Jean-Claude Killy: France's King of the Ski Slopes

By Singer, Barnett | Contemporary Review, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Jean-Claude Killy: France's King of the Ski Slopes


Singer, Barnett, Contemporary Review


JEAN-CLAUDE Killy always did things right. Having turned 61 last August, this ex-skier supreme is still much alive, if not on the slopes. He is Val d'Isere's unofficial king, and has been a driving force behind that ski resort's designation for the 2009 World Ski Championships. And he hopes this example will give impetus to Paris' candidature for the 2012 Summer Olympics, one of five world cities vying for the prize.

A nearer goal constantly in Killy's mind is getting the Turin Winter Olympics (due to begin 10 February, 2006) in perfect shape, as he and France's foreign minister, Michel Barnier, once did for those at Albertville in 1992. Barnier still keeps Killy's picture on his desk, and considers his five years of exhausting Olympic preparations at Killy's side among the best of his life.

As chief of the present International Olympic Committee, Killy has saluted fine work already done in Turin, but acknowledges difficulties in producing a suitable bobsled track, accommodations for media and athletes, hospital and other support systems (he has proposed locating some across the frontier in France)--and all on time, ever his great foe, and within budget.

Killy almost has the puritanical zeal of an old Swiss watchmaker; however, the residence he intermittently occupies in Geneva is located in un-Calvinist environs where rich French notables like Charles Aznavour also roost. In fact, despite a quintessentially French name, Jean-Claude's background includes Swiss German on his father's side, and Belgian, Swiss German, and Swiss-French Huguenot on his mother's, with perhaps Irish in there as well (Kelly putatively becoming Killy).

Val d'Isere, where Jean-Claude grew up in the late forties and early fifties, wasn't just an ideal place for a budding skier to mature, though one hears tales of the precocious three-year-old skiing off his snowbound house roof! It was also the last of village France, with palpable limits, yet freedom from ephemeral diversions. Killy attended the republican lay school staffed by a tough, but fair instituteur, who gave kids two afternoons a week to ski, and pushed Killy to jump farther and farther when he began competing in other parts of the region. Val's priest who supervised catechism at a quarter to 12 each day was himself a superb skier, and in his robe tracked a young Killy evading religion on the slopes.

This was then an unchic, isolated spot (especially when electricity blew out for days) of no more than several hundred inhabitants, where everyone knew everyone, but where mountain insularity and argot began ceding before 'Chinese' outlanders who like Killy's parents, had come to settle there. Val was well behind stations de ski like Chamonix that it would later surpass. But there were Savoyard fondues and cheeses about which Jean-Claude would always be particular, and a healthy outdoors life of constant competition on rudimentary, leg-breaking skis to keep a young boy busy and mostly happy.

Speaking of food, his father and mother tried to make a go of a little restaurant there, and it was perhaps due to his father's lack of business acumen, among other traits, that Killy's mother ran off one day, leaving three children behind, in favour of another lover. For this to happen in 1953 when Jean-Claude was ten was, to say the least, scandalous, but also an important event in his character formation. Keeping the hurt inside, Killy henceforth learned in an existential manner to rely on no one but himself, and toughened his hide.

He was then packed off to a prison-like boarding school, and, like so many future geniuses, couldn't stand most subjects there, except geography, which made him dream of wider horizons, a la Saint-Exupery, his favourite author.

Some believe that Killy simply took out his psychological pain on the slopes, trying to win at all events. That he would also become a topflight business type was maybe an unconscious need to make up for his own father's want in that domain as well. …

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