ALBERTVILLE, France -- In the village of Val d'Isere, they knew of the special grace and stubborn individualism of an 8-year-old child named Jean-Claude Killy.
It was a different place seven years after German occupiers were routed in World War II, a slow-paced town still awakening to the world beyond the next mountain. There were no boutiques stuffed with $400 fuchsia-and-black ski outfits, no restaurants with $40 lunch specials, no $200,000 condos.
There wasn't even a television set.
In the hard-bitten hamlet in the Savoie region of France, shepherds worked sunup to sundown, grazing cattle on wind-swept land nestled in the Alps.
The Killys were newcomers to the isolated valley of snow, transplants from the Alsace region come to begin a new life working in a fledgling ski industry. The "Chinese," they were called derisively by the descendants of the six founding families of Val d'Isere.
But there was something about the child even then. Each day after school, and sometimes even during school, Killy would strap on wooden skis and schuss with the wind through the trees and down Tete de Soliase, a mountain at the edge of the village. He would look up to the lift and pick out a chair and then race it to the bottom: a shy, limber child matching strength against an engine, a cable and a chair.
"I was so small," Killy said. "The mountain looked so big. And then, one day, I beat the chair down the mountain."
In the next decade, he would grow up and rule skiing, becoming a national hero by winning three gold medals at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France. And then, even later, he would reach the summit of all sport by bringing one of the world's great athletic prizes to his home.
The 16th Olympic Winter Games that begin Feb. 8 in Albertville are Killy's Games. This man is no dim figurehead sitting on a dais, waiting to give the speeches and sign the autographs, while the deal-makers do the hard work in the back room. He is no superstar clinging to the past. From the beginning, he has shaped the course of this $725 million event that will draw more than 2,000 athletes, lure more than 1 million spectators and be seen by more than 2 billion television viewers.
You see, after all these years, Killy finally said he never loved the adulation or the money that went with the triumphs. Killy never forgot the days when he chased the chair down the mountain. It was the race that intrigued him then, as it does now -- the idea that he could push himself across a fine line that separated winners from losers.
"I never liked the skiing," he said. "What I liked was the competition."
No, Jean-Claude Killy would never lose.
Center of attention
He walks into a room and seizes attention. At 48, he is still the athlete and the star, even though he appears diminished by time. The pale skin on his face is weathered from years spent racing in freezing weather under a bright sun. His brown hair is thinning.
But he is a man who lives up to the image that entranced the America of the 1960s -- the dashing, international star with a debonair accent. His blue, double-breasted sport coat is tailored perfectly to his trim physique, his black loafers are neatly shined and his gray slacks, white French-cuffed shirt and red tie are uncreased.
He remains very much the embodiment of his sport and his country. Picture a skier and you see Killy, all elegance and courage, a man alone hurtling down a mountain. And, of course, Killy is France, a cultured hero for the television age.
But he is tired, very tired.
For more than 10 years, Killy has been consumed by the Olympics. Ever since he took the first tentative steps to bring the Games to his home, sitting in a cafe in 1981 with his friend, Michel Barnier, and writing notes on a napkin, Killy has worked for these Games. He and Barnier, a local, boy-wonder politician, serve as co-presidents of the local organizing committee, COJO. They have brokered political compromises and raised millions of dollars in endorsements, all in a bid to prepare the Savoie to greet the world.
And it all started because of the roads.
To understand Killy and the Savoie, you must understand the terrain of this slice of France that sits near the Italian and Swiss borders. The mountains produced isolation and poverty. It wasn't until 1937 that Val d'Isere even was linked to the valleys below by the Iseran road. The idea for a ski industry blossomed two years later, but was placed on hold by World War II.
"The people of this region are very discreet," Killy said. "They don't spend much. They work hard. They've been poor so long. They needed something."
As recently as two years ago, traffic jams of 13 hours or more were not uncommon as vacationers clogged the 1 1/2 -lane road that curved and dipped through the Alps.
The Olympics would bring new roads and expanded train service to the Savoie. The roads would bring more tourists and more money.