He was tall, dark and strapping, innocence personified, and at his peak there was no better ski racer in the world than Toni Sailer. Nor were there many people who were more famous. He was young, insufferably handsome, a window maker and eave-spout installer by profession, and the first man ever to win three gold medals in a single Winter Olympics, taking the slalom, giant slalom and downhill at Cortina in 1956. A year or two later a nationwide poll was taken in Austria, asking which person had done most for the country in its thousand-year history. Toni Sailer, the mountain boy from Kitzb√ºhel, finished fifth behind Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Sailer was only 20 when he swept the Olympics, and he wore an air of insouciance, a hint of dimpled hayseed, the mildest touch of peasant simplicity. His looks were so stunning, featuring magnificent batting eyelashes and large soft brown eyes, that there could be no justifiable way that there should be more than a fairly dim bulb alight inside that handsome head. It simply would not be fair for God to have given anyone such great looks and a fine mind as well. So they called him a hick and Toni responded by flashing his snowy bashful smile. He skied everybody off the mountain until 1959. Then he quit and became a movie actor, playing a hockey goalie, a border guard, a cowboy, a garage mechanic, a gas-station attendant and, naturally, a dashing skier. And gradually Toni Sailer dropped out of sight.
Now let us flash ahead to 1972. There was a crisis in Austria: the national ski team was in a shambles, demoralized after its defeat in the Olympics at Sapporo. Karl Schranz, the venerable downhiller, had been summarily sent home from Japan by the International Olympic Committee. He was barred forever from amateur competition for doing something every major skier has done for a decade: taking money. The only consistent performer left was the splendid Annemarie Proell. In most countries this situation would be merely a superficial setback, but in Austria it was alarming, something that might have significant economic repercussions. The Austrian ski team is in reality a strong arm of Austrian commerce, a key element in selling and promoting Alpine tourism. Something had to be done. And in that serious hour Austria turned to the hayseed for help, naming Toni Sailer as the technical director of the team, in effect the supreme commander of competitive skiing in Austria.
People didn't quite know what to make of it. Could Toni Sailer coach? David Zwilling, 25, a veteran member of the team, recalls, "We thought we would be getting a national monument to coach us. And who thinks a national monument can coach a skier?"
February 3, 1975
At this point the monument had become a bit portly. He was prosperous, the owner of a successful pension in Kitzb√ºhel. He had been doggedly cautious with the money he made as an actor. Still, his movie career was dead now, and the luster of his Olympic sweep had long since been dimmed by the subsequent performance and glamour of Jean-Claude Killy. Sailer had become a second-rate celebrity at pro-am golf tournaments in the Alpine countries. Beyond the Alps the currency of his name had fallen almost to the point of trivia: "Who besides Killy won three...?" Hans Czappek, the Austrian team trainer who has known Sailer for years, says, "The job was the best thing that could happen. Toni was fat and drank too much a few years ago. But look at him now! Just look at him!"
Now, two years after he took the helm, Toni Sailer is trim and confident, a dashing lion of the mountains once more. At 39 he is perhaps even handsomer with middle-age lines lending character to his clean features. There is no bumpkin in him (many people say there never was). When he stands on the mountain he displays the decisive mien of a captain of industry (which, given the economy of Austria, he surely is).
Out of the shambles of 1972 Sailer has constructed one of the best ski teams of the decade, a tightly knit and sterling group which easily was the class at the 1974 FIS World Championships in St. Moritz last February and ran off with the World Cup team championship with 1,315 points to runner-up Italy's 766. Annemarie won her fourth straight individual World Cup title, is now en route to her fifth and the entire team is again leading the league. And with the Winter Olympics of 1976 scheduled for Innsbruck again, Toni Sailer may pass Mozart in the polls through another kind of Olympic triumph—as coach of a team that paves its country's streets with gold.
There has been a remarkable turnabout in the team's fortunes, and Sailer speaks with pride when he explains what he has done to make it happen. "When I first came to the team they had broken all apart. They had lost discipline. With skiers that can be bad. If you let them go and there is no control, they are lost—whoosh—overnight. This had happened. So I had to make changes. First, I put all of our skiers together. They had been separated in A, B and C teams, but I put all 110 kids together and told them everyone has a chance to come straight onto the first team. No more the young ones have to wait for an old one to grow so old he loses all his FIS points. This I told them in our first camp. Of course, the old ones started talking behind my back. Then they asked me if they had to be in bed by 10 o'clock, like the young ones. I said yes, everybody in bed at 10 o'clock, that is clear. If you want to stay up late with a girl friend or a movie, I said, you ask me. But no one up after 10 o'clock unless I know about it: then there is no control on the team. If you don't like it, I told them, we are not interested in having you here. You must want what we want or you must go."
Discipline came back fast. But this was not to be merely a regime of hard rules and rigid obedience. Toni Sailer is a more subtle fellow than that. "You have to make ski racing fun, you know," he says. "You must have new things. A top ski racer, if he skis on a hill four or five times, he knows every bump. We tried to find new scenery, new hills. Also skiers must have other interests. It takes them a while to get to the point where they see that skiing isn't everything. It is not a normal life, just skiing, skiing, skiing, then going to bed, sleeping, sleeping, sleeping. You have to bring them together with other things, to the theater or to visit cities they have not seen and to talk to people who are not ski people. And I am against taking children of 14 onto the national team for training. They should stay home, be with their own coaches and have a life like real children have. I have been president of the Kitzb√ºhel Ski Club since 1968, and I see lots of kids who come and cry because they are training so much they can't play any games. It's no good—just school and skiing, school and skiing. Then it gets to be like figure skating, no fun."
Beyond these insights, Sailer is said by experts to have an almost superhuman "eye" on the hill, an ability to detect nearly invisible flaws in a racer's technique. "If I can see a racer coming down, yes, I can see many of his mistakes," he says. "But that is not all there is to it. With top skiers like Proell or Zwilling you have to be very careful. Mainly you must not talk too much. Wait, wait. Send them away, say, 'It's O.K., go now, we will talk later." It is better to say nothing than to say the wrong thing, because once you have told them wrong, they won't believe you anymore, even if you are right. Wait, wait, wait. I tell all the coaches that. It took me almost eight slaloms to find out what the problem was with Proell last year. She was always falling. I finally saw that it was her boots. She needed support in her heels. I knew it pretty much for sure after the fourth slalom, but I watched five, six, eight before I told her, so I knew I was certain."
The Austrian ski team is really a powerful, luxurious machine. Its budget is $600,000 a year. There is a staff of 13 coaches. Sailer is paid $25,000 a year. The team trains summers in Chile, New Zealand, Australia. It is a big business that Sailer runs for his homeland. There was nothing like it when he was racing.
For example, Sailer recalls his own "technical director" of the 1950s. "Well, he was a good sportsman, but his specialty was Nordic skiing. He didn't know anything about the downhill races. He liked to play games with us. It was very relaxed for everyone. I did no training in the summer and not much in the fall. I slept as much as I wanted. I drank a little wine from time to time. Nobody had any money to go out on the town. You had just two Swiss francs [about 40¢] to go from Kitzb√ºhel to Geneva, so you could buy just one sandwich for a 16-hour train ride. Ski manufacturers didn't have money to spend on racers then. You got a pair of skis. You skied on them. If you liked them, fine. There was no money involved.
"Our bindings in those days were fixed toe pieces with thongs. The skis were made of hickory and ashwood. I never made much money as an amateur. I made 10,000 schillings [$500] at the World Championships in 1958. There was no money around skiing then." By contrast, Killy admitted being paid $50,000 in 1968, the year he won the triple Olympic gold at Grenoble.
But Sailer's Olympic triumph was by no means without reward. Grateful neighbors in Kitzb√ºhel gave him, with no strings attached, a valuable parcel of land for his pension. With an $80,000 mortgage he put up a quaint, gabled 32-room hotel—Haus Toni Sailer—the first pension in Kitzb√ºhel with a private bath for every room. And then there were the movies. European producers could not resist Sailer's smile, his strapping physique, his worldwide fame. He was invited practically at the Cortina finish line to go to Munich and test for a role in an Alpine love story.
When Sailer arrived at the studio he was astonished to find 20 professional actors, all waiting to test for the same role. He was nonplussed and, ultimately, mortified. He recalls, "Nobody told me what I was supposed to do. They just put makeup on me and handed me a script. I was supposed to open a door, take off my hat and sit down next to a girl on a bench. It was awful. It seemed to me that a thousand people were watching me. I got so nervous. I can't even remember whether I got the hat off my head. Just get it over with was my idea. As soon as it was over I ducked out of there fast. That was the end of the movie business as far as I was concerned."
But it wasn't. Georg Richter of the Bavaria Film Co. saw Sailer being his natural self on a Munich quiz show a few weeks later. Though Sailer had been deeply hurt by his failure at his first screen test and wanted nothing more to do with such painful foolishness, Richter prevailed on him to try once more, and soon was raving to the world press, "We have just found the replacement for Tyrone Power."
For openers Richter put Sailer in a corny low-budget B picture called A Piece of Heaven in which he played a gas station attendant who wins the heart of a snobbish countess after he fixes her car. The movie drew no praise for Sailer's acting, but it made a little money. Richter then cast him in another bit of box-office peanut brittle called Der schwarze Blitz (Black Lightning). Toni played a dashing, handsome Tyrolean ski hero who turns down the love of a rich man's daughter to marry a poor girl whose father owns a local inn.
At this point—it was the summer of 1958—Toni Sailer was just 22. He had no idea of retiring from racing. He had won two gold medals at the FIS World Championships at Bad Gastein the previous winter, and when someone asked him if he hoped to win three more gold medals in the 1960 Olympics at Squaw Valley, Sailer grinned and said. "Does a man like to eat? Does a man like to sleep? Does a man wish to go to heaven?"
Alas, Toni was not to enter heaven via the peaks of Squaw Valley. He had claimed all along that his profession was acting and that his success in that medium had nothing to do with his celebrity as a skier. However, the four-member Amateurism Committee of the Fédération Internationale de Ski announced that it was ve-e-e-e-ry suspicious that Sailer's name was in lights on the marquees of Europe largely because of his excellence as a ski racer. In order to determine whether he was in reality an accomplished actor who just happened to ski or a famous skier who just happened to be lumbering about the set, they arranged for a private screening of early rushes from Black Lightning. One summer afternoon in 1958 the committeemen entered a projection room, watched approximately one-fourth of the film and came out shaking their heads. There was much more skiing footage than acting footage in Toni's part, but Amateurism Committee jurors said there had not been enough film for them to judge his dramatic talent. The committee toyed briefly with the absurd idea of flying in Italian Director Roberto Rossellini to hand down a verdict on Toni's acting prowess (and ultimately his amateur standing) but discarded the project as being too expensive.
Finally Sailer saved them the trouble of producing an official FIS critique on acting. He retired from racing in 1959, saying, "I can't risk spending a year training hard, and then being told by the Olympics officials that I couldn't compete." Anyway, by that time his mother had already issued her famous declaration: "Toni has won enough gilded medals. It is time he made some money."
Sailer set out with a vengeance to obey mom. The movies were his métier, he decided, but there was much to be learned. The critics were hard on his work in Black Lightning, and Toni was depressed and disappointed by his own image on the screen. "It was like when you hear what you think is your deep voice on a tape recorder, and it comes out high and squeaky." But he kept trying. His third film, Twelve Girls and a Man, in which he played a border guard who runs into 12 pretty girls on vacation in an Alpine hut, was panned. So was his fourth, A Thousand Stars Shine, in which he played a garage mechanic who gets the girl after an auto accident. Toni was shaken by the scathing reviews. But he had a gritty old motto which he repeated often: "It is disgraceful to do something half right."
Sailer moved to Berlin and put himself in the hands of Else Bongers, a celebrated actors' coach. He worked grimly, assiduously, to lose his dense Tyrolean dialect and to loosen up his stiff, awkward movements on camera. Four months later he flew off to Japan to make a movie in which it didn't matter if his dialect was Urdu-Swahili. The film was called King of the Silvery Summits, a bubbly bit of Oriental cinema soap in which Toni played an Alpine ski champion who is accused of causing a fatal avalanche. He beats it out of Europe to Japan, somehow manages to become the Japanese champion under a false name, falls in love with a Japanese girl, is finally cleared of responsibility for the avalanche, returns home, wins medals in the Olympic Games, is acclaimed a hero, etc., etc.
Sailer was in Japan five months and was greeted everywhere as if he were the Emperor's prodigal son. There were police escorts, parades, screaming thousands lining his route into the smaller cities. Groups of girls kept him awake at night, shrieking for his autograph. In Nagana crowds broke into his hotel room, and he had to lock himself in the bathroom until they left. The same pictures which bombed in Europe, Black Lightning and Twelve Girls and a Man, attracted more than a million customers in Japan. He even sold records there, crooning in a thin, gentle voice, and when King of the Silvery Summits was released it drew 1.5 million fans.
Nevertheless, Sailer's acting ability remained very much in doubt. It was suggested that many Japanese went to his movies to study his skiing technique. His box-office success in Japan did help a little to resuscitate his European career, and he went home to star in The White Dream, a remake of a prewar hit. Toni played a hockey goalie who fell in love with a figure skater. It was a fair success, and Sailer continued to act through the '60s. He made about two dozen movies, acted on the stage in Death of a Salesman and The Moon Is Blue and was an occasional crooner. He did a TV series called Luftspr√ºnge, of which he says cryptically, "It was a lot like Bonanza." He wrote a book called Mein Weg zum dreifachen Olympiasieg (How I Won The Triple Crown). He dabbled in the stretch ski pants business, and fiber-glass skis bore his name. He was romantically linked to many women, including Romy Schneider, but he never married. The woman he called his fiancée for several years, who was from Kitzb√ºhel, died at Toni's pension three years ago while he was on a golf trip. He was stricken by the tragedy for many months.
All through his acting career Sailer had remained at the edge of the ski world. There was, of course, the Kitzb√ºhel pension and, Toni says, "I did sports commentary at the 1964 Olympics in Innsbruck and the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble. I did Sapporo for Austrian TV. I wrote a column for a newspaper. But, you see, I have no profession. Yes, I was an actor for 15 years. That was my profession, I did nothing else. I worked hard at it. But in 1972 I did my last movie. I quit. It was a ski movie. I was a ski instructor, a young lover. I don't even know the title of that movie anymore. But, you know, it is good to do so many things, to get another view. I couldn't do the job I do now without having done the other things."
It is true that coaching has its drawbacks as well as its rewards. Sailer says, "Coaching is very hard, you're always away from home. You can do better than the pay here. It is not in comparison with what you would get if you tended to your businesses. Coaching is skiing, skiing, skiing, skiing. Nothing else. It closes your mind, and you must be aware of that. The main reason I took the job is that I believe I can do some things in it better than others. I like this thing, I like it very much. In the end, of course, they may kick you away. You know it. You know sport. You cannot win all the time. You must sometimes lose. It's a big risk. The risk on my side is as much as the risk on the skiers. But if you don't risk anything, you cannot enjoy anything. I have always believed that."
At this point his risk is paying off just fine. He stands high in the hearts of Austrians once more, supreme commander of a team that might sweep the Innsbruck Olympics as stunningly as Sailer once swept Cortina as an individual. Watch out, Mozart.