My first Olympic memories came from our first color television set. The year was 1968, a season of many Baby Boomer’s lives I am sure most will recall. There were lots of firsts for Olympic competition that year for a generation of people, snapshots of greatness witnessed for this first time in living color for one.
That year, the X Winter Olympiad belonged to France, and to a little city in the French Alps called Grenoble. Oh, and it belonged to maybe the greatest alpine Olympian ever too, one Jean-Claude Killy.
Telling you what it was like to be transported to Grenoble, France via a magical box (which is how we first thought of TV back when) is all but impossible. There is literally no modern equivalent paradigm for such a thing. Beyond this, witnessing greatness with this magic, is equally difficult. Imagine viewing the impossible by impossible means perhaps. Grenoble was, and probably is, one of the most beautiful places one can imagine for such events as these. Being a young and impressionable boy back then, was, well, full of such wonder.
Kids nowadays see Beijing or Vancouver like it were nothing, the inundation of digital this and that, or TV and game glut taken for granted, lots of stuff taken for granted. Imagine the anticipation back when for every broadcast, each event, the sights and sounds, transfixed by it all. But enough of that, let’s capture Grenoble as best we can.
Jean Claude Killy was Grenoble. Hardly an announcement began or ended in 1968 without his name being mentioned. Winner of three gold medals that year, only the second person to win all the men’s alpine skiing events, a legend before and since. Killy, for that time, has no modern equal. A class act, in a time when they were all class acts, Killy did more for the sport of skiing than anyone before or since. Between Fleming and Killy, Winter sports had two of the best PR front people any industry or organization could ever hope for. No Tiger Woods nonsense from the likes of these extraordinary athletes.
Those Olympics, and Killy, pretty much made modern Winter Olympic competition what it is today. A bold claim? Not really, it is a fact. Before 1968 the Winter Olympics outside Europe was not much more than a curiosity. France, Grenoble, and Killy revealed to the rest of the world the beauty and drama of Winter athletic competition. It was exciting!
Here are some highlights and “firsts” of the 1968 Winter Games
- Norway won the most medals that year – back then this was expected
- The East German women’s luge team was disqualified for heating the runners of their sled.
- Female figure skater Peggy Fleming won the gold for the US, setting the bar of grace and ability very high for all future figure skaters from no matter where. She is a legend even today. Her medal was also the only gold the United States took away from those games.
- Legendary Italian bobsleigh pilot Eugenio Monti drove in both the two-man and four-man events to win gold. Who has ever done this?
- 1968, as mentioned, was the first Olympics broadcast in color.
- Grenoble was the first Olympics to adopt a mascot. His name was Schuss by the way.
- Killy, who swept the alpine events, was also involved in the strangest controversy in Winter Olympic competition. A mysterious dark clad figure was reported to have crossed the path of his rival, Austrian legend Karl Schranz, that race was eventually awarded to Killy amid massive protest.
- Norway’s winning medal count was the first time a country besides the USSR came out on top since the latter’s entry into the games in 1956.
The 1968 games are said to have introduced Winter Olympic competition to the United States. This is a very fair and true assertion. You will note I mentioned Peggy Fleming in the list above. Imagine a country so captivated by a female athlete if you will. Her picture and her story were on the cover of every major newspaper in the country the next day. Today, they would be on YouTube or Google in seconds by comparison, but that was the time. Every female figure skater you ever saw mind you, was somehow influenced by Peggy Fleming.
As for Killy, he is an interesting study in heroic athletic competition. After the Olympics Jean Claude embarked on an endorsement campaign like those so common today. He retired from alpine competition to lend his name to interesting projects like cycling and even auto racing. Interestingly, Killy came back at age 29 in 72 to win the US Pro circuit, I guess to show who he was again. Though not so prominent in the public eye as some Olympic heroes, Killy has made significant contributions not only to France, the Olympics in general, but the athletic community too.
Being a legend in France cannot be a bad thing, you know? I doubt seriously Jean Claude Killy has paid for a meal inside France since 1968. He would not at my restaurant. Jean-Claude Killy became Grand Officer of the Légion d’honneur in 2000, France still honors his extraordinary contribution to that nation’s Olympic heritage. Killy was a phenomenon, he won everything there was to win. The 1968 Winter Olympics, France, and Jean Claude Killy are inextricably linked forever in the annals of Winter competition. To gauge the greatness if you must, combine other Olympic terms, see what you get. 1968 was a great year for a lot of things.
Cohn & Wolfe represents the United States Olympic Committee.