Thirty-eight years ago today Franz Klammer charged down the mountain at Innsbruck in what was, for this observer, the greatest sports moment of my lifetime. Definitely of my childhood.
It may be difficult for anyone under the age of 35 to appreciate, and I am not making a qualitative judgment, but there was a time when sports were not televised wall-to-wall. When you couldn’t wake up on a Saturday morning, any Saturday from Labor Day to April Fool’s Day, and spend an entire day, noon to midnight, ingesting college sports.
There was no NBA League Pass. No MLB Network. No DirecTV, with “football on your phone.” And, of course, no ESPN.
And, so, in those Dark Ages before cable television, sporting events were exactly that: events. Sure, you could see your local pro teams on television — my Knicks were on WOR-TV, Channel 9, while Phil Rizzuto, Bill White and Frank Messer brought me the Yankees on WPIX-TV, Channel 11. But, as for nationally televised events, they were mostly one day per week.
Was it better then? In some ways, yes. I like Beck Bennett, but “more is better” is not necessarily true. Limits, at least when it comes to appetites, are usually a good thing. Ask Jordan Belfort.
Anyway, it was in those days, in my childhood, the Seventies, that the Olympics were at their zenith. Televised sports had advanced by leaps and bounds in a decade but the age of round-the-clock coverage, of ESPN and CNN, was not yet upon us.
All of which is a preamble for me to say this: for all of the sports I’ve witnessed, in person and on TV, and for as much as I love college athletics, if you ask me to name the two best goosebumps moments of sports I’ve seen, it’s a quick answer: the USA beating the USSR in hockey in 1980 (the “Miracle on Ice”), which everyone is familiar with; and Franz Klammer’s gold-medal downhill run in Innsbruck, Austria, 1976, a moment that rarely gets mentioned. Maybe because no one ever made a movie about it.
The Olympics, in the 1970s, were exotic and exhilarating. Here were ABC’s cameras taking you to points on the globe that you’d only otherwise see in a James Bond film; televising sports in prime-time, night after night, which was just bizarre. When there were only four or five channels to choose from, and no internet and not even video games, the entire nation was a captive audience. What were we supposed to do, flip over to Grizzly Adams?
It was a weeknight, I remember. Thirty-eight years ago today. I was nine years old, and my parents allowed us to stay up late. Franz Klammer was Austria’s national hero, the host country’s best bet to win a gold medal. Bernhard Russi of Switzerland, the reigning Olympic gold medalist, had laid down a near-perfect run at Patscherkofel.
Klammer was the final skier of 15 to enter the chute. It was simple enough for this fifth-grader to understand: Klammer had to race down the mountain faster than Russi’s posted 1:46:06 in order to win the gold medal. His entire country was counting on his 22 year-old legs, and it seemed as if they were all lining the run.
Why did an American like me care what happened in Austria? It was the Olympics. And back then, in a sports television universe that was not as fractured as it is today, nothing came close to approaching the Games in magnitude. Not even the Super Bowl, though it was closing the gap.
What happened? Watch Klammer’s run. Listen to Bob Beattie’s call. He’s not skiing. He’s flying. On the precipice of disaster at every turn. It’s not that he simply needs to ski out of his mind. It’s that he knows this is the biggest possible moment his life will ever attain. He’s 22 years old, skiing for the gold medal in his homeland, a country where skiing is king. Nothing will ever be as momentous.
And the pressure is on. As Beattie says at one point: “He’s going for it.” What else could he do?
The most exciting 1:45:73 I’ve ever seen in sports.