ROSA KHUTOR, Russia, Feb 13 (Reuters) - An Austrian flyer with a downhill gold medal from his first Olympics at the age of 23, Matthias Mayer will surely go down as one of the ski-mad nation’s greats.
Not so fast, says Franz Klammer whose hair-raising romp to gold at the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck is still regarded as one of the greatest ski runs in history.
“Yes, the Olympic gold medal lasts forever but skiing-wise, for an Austrian downhiller, you have to win at Kitzbuehel,” Klammer told Reuters at the Tyrolean-style Austria House in Rosa Khutor, complete with oompah bands, log fires and lederhosen.
“To consider yourself one of the greats you have to win there. He has to do it - but Matthias has lots of time on his side, he’s only 23, and I‘m sure he will.”
Klammer, now 60, won three years in a row (1975-77) on the infamous Streif course in Kitzbuehel, skiing’s equivalent of Formula One’s Monaco Grand Prix, and he cemented his standing when he won there again in 1984, aged 30.
Before grabbing gold on Sunday, Mayer had never won a World Cup race and in three attempts at Kitzbuehel he has finished 40th, 16th and 11th.
Klammer, who said he grew up on “the same mountain” as Mayer, believes claiming that Olympic gold so early in his career can catapult Mayer to greatness.
“I think he can go on to win more,” said Klammer, who rates Mayer as a favourite for the super-G here.
”It’s the start of his career, he’s only 23 and he has so many things ahead of him. He can have a huge World Cup career and also a great Olympics and world championships career.
”The pressure is off him now, the first one is the most difficult, the second one is easier when you’re in good shape.
“I was 22 when I won in ‘76. Young kids have the strength, the flexibility and are not pushing themselves. They are just doing it and having fun, that’s the mentality.”
Arms flailing, at times defying the laws of gravity on one ski and apparently heading for a fall, Klammer trademarked his unique hell-for-leather style when winning gold in Innsbruck.
Mayer did things a little differently down the technical Rosa Khutor course which required a more delicate touch.
“He is the Olympic champion and he deserves it,” Klammer said. “He was the smartest and the coolest guy on the day.”
But how would Klammer have fared down the same track?
”Skiing has totally changed. The equipment has changed dramatically, the style of skiing is a little bit different, sometimes a little smoother but you still have to win.
”You still have to hit every turn, if you mess up one turn it was bad in 1976 and it’s still bad now.
“I might have skied it a bit different though.”
Klammer, who moved into sportscar racing after hanging up his ski boots, said he saw similarities between himself in his prime and Austria’s new kid on the block.
”We come from the same mountain, me on one side and him on the other side,“ he said. ”My speciality, I guess, was finding some time when it’s not there and he showed he could do that with maybe one special turn.
“That’s what you need to be a champion.”
Asked what advice he had for his compatriot, Klammer said: ”He is behaving just about right, he’s having fun and when it’s time to concentrate he is concentrating.
“It’s a huge pride for an Austrian because we are a downhill nation. I heard there was a good party here on Sunday. If you ski fast, you have to party fast.” (Additional reporting by Alan Baldwin and Annika Breidthardt; Editing by Robert Woodward)