Austrian skiing great Toni Sailer, who in 1956 became the first skier to win all three Alpine gold medals at a Winter Olympics, died in Innsbruck on Monday after a long illness, his Kitzbuehel Ski Club said. He was 73.
In Austria, where skiing is a national pastime, Sailer's death marked the end of an era. President Heinz Fischer issued a statement paying tribute to Sailer as "a top athlete who already became a legend during his lifetime."
Sailer won the downhill, slalom and giant slalom at the 1956 Cortina d'Ampezzo Olympics in Italy. Just before the downhill event, after he had already won gold in the slalom and giant slalom, Sailer broke the strap connecting his boot to the ski. Without a strap, he would have to withdraw from the race.
None of the other competitors had a spare strap, but Sailer got help from Hansl Senger, the trainer of the Italian ski team. Senger took the strap from his own bindings and gave it to Sailer, who flew down the course 3.5 seconds faster than the second-place finisher.
His winning margins in the other events were also remarkable: 4 seconds in the slalom and 6.2 seconds in the giant slalom. At the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, France, Jean-Claude Killy repeated the triple gold feat in the downhill, slalom and giant slalom, but he won by much slimmer margins.
At the 1956 world championships, also at Cortina, Sailer took gold in the downhill, slalom, giant slalom and combined.
Two years later he also won gold in the downhill, giant slalom and combined, as well as silver in the slalom, at the world championships in Bad Gastein, Austria.
Born in Kitzbuehel in 1935, Sailer reportedly strapped on skis for the first time at age 2. He became known as "the black lightning bolt from Kitz."
After retiring from competition in 1959, Sailer became a singer and an actor. He produced skis in Canada and served as technical director of the Austrian Ski Federation between 1972 and 1976. He also served as the race director of the prestigious Hahnenkamm competition, where he won the downhill race in 1957 and the giant slalom in 1958. In both years, he also won downhill gold at Switzerland's Lauberhorn piste.
Sailer was awarded the Olympic Order by the International Olympic Committee in 1985. In 1999, Sailer was honored as Austria's sportsman of the century.