Lunch with the FT: Jean-Claude Killy

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Jean-Claude Killy has changed remarkably little since his astonishing feat of skiing off with three gold medals at the Grenoble Winter Olympics 35 years ago. Still handsome at 70 plus, and still swooned over in the street every day, even as far away as Aspen, Colorado, where – in a bizarre meeting with the extreme skier Glen Plake (Mohican hair-do meets winner of Legion d’honneur) – Plake told him he was the person he most wanted to meet in the world. He had kept a photograph of him on his bedroom wall as a boy.

Killy, three-times world champion, was such a familiar face after his Olympic hat-trick that he even turned up as an actor in a B-movie shot in 1971 in the Swiss resort of Zermatt. “I was a big movie star. I had the part of a thief. I stole some money in a ski resort. And the only way to escape without being caught was by skiing. It was a good film, but not successful. Funnily enough, the film people didn’t call me after that!”

But the film had other compensations. on location, Killy met his future wife, the actress Daniele Gaubert. She died of cancer 10 years ago. Surprisingly, apart from the occasional TV commercial, Killy has not skied since.

“I am snowboarding now” he said over a rather indifferent Escalope Milanese at the London Outpost of the Carnegie Club in Cadogan Gardens.

“I am secretly quite a violent man. I normally contain it well. No-one knows. You can’t be any other way if you want to be the best”

He is busy with all kinds of other projects: he is chief-executive of both the Paris-Dakar rally and the Tour de France, and markets his own ski-wear. Had he not been a skier, he says he would have been a tennis player, wrestler, cyclist or a soccer player.
“Because of my great need to win, I could have excelled at many sports. I had this determination to succeed. I was single-minded. I use an exercise bike four times a week. And I’m on the road in summer – in the Alps and the Pyrenees. Jeez ! I know a lot of mountain passes.”

His tough guy image is enhanced by a scar on his jaw – inflicted by a ski-pole in a childhood accident at his adopted home in Val d’Isère, where the local slopes are named in his honour: L’Espace Killy.
“The girls really love it ” he says.

It is perhaps a clue to a more disturbing side to his character – one which belies his genial exterior.
He claims to hide a “profound violence” in his soul. “I am secretly quite a violent man. I normally contain it well. No-one knows. You can’t be any other way if you want to be the best.”

I told him I was startled to hear this since everyone had told me how easy going I would find him. Was there, perhaps, a touch of Jekyll and Hyde in his make-up ?

“You don’t just work yourself into it gradually” he said. “You have to live with it all the time. I just don’t find reasons to let it out.”
Was his sense of humour, I wondered, a way of avoiding violence?

“Perhaps. People say I have a good sense of humour – especially making fun of myself.”
My next question completely floored him. “Do you like people ?”

It was a full 15 seconds before he answered. I timed it, later, when I played back the tape of our meeting.
“The man I love the most is my dad. But we’re never saying it.

“That’s how we consider affection – nous considérons que l’amour peut être exécuté à distance – you can love someone from a distance without the feelings diminishing – sans rien en perdre du tout. C’est un amour formidable – a formidable affection.

I pressed him: “You haven’t really answered my question” I said. Another long pause.

“There’s people I would probably give my life for. And people I wouldn’t even spend two minutes with. And when that is the case they would know it immediately. That’s it. No in-betweens.”

His violent streak was even kept under check in Algeria, where he was called up to fight, briefly, in the war of independence. “Did you kill anyone ?” I asked.

“No, no, no. I had fun. I loved driving. I said I’ll do anything you want as long as you give me something to drive. They gave me a tank.”
How did he feel about what was happening in Algeria today, I wondered ? “It’s monstrous. Monstrous. Because I know how the people are – how they can be. It’s heartbreaking because we – the French – are probably responsible in some ways for how they are.”

But the violence came perilously close to the surface when he almost strangled the French Minister of Sport in 1972. He was trying to revitalise the French ski team and went to see the Minister with Leo LaCroix and Guy Perrilat, two other top French skiers who were team-mates at Grenoble. “I said to the Minister: ‘give us six skiers and we’ll win at the next World Championships.’

“But he said: ‘Get out of here, you old jerks.’ I was so angry, ce jour là, I almost strangled him. I swear to god. But Leo Lacroix (so often nano-seconds behind Killy on the world’s race courses) stopped me. Leo is a pacifist.

Killy, who at one stage almost considered standing for high political office himself, had a more relaxed relationship with the President, François Mitterand. At the Albertville Winter Olympics of which he was co-president, he helped introduce the President to the complexities of the Mexican Wave, or “La Ola” as the French call it.

“At the fifth wave he forgot to sit down. He’s the only guy standing in the entire stadium. I had to pull him back down onto his seat because I had a speech to make, and if the show goes wrong I might as well commit suicide !”

Killy seemed unconcerned at the lack of any choice of menu at the London Outpost, where you are more or less obliged to have what they give you. There is no proper restaurant – but the chef will throw something together for members to eat in their rooms or in the conservatory. We started with avocado prawns, and ended with Poire Hélène – pears poached in red wine.

Killy, after an unlikely aperitif of Coca Cola (He is on the board of Coca Cola Enterprises) stuck to water. “I don’t drink at lunch time, because it spoils my afternoon.” he said. “ I drink only Bordeaux red and only at night.

“I’m very focused as far as that’s concerned. I never ever drink white wine. I love Bordeaux red wines so much that I don’t want to say anything about other wines because I don’t know about them. I know what I like.”

In spite of his healthy appetite, Killy looks as lean as ever. “I’ve never had a weight problem” he says. “ It was 75 kilos in Grenoble, it’s 75 kilos in London today.”

“Don’t you feel a bit of a traitor, taking up snowboarding after making your name as a skier ?” I asked. “Not at all. No.

“I think I’m just respected as a sportsman whether I’m on the International Olympic Committee, Tour de France or in the desert with pilots. I don’t try to sell snowboarding to anyone. I just love it. It’s fun and it’s faster on soft snow than with skis.”

The advent of snowboarding has not been totally easy for Killy’s ski-wear interests. Two or three years ago, when the sport had become hugely popular, Killy skiwear ran up a nice little grunge outfit and gave him one. Most of the remaining 1499 suits were unsold. “Killy and grunge didn’t go together” he said. “The range flopped.”

Now Paul Goldstein’s Nevica, which took over Killy’s clothing interests when he became engrossed in the 1992 Olympics, is launching a new range of performance sportswear for men, Killy Sport which uses “air water technology” to keep the harshest weather out. The three ranges cover expedition wear, “Nautique” sailing wear, lightweight clothing for spring skiing and on-mountain casual wear.

In some ways it will be a relief not tom have to worry about a women’s range. The designers of Killy’s ski wear are constantly striving to combine practicability with fashion.

“The men’s suits are great – no problem” he says. “Its the girls. Trying to combine style with function can be a nightmare. A functional hip pocket on a girl’s suit, for example, is just unsellable because it can make a woman’s hips look too big. It took us 20 years to find this out !”

“Women want all the advantages of a practical suit – to be dry, warm, happy and content – and at the same time they want to look glamorous.”
Franz Klammer, the much-loved and much be-medalled “Kaiser” of Austrian skiing, also flirted with his own clothing company. Killy’s venture has proved to be more enduring – but who was the greater skier?

I had spoken to Klammer a few days earlier, and he had told me: “Although he was a brilliant skier, downhill was not Killy’s speciality. I would have beaten him six times out of ten.”

I put this to Killy. There was another long pause as he sucked in a few strands of spaghetti. “Mmmm” he said. He was thinking rather than savouring his lunch.

“Klammer was a downhill specialist. If I had concentrated in downhill, it would have been difficult for him. But my problem – and it was a very big problem – was to be on top of all three events.
“It was a major headache. It’s a monster to attempt to ski at the Olympic Games in three disciplines. So what Klammer says is probably true.”
“It’s said that when you were racing, you hated the Austrians with a vengeance.”
“We hated them like you wouldn’t believe, but we respected them. There is one I really love – it’s Egon Zimmermann. He was my friend. Back then the Austrians were all over the place. And they loved it more than we ever did. They have roots deep into the sport like we never had. There were so many champions – all the big names lining up – Molterer, Sailer, Hinterseer, Reider. It was so impressive. And they’d never stop trying to beat us to death. I was very much like them.”

Killy, however, has no wish to submerge himself in nostalgia. “I gave most of my trophies away to the Olympic Ski Museum in Lausanne. My Hahnenkamm trophies are rusting away in my brother’s shop in Val d’Isère. They’re not even on display any more But I couldn’t care less. I don’t care. Living today is a lot more interesting than sleeping in the past.”

Will Killy ever ski again ?

“You never know what life has in store for you. I keep being surprised by what life has to offer. But as of now I have no plans to ski again.”

Never ?

“Never say never !”

© Arnie Wilson