Killy, Jean-Claude

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Jean-Claude Killy


French skier

Downhill ski racer Jean-Claude Killy won the first World Cup overall title in 1967, and took gold medals in all three alpine races at the 1968 Olympic Games. He was instrumental in organizing the 1982 Olympic Games in Albertville, France, and is a member of the International Olympic Committee. He also founded a successful ski apparel company.

"I Was Always Called by the Outdoors"

Killy's father, Robert Killy, was a Spitfire pilot for the Free French during World War II. At the close of the war, he and his wife Madeleine, along with their four-year-old daughter, France, and their two-year-old son, Jean-Claude, moved to the village of Val d'Isere, France, and opened a small ski shop. The village, historically a pocket of deep poverty, had been revived in the 1930s when a skier named Charles Diebold opened a ski school there.

Killy grew up in Val d'Isere, where skiing was a local pastime. He told Sebastian Coe in the London Daily Telegraph that he began skiing at the age of three, as did everyone else in Val d'Isere. "If you didn't ski they thought you were strange. There was nothing else to do, no swimming pools, no television. I knew nothing about the outside world. I had no plans; life was simplygoing to school, eating and skiing."

According to William Oscar Johnson in Sports Illustrated, Killy often sped down a mountain, "pursued by a priest on skis, robes flapping, because he had cut catechism class." Killy told Coe that this priest "was probably the best skier I came across for several years, but he never caught me."

Killy's younger brother, Mic, was born in 1950. Shortly afterward their mother, Madeleine, left the family and moved to the southern Alps, where she had a relationship with another man. Killy told Johnson, "I have no explanation for what happened. We never really established a relationship after she left. It was very painful to find yourself at seven or eight, a little boy by himself." Although Killy's father tried to make up for the loss, he was unable to handle the three children, and Killy was sent to a boarding school in Chambery, eighty miles away. Used to the freedom of the mountains, he hated being enclosed in the school and felt like he was suffocating in the classrooms there. "I was always called by the outdoors," he told Johnson. He skipped classes often, hitchhiking back to Val d'Isere to ski.

In 1957, Robert Killy remarried; his new wife, Renee, developed a warm relationship with Killy. However, he still refused to attend school, and when he was fifteen, his father allowed him to drop out.

When Killy was fourteen he broke his leg at a downhill ski competition in Cortina, Italy, but by the time he was sixteen, in 1960, he was chosen for the French national ski team. That was the same year he heard about the Olympics; when he saw newsreels of the Squaw Valley Olympics, he realized that he too could become a world-class ski racer.

In the 1960-1961 season, Killy won the slalom, giant slalom, downhill, and combined gold medals in the French junior championships. His joy over these wins was tempered by sadness later in 1961, when he was driving a borrowed car, skidded, and overturned it on an icy road in Morzine, France. His best friend, who was sitting in the passenger seat, was crushed and killed. At the time, Killy did not even have a license to drive.

Even at a young age, Killy had a notably businesslike attitude toward skiing. He told Johnson, "I always believed that skiing was serious, that it was a way of living, a whole life." He noted that one of his friends was a better skier than he was, but did not believe that skiing could form the backbone of one's life. "He went down in the valley somewhere and began driving a truck," Killy told Johnson.


1943Born August 30, in St-Cloud, France
1945Moves to Val d'Isere with his family
1946Learns to ski at age three
1950Killy's mother, Madeleine, leaves the family
1957Killy's father remarries
1958Drops out of high school
1960Chosen for French national ski team
1960-61Wins slalom, giant slalom, downhill, and combined gold medals at French junior championships
1961Wins first international race, a giant slalom, at Val d'Isere
1962Misses world championships because of a broken leg
1962Serves in Algeria with French Army
1962Competes, but earns no medals in Olympics
1966Wins downhill and combined at world championships
1966-67Wins 23 of 30 races, including the World Cup overall title
1967-68Experiences a slump, winning only one of six World Cup races
1968Wins gold medals in downhill, giant slalom, and slalom at the Grenoble Olympics
1968-77Travels widely, promoting products; races cars; stars in a film, and launches other ventures
1972Meets Daniele Gaubert
1973Marries Gaubert
1977Founds Veleda, a ski apparel company
1981Becomes involved with COJO
1986Albertville, France wins bid for 1992 Winter Olympics
1987Becomes co-president of COJO but resigns shortly afterward
1987Gaubert dies of cancer
1988Returns to COJO as co-president
1992Helps oversee 1992 Olympic Games in Albertville
1995-presentMember of the International Olympic Committee

Despite his pragmatic approach to skiing, Killy was also reckless. His coach, Honore Bonnet, told Johnson that Killy was often in the lead during a race, but lost control and fell in the final seconds. "I reminded him that if he wished ever to win he would have to arrange to also finish. But at the time I believed this young man had everything. Eventually I was proved right."

Killy won his first international race in 1961, after being ranked 39th; it was a giant slalom, held on his home mountain of Val d'Isere. Although Bonnet chose Killy to compete in the giant slalom at the 1962 world championships, Killy broke his leg in a fall three weeks before the competition began.

In 1962, Killy had also spent a summer doing compulsory service with the French army in Algeria, and he had contracted amebic dysentery and hepatitis. Although he competed in the 1962 Olympics, these ailments weakened him, and he did not place in any of the events he enteredthe downhill, the special slalom, or the giant slalom.

Killy won the downhill and the combined at the world championships in 1966. During 1966-1967, he won twenty-three of thirty races, including all five World Cup downhill races; this was the first World Cup overall title.

After this great year, Killy considered retiring from the sport while he was still at the top of his form, but he kept skiing, with his eye on the 1968 Olympics. The 1967-1968 season was a bad one for Killy, who won only one of the six World Cup races before the Olympics.

Three Gold Medals

At the 1968 Olympics, held in Grenoble, France, Killy lost all the wax on his skis during a warmup run for the downhill, and felt that he was sure to lose. Nevertheless, he leaped out of the start and took every possible risk to make his descent faster. He also knew that if he cut a sharp line near the finish, he could gain a couple of meters, but he had never practiced this move because he didn't want any of the other skiers to learn about it. As he sped down the mountain, his intervals became slower as the few remaining bits of wax on his skis wore off. His shortcut saved him, giving him a .08 of a second lead over the second-place winner, Guy Perillat of France.

Killy followed his gold medal in the downhill with gold medals in the giant slalom and the slalom. The slalom course was obscured by a dense fog, and Killy's win was somewhat controversial: two other skiers had a faster time, but it turned out that in the fog, they had both missed gates on the course. Arguments ensued, but in the end, Killy had the gold. He was only the second skier ever to win gold medals in all three events; the only other person who had accomplished this was Austrian Toni Sailer, in the 1956 Olympics.

After Killy's wins, he wanted to go home to Val d'Isere, and he asked the mayor there if he could have a job as a representative of the local office of tourism. The mayor said that the salary Killy wanted, $1,000 a month, was too high and there was no room for him. "Then," Killy told Johnson, "my life took care of itself."

Killy signed a contract with agent Mark McCormack of the International Management Group (IMG). Before signing, he warned McCormack that he hated traveling and meeting strangers at cocktail parties. By 1990, he told Johnson, he had visited 55 countries on hundreds of trips, and had met almost as many strangers as someone campaigning for the American presidency.

In addition to trying his skill as a car racer, Killy made commercials, became a professional ski racer in the United States, and made two television series. One, The Killy Style, was a thirteen-week series that showcased various ski resorts, and the other, The Killy Challenge, featured him racing against celebrities, who were all given handicaps. He was also sponsored by a champagne company, Moet Chandon, which paid him to be seen with a bottle of their champagne on his table everywhere he went.

In 1972, Killy made a movie, Snow Job, which Johnson described as "a stinker." Johnson also noted that a Time reviewer wrote, "Waxing romantic or working out plans for an elaborate robbery, Jean-Claude always manages to sound as if he were making a half-hearted pitch for Chap Stick." Killy, perhaps realizing that his acting talent was not equal to his skiing ability, stayed out of the movies from then on.

However, Killy did reap one benefit from his film experience: his costar, Daniele Gaubert, became his wife on November 2, 1973, in a private ceremony in Archamps, France. Killy adopted Gaubert's two children from an earlier marriage, Maria-Daniele and Rhadames, and the couple later had a daughter, Emilie.

Awards and Accomplishments

1960-61Wins slalom, giant slalom, downhill, and combined gold medals at French junior championships
1961Wins first international race, a giant slalom, at Val d'Isere
1966Wins downhill and combined at world championships
1966-67Wins 23 of 30 races, including the World Cup overall title
1968Wins gold medals in downhill, giant slalom, and slalom at the Grenoble Olympics

Where Is He Now?

Killy, who lives in Switzerland, continues his work as a member of the International Olympic Committee. Although he is still active, he told John Fry in Ski that he believes it is time for him to retire from "the front line" and that although he spent a great deal of his life traveling and meeting people, he has a more private side that he would like to have time to enjoy.

Most recently, Killy was a member of the sponsorship committee for the 9th IAAF World Championships in Athletics, held in Paris in 2003. On the Web site for the event, he noted, "I am proud to be playing a role in this great adventure and I expect [the championships] to be a great festival for world athletics and for the people of France."

Killy told Johnson, "She was the love of my life, the girl of my life for 20 years. I was going to retire with my

wife and live forever, well organized and with enough money, forever."

Killy left McCormack in 1977 and began a ski apparel company, Veleda S.A., in Paris. By 1987 it was making $35 million. With his father and brother, he also owned three ski shops in Val d'Isere.

Olympic Work Behind the Scenes

In 1981, Killy became involved with the campaign to bring the Olympic Games to the small town of Albertville, France, which had no ski area and no particular attractions. This project, called Le Comite d'Organisation des Jeux Olympiques (COJO), would occupy him for more than a decade, as it involved such huge tasks as improving the infrastructure and building new roads and rail lines in the region, which historically had been one of the most disorganized in France. Working with local politician Michel Barnier, Killy and other supporters traveled worldwide to promote the idea, visiting every member of the International Olympic Committee at least once. Killy told Johnson that at the beginning of this venture, he was so inexperienced that he thought lobbying "meant hanging around hotel lobbies and leaping out from behind the potted palms to talk to people." Killy's fame as a skier from the Albertville region proved to be helpful in convincing people that it was a plausible site for the Olympics.

In 1984, the Albertville backers were dismayed to hear that Paris was launching a bid to host the 1992 Summer Olympics. This would be disastrous, because the Winter and Summer Olympics in any one year were never held in the same country. The Paris campaign, led by French prime minister Jacques Chirac, was a powerful opponent to Killy and his team. However, the president of the International Olympic Committee, Juan Antonio Samaranch of Spain, was an even more powerful opponent of the Paris bid, and it soon became clear that the Summer Olympics would be held in Barcelona, Spain. Chirac then endorsed the Albertville bid, and in 1986, Albertville won the position of host for the 1992 Olympics.

In January of 1987, Killy immediately became the center of a controversy when he announced a plan to cut costs for the Olympics, moving events from one venue to another, leaving some villages with no events. Killy, who was under a great deal of stress because his wife had been diagnosed with cancer, became furious at the arguments that ensued, and resigned from his position as co-president of COJO with Barnier on January 29, 1987.

Killy's dream of a long and happy life with his beloved wife was tragically cut short when Gaubert died of cancer later in 1987, on November 3. It was one day after their fourteenth wedding anniversary. Her death impressed Killy with the idea that life is short and one should live fully, in every moment.

Both Chirac and Samaranch convinced Killy to return to COJO, and he returned as co-president on March 11, 1988. In the meantime, many of the old arguments against him had died off. Killy signed a contract with IMG to promote the Olympics, and by 1990 COJO had $100 million in its treasury.

At the 1992 Albertville Olympics, most of the men's alpine events were held at Val d'Isere, where the mountainside was renamed "l'Espace Killy," or "Killy's area," in honor of its most famous skier. Killy, as co-president of the Albertville venture, had to resort to flying a helicopter to survey this huge domain, spread out over many different villages.

In 1995, Killy became a member of the International Olympic Committee, which oversees the Olympic Games. He was also president of the Tour de France bicycle race and the Paris-to-Dakar auto rally.

Summing up his philosophy of life, Killy told John Fry in Ski, "Win some, lose some. The object is to win more than you lose, but never give up. Every youngkid who worked with me, I told him to find the answer, not to complain, just find the answer, please. There is one, always."


Address: 13 Chemin Bellefontaine, 1223 Cologny, Geneva, Switzerland.


One Hundred Thirty-Three Skiing Lessons, DBI Books, 1975.

Jean-Claude Killy's Guide to Skiing, Barron's, 1981.



Coe, Sebastian. "Killy Too Much His Own Man to Step Into Samaranch's Shoes: Monday Interview." Daily Telegraph (London, England) (April 16, 2001).

Johnson, William Oscar. "A Man and His Kingdom." Sports Illustrated (February 12, 1990): 206.

"Killy Completes Ski Triple After Protest Refused." Washington Post (February 18, 1966): C1.


Fry, John. "In His View: Jean-Claude Killy." Ski (November, 2001). 15, 2002).

Fry, John. "Killy's Kingdom." Ski (October, 2002). 26, 2002).

IAAF World Championships in Athletics, Paris 2003 St. Denis. 26, 2002).

Mojon, Jean-Marc. "Olympic Skier Jean-Claude Killy." Christian Science Monitor (November 4, 1999), 26, 2002).

Sketch by Kelly Winters