, for every Austrian skier”

In producing the ski race scenes for “Chasing the Line,” it would have been easy to simply pull archival footage to build a documentary story. But producers chose to recreate the historic 1976 race down Patscherkofel.

For Salmina, “Chasing the Line” presented new challenges he hadn’t faced in producing Streif, which took viewers inside the minds of downhillers who threw themselves fearlessly into the Mausefalle. First off, Patscherkofel was quite a placid downhill run compared to the Hahnenkamm. Racing skis had changed appreciably. Safety had increased.

To film with authenticity, producers had new equipment manufactured to make it look old. They also needed to take what is now an intermediate recreational ski run and transform in into the rough and tumble 1976 downhill. Fischer built new downhill skis, shortening them a bit and adding sidecut. Salmina brought in his friend and Hahnankemm race chief Alex Naglich to create the racing environment for the film.

Gerald Salmina’s second unit acton team, including Daron Rahlves, poses with star Julian Waldner. (Daron Rahlves)

And if you’re a ski racing purist, yes, you may detect a bit of familiarity in the style of Klammer racing crazily down the piste. It’s world champion Daron Rahlves.

When casting ski racing doubles for Klammer, Salmina turned to his longtime friend Rahlves. Salmina was at Kitzbühel in 2003 the day Rahlves won. He followed him through the day soaking in the cultural experience. And the two met that night at The Londoner forging both a friendship and a partnership in telling the story of ski racing that has spanned nearly two decades.

“I knew that Daron understood how Klammer was skiing,” said Salmina. “He could really win in this kind of Klammer style. He knew what was necessary to show and not to over act. He had super experience in filmmaking. We were lucky to get him here.”

“It was unreal to be a part of that – it was an honor,” said Rahlves, who spent a week last February doing ski scenes outside Innsbruck. Ironically, it wasn’t his first visit to the little-used speed course on Patscherkofel. In December, 1998, he raced a World Cup super-G on the fabled course. He was 21st on a day where Austria swept the first nine places behind winner Hermann Maier. Rahlves got his own revenge, of sorts, just two months later when he opened the World Championships in St. Anton with a super-G victory ahead of Austria’s Stephan Eberharter and Maier – a day that stopped the world in the hearts of Austrian ski racing fans.

To shoot the film, producers literally took over Patscherkofel, taking the revered race course back in time. They recreated the old start house, put up old course fencing and built a finish area complete with banners and fans in period clothing.

They also brought the 1976 downhill race course back to life, albeit with machine grooming to make it a bit more racer friendly. “It was a really fun course with all the elements of a good downhill,” said Rahlves. “There’s a lot of character to it where it meanders down the mountain into turns and and really cool knolls and bumps to catch some air.”

Rahlves used his own Atomic boots, touched up with paint to create an authentic 1976 look. The modern-day vintage-looking C4s took a little adjustment time. “The hardest thing was when I first ran the course to try and get it all figured out,” laughed Rahlves.

The other challenge faced by Rahlves was the need to intentionally ski out of control. “We would watch a lot of film and I had to put it in my head that I had to ski out of control and make these little mistakes everywhere.”

Before every ski scene, as Rahlves was examining the run in his mind, the director would scream at him, ‘Daron, no, no, no, you got to ski Klammer style, Klammer style – out of control.’

“I mean, I had to come off some of the rollers, the knolls, on the tails, flying up in the air, arms out – you know, just out of control, going through the pine boughs, cutting back straight to a gate, towards a fence and then redirect that. I had to ski out of control and make these little mistakes everywhere.” He had a few interesting moments, skis up against the old picket fence, but never any really close calls.

A star in his own right in Austria, Rahlves made local headlines.

Rahlves wasn’t even three years old when Klammer won gold. So his knowledge bank on Klammer comes from the legend and from the longstanding friendship he’s had with him. Rahlves, too, is in a fascinating place in Austrian ski history. He’s let his skis do the talking over the years and has won a place in the hearts of Austrians … well, to a degree.

“Franz was getting treated like a king coming into that race,” said Rahlves. “I think it put him at a higher level, too, with his own confidence. It was a little intimidation factor for the others. It’s like Hermann Maier for me – his program was at such a high level and he had everything taken care of for him. You just feel like ‘oh, this guy is the hero, the superstar of our sport and it’s going to be really tough to even compete with him.’”

During the filming last February, Rahlves was held as a ski hero by the locals, some of whom would hike up to watch the filming. He met fans who vividly re-lived their own experiences of Feb. 5, 1976. And, once again, Rahlves found himself on page one of the local Tiroler Tageszeitung.

The race

To understand the 1976 Olympic downhill, you need to look back a few years in time. The World Cup had only been formally established in 1967. An evolution from wooden skis to fiberglas and metal had swept through the sport. Media coverage was moving into a golden era, with more live television and a bigger platform for burgeoning sport stars. And the Olympics were returning to the Alps after a sojourn to Sapporo in 1972.

Klammer was just 19 when he burst onto the scene in 1973, skiing to three World Cup podiums. That December, he kicked off the 1973-74 World Championship year with the first of his 25 World Cup downhill wins claiming a victory in Schladming. In February, he caught attention with a silver in downhill at the World Championships in St. Moritz – albeit over a second behind his teammate David Zwilling. Swiss favorite Bernhard Russi, who two years earlier had won Olympic gold in Sapporo, was 13th.

Second in the season-long battle for the downhill crystal globe in 1973, he turned up the heat in 1975 winning eight World Cup downhills and taking the season title.

The “Chasing the Line” screenplay does a masterful job in capturing the pressure he felt that week. He had won the pre-Olympic downhill on Patscherkofel over Russi in 1975. And he took a three-win streak, including his second straight Hahnenkamm win, into the Olympics.

The tension in “Chasing the Line” is palpable. While Klammer’s Olympic spot was fixed, his teammates were battling for start rights in training. Pepi Fischer was omnipresent, pushing hard to force Klammer to use his new ski. The media were omnipresent. And his new girlfriend, Eva, was back home at college in Vienna.

Then came the biggest blow. Hoping for a low start number in the draw, Klammer drew 15 – last in the top seed. His rival, Russi, drew number 3 – the optimum start position given weather conditions. Klammer seemed doomed.

As expected, Russi put down a solid run to take the lead. Klammer’s only hope was to chase a line that no one felt could be skied. And it meant 100% commitment.

“When I went out of the starting gate, I knew I was going to win that race,” said Klammer. “Whether I win it or crash, there was nothing in between. So I won it.”

At the intermediate time, he was behind Russi. He could sense it himself.

“I said to myself, ‘Franz, now you have to do something because you’re going to lose,’” he said. “And then I completely changed the line. I went all the way up to the top. And then I came down. I think that was one of my strengths – just to improvise.”

Russi vividly recalls the long wait in the finish and the momentum of the crowd that carried Franz Klammer to victory. “Literally, the entire mountain was shaking,” said Russi.

Klammer abandoned the acknowledged optimum track and chased a line that had never been skied on Patscherkofel. It was a crazed run to Olympic glory, up on one ski then the other, crossing back and forth through the pine boughs, sliding perilously close to the fence.

“This one turn, in the lower part, it changed my entire life,” said Klammer.

Somehow he survived, etching his name into history with a .33-second margin over Russi.

A lifetime of friendships

Klammer has remained one of the sport’s biggest fans. He watches every ski race – men and women. He’s quick to talk about stars of the sport like Alberto Tomba, Hermann Maier and Bode Miller. “I really admired him – his style, his way of skiing,” Klammer said about Miller. “He was always going for the victory. I liked his way of approaching that. He was kind of a tough, tough guy.”

He also remains close to Russi. Their finish line embrace at Patscherkofel in 1976 was heartfelt and forged a bond between the two rivals – each Olympic downhill champions.

“One of the most important things I got out of sport were friendships,” said Klammer. “Bernhard and I, we are really close friends and appreciate each other’s company. So that’s the thing, you know?”

Last month the two met again at the Zurich Film Festival for a screening of “Chasing the Line.” They shared an embrace, some laughs and watched a film that showcased the sport that formed the DNA of their lives on snow.

Viewers will find a film filled with suspense and an endearing love story. They will be captivated by the storyline and the tension leading up to the race.

While “Chasing the Line” is a film about Klammer, it is also a portrayal of skiing, as a sport. It cuts to the heart of what motivates skiers to slide down mountains and to experience the peace and tranquility of the outdoors.

The film portrays little glory for Franz in the hours and day after the race. Instead, it focuses on the microcosm of his relationship with Eva as they are spirited away from the finish in an ambulance before she drives him from Tyrol back to Carinthia the next day. It was an interesting way to showcase his biggest victory. It wasn’t a scene of parties and fame, just a quiet ride into the sunset after the much-anticipated race.

While much can be said about fame, few superstar ski racers started their careers just to seek glory. They start for the love of the sport. For some, that means weekends with the family driving to a ski resort. For others, like Franz Klammer, it’s about climbing mountains for fun and sliding back down. It’s about skiing to school each day, always enjoying that feeling of sliding on snow.

Klammer spoke for all skiers in one of the final scenes. Alone together after the race, Eva looked into Franz’s eyes and asked him: “Did you always want to be famous?” He responds simply:

“No, I just wanted to ski.”

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