Toni Sailer: The most dominant Winter Olympian?

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As the world’s best Alpine skiers gather in Whistler for the Vancouver Olympics, they can only dream of having a Winter Games like Austria’s Anton Sailer had in 1956.

Alpine skiing is an event where winning and losing are almost always decided by hundredths of a second. Fame and fortune can be won or lost in the twinkling of an eye. Not so for Anton “Toni” Sailer, a 20-year-old plumber from Austria, who has to be given serious consideration as the single most dominant athlete in Winter Olympics history.

Sailer was born in Kitzbuhel, Austria, and was called ‘the blitz from Kitz” for his daring style of skiing. After his amazing performance at the 1956 Winter Games in Cortina, Italy, ‘Blitz’ was the perfect nickname. In Sailer’s first event, the giant slalom, the gap between the gold- and silver-medal times was an astonishing 6.2 seconds, which is still the largest margin of victory in the history of Olympic Alpine skiing. To put that into perspective, at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Turin, Italy, 20 competitors finished within 6.2 seconds of the eventual gold-medal winner.


Sailer next competed in the slalom, and again his performance was vastly superior to everyone else’s. He bested the field by a whopping four seconds. In Turin, the difference between gold and silver was barely eight-tenths of a second.

Sailer’s third and final race was the downhill, and it was memorable for more than his incredibly fast time. Just 15 minutes before it was his turn to race down the mountain, he broke a strap that attached his boots to his skis. Because that had never happened to him before, he hadn’t thought of bringing an extra set of straps. In fact, a broken strap was so rare, none of his competitors had extra straps either. Lucky for Sailer, a trainer from the Italian team was kind enough to lend him a pair of his own straps. That kind gesture proved to be historic as Sailer won the downhill by 3.5 seconds to become the first skier in Olympic history to win all three Alpine events.

If you add up all of his winning times, the sum of Sailer’s margins of victory in the three disciplines at the 1956 Winter Games was an astounding total of nearly 14 seconds.

Only one other skier in Olympic history – France’s Jean-Claude Killy – has managed to replicate Sailer’s three-peat, but Killy’s tiny margins of victory reveal just how dominant Sailer’s performance was. At the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France, Killy won the slalom by nine one-hundredths of a second, the giant slalom by 2.2 seconds and the downhill by eight one-hundredths. Killy’s combined margin of victory in all three alpine events was less than 2.5 seconds.

Sweeping the Olympic Alpine events by any margin is an amazing accomplishment; being the first to win all three and doing so with a 14-second cushion is almost impossible to comprehend given the razor-thin margins in today’s Alpine skiing.
Which is why Toni Sailer has to be the most dominant winter Olympian, ever.

-- James Loewen