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By performing such stunts as leaping from a balcony in the midst of The Great Kandahar Water Fight and by attacking downhill and slalom courses like Batman, Jean-Claude Killy of France is earning a reputation as skiing's No. 1 clown—as well as its No. 1 racer

He has the lonely, soulful, semitragic, slightly tortured, sit-down-and-I-will-tell-you-some-stories-of-betrayal-and-suffering look that instantly makes most women 5-to-1 underdogs. He is young and unappalled and as French as truffles in your scrambled eggs. The way he is at 22, with his obsessional love of speed and daring and with his fool-hardy nature and that look of his—the Jean-Paul Belmondo look (see cover)—you get illusions just seeing him. You get the idea that if he had come along 25 years earlier he would surely have been one of those Frenchmen who stuck knives in Gestapo agents, tapped out radio messages to the Allies from a reeking Paris cellar and left Mich√®le Morgan dripping tears on her loaf of bread by a foggy bank on the Seine. But Jean-Claude Killy is fighting a far less dramatic war. It is the simple war of men on skis against snow on mountains, and the thing you should know about him right off is that he is probably the best ski racer in the world just now.

The world of Alpine racing, in which Killy not only excels but clowns and cavorts, is one of the most glamorous in sport. The scenery is nifty, the clothes are niftier and the villages where a lot of the big races occur—Kitzb√ºhel, Meg√®ve, Sun Valley—all sound like the ideal spots to meet Her or Him and to see a whole pile of shahs, princesses, novelists, artists and dukes. And there is some of that. But it is also a world that operates in confusion, jealousy, backwardness and mismanagement and too often seems impossible to understand and follow, much less govern. To know Killy better and what he has achieved and where he might be heading in his own French way, you should know something about the racing scene.

The primary nations involved are France, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Canada and the U.S., and they have no great liking for each other in the sport (if indeed in anything else). All of them are constantly claiming to have the best in resorts, equipment, instructions, rules, clothes, attitudes, trails and, at times, blondes. As a consequence, a regular annual schedule of races has never really been established to give the sport a continuity, to give the athlete, competing against hundredths of seconds on a clock, a chance to blaze an unarguable record, and a nation a chance to grab a clear supremacy. Reputations either schuss or snowplow, unfortunately, on what happens in the Winter Olympics every four years. On the even year between Olympics there are the FIS (Fédération Internationale de Ski) world championships (they will be held this August in faraway Portillo, Chile) and a scattering of Lauberhorns, Hahnenkamms and Kandahars—and a lot more arguing.

The point is, a ski racer has too few major opportunities to prove himself a giant, and when he does—when a Toni Sailer comes along, or a Christian Pravda, an Emile Allais or a Stein Eriksen—it is judged to be a phenomenon to equal the buckled boot. Jean-Claude Killy is everybody's choice to be the next phenomenon.

"Poof," says Killy to this, blowing through his lips. "I ski and see what happens."

Last year was what skiing called an off year, meaning there were no truly big meets (is it asking too much for Alpine racing to stage a world championship every year?), but Jean-Claude won just about everything there was to win. He won the big ones at Kitzb√ºhel, Meg√®ve, Davos and Vail—and a lot of things called Coupe des Pays Alpins and such—and when it was over, the FIS rated him first in slalom, first in giant slalom and sixth in downhill. Shy of an Olympic or FIS gold medal, Killy was as good as he could be.

This winter he has done nothing to prove the judges wrong. In a sense, it is another off winter, because the world championships in August are so insanely far away—thank you, FIS—but after trading victories early with America's Billy Kidd, the wiry Frenchman has moved ahead, and Kidd, woe unto U.S. skiing again, has reinjured a chronically weak ankle.

The box score on Jean-Claude Killy through seven major meets of 1966 is a dandy. He began in his home Alps of Val d'Isère in a meet called the Criterion of the First Snow and promptly won the downhill, the giant slalom and the combined, having placed second in the slalom. (For nonskiers, combined means the best total time for all events.) Then Billy Kidd arrived.

At Hindelang, a remote lump of hills in Germany, Killy and Kidd exchanged slalom victories, but the American was best in combined, after Jean-Claude, who races down a course as if Sophia Loren were waiting at the finish, fell. Next came Adelboden in Switzerland, a giant slalom meet. They again traded first places in two races, but again Kidd won the combined when Killy hooked a gate and crashed.

Suddenly now Kidd, not Killy, seemed to deserve all of the attention in Europe, and you would normally think that it would bother the Frenchman. But enter, forthwith, a strange yet important facet of Jean-Claude's personality: that of a clown. When the racers moved on to Wengen, Switzerland for the Lauberhorn meet, Kidd was favored and Killy was fresh from two spills. That was the situation three nights before the races proper when the Lauberhorn officials staged a ski jump on a small 100-foot hill for fun, to entertain the tourists. Killy entered.

"He does that to psych the other racers," said Billy Kidd. "He especially wants the Austrians to think he isn't serious about the races."

Killy jumped with his number tied around his neck and his socks pulled out over his pants. As he soared into the cold night air of Wengen under the full flood lights, he dropped his pants to his knees, and the horrified gasp that greeted this clownish act could be heard, you felt, as far away as Interlaken in the valley below.

Afterward Killy, being proudly slapped about by his French pals—Guy Périllat, Jules Melquiond, Michel Arpin—lit a cigar, put on a small billed taxi driver's cap backward and strode away, leaving a flock of psyched racers behind. Killy did not win the Lauberhorn slalom (he was sixth), but neither did Kidd, who fell, and neither did Killy's foremost adversaries, the Austrians. Périllat did.

The next stop for the racers was the lively town of Kitzbühel for the Hahnenkamm meet. Killy and Kidd both starred in different ways. Kidd raced a surprisingly gutty downhill, placing third, only 8/10 of a second behind that durable winner of downhills, Austria's Karl Schranz. It was the best downhill race by an American in seven years. Killy flashed to the slalom victory.

It was in the slalom that Billy Kidd crashed and injured his ankle, thus temporarily ending the brief but exciting rivalry between the American and the Frenchman. It will be renewed next month at Stowe, when Killy and the other first-class Europeans come to the U.S. for our national championships, and then at Sun Valley for the Werner Cup (American International team races). After Kidd limped home to rest up for three weeks Jean-Claude won a giant slalom in Bad Weise, Germany and a special slalom at Megève. Overall, Killy has now started in 14 separate races and has won exactly seven of them, plus two combines. Slowly he has overpowered Kidd, who won two race victories and two combined championships before he was temporarily sidelined. Schranz has won three race victories and three combined championships.

Throughout all of the competition the difference in styles of the three racers has been clearly etched into the white Alps. The French and Americans are still reckless, and the Austrians are still conservative. While Killy and Kidd do not look the same as they blur down a course, they have more in common with each other than they do with the Austrians. Schranz, who is 27 and has nine hard racing years behind him, skis like a typical Austrian racer. He is cautious and steady, assumes a stand-up posture and relies heavily on the strength in his legs and his vast experience and confidence to carry him through. Killy and Kidd are also distinctive. Kidd is smooth and flows. Killy is bouncy and plunges. They both try to take the corners and the curves and the gates faster in a win-or-nothing attitude. The Austrian strategy seems to be to let the others fall.

"It is nothing new," says Killy. "I have always skied this way, double or nothing, and I know the Americans are coached that way, too."

Like any ski racer who may one day be the head of a school of instructors or own his own pension, or even his own mountain, Killy likes to think he has a special style or secret way of getting down a slope and that he is calculatingly doing something dark and mysterious that others are not doing. He talks of his serpent method, in which, he says, he keeps his skis flat on the trail and eliminates edging, and his cramponnage method, which hangs him higher at a gate, reducing the swing of a turn, keeping him directly down the hill. But you cannot watch him race and believe that he does anything but ski like hell in an acrobatic, diving, recovering, jerking fashion. Absolutely natural, the way he has done it since he fastened on his first pair of skis at the age of 3 in Val d'Isère.

Broad-shouldered, but lean and hard at 5 feet 10 and 161 pounds, Killy is the easiest of all racers to identify from a distance when he is spinning down a slalom. He will twist his hips like a good Watusi dancer, suddenly skate through a gate, just as suddenly carve too wide, recover, bounce, then shoot like a jagged bolt of lightning through a flush (a series of close gates), come out of it off balance, regain, speed up, carve again and skate through the finish, almost lunging, the gate poles all wiggling behind him where he has half brushed them and half torn them out of the snow. This is a secret method?

Off the racing slopes Jean-Claude Killy does do things differently, and a lot of them give him more color and allure than his slalom technique. He drives sports cars the way he skis, and he has owned six different cars. He has also managed to wreck each one, including a Porsche and two Alfa Romeos. Between these, he has owned a Peugeot-404 three times but, inasmuch as he has a not-so-silent yearning to be a race car driver one day if he ever quits skiing, he finds the serviceable Peugeot "too bourgeois" and prefers something fast and streamlined.

Killy's interest in automobile racing goes back almost as far as his interest in skiing. His uncle, Cyril de Ridder, has for years been chief of security for the Le Mans race, and Killy cannot remember when he hasn't attended the race as a spectator. "Driving and skiing have much in common," Jean-Claude says, meaning speed and crashing, one assumes.

Killy has discovered bullfighting, too. Last summer he was invited by a television station to spend a week in Nîmes, in the south of France, loitering with many of Spain's best matadors, watching them practice and, in general, just being around the sport. Killy developed an immediate liking for it, and was in the middle of the bull ring with a red cape fighting cows before he went back to the Alps.

"Ah, oui," he says in a slow, rather deep and velvety voice. "I fought not the big ones, but not the little ones, either. I fought middle-size ones, but they had horns—big ones, yes—and once I got gored. My left arm, right here. Ah, what a sport! It is dangerous, yes, but for a skier it was good for the nerves. Or very bad, yes?"

It is difficult to find many sports or hobbies that Killy does not like, or has not participated in, under the pretense of helping his skiing. He practices yoga, among other things, in the solitude of his rooms, believing that it helps keep him limber and his muscles relaxed. In summer he likes to take a bicycle to the top of a mountain in Val d'Isère and speed downward as fast as possible. "It gets you accustomed to the high speeds of downhill skiing, I think," says he. And he enjoys water skiing, soccer, tennis, hiking and romping through woods, which, he says, help him develop balance. "Dodging the trees and rocks, you see," he says.

However, it is difficult to understand how Killy finds time to do any of these things, since in Val d'Isère you can ski about 10 months out of the year and Killy is rarely off his skis. All of which points out the big difference between a racer raised among the peaks of the Alps and the kind the U.S. tries to manufacture in colleges.

"There was always only one thing in my life as a boy," Jean-Claude says. "That was skiing. I wish I could have continued school and skiing, the way the Americans do, but I believe that each one suffers. I quit school at 15. The biggest grief in my life is that I have not had more education. That is why I try to read books often. To fill in, yes? But always I remember that when my teacher would ask what I wanted to be when I grew up, I replied, 'Ski champion.' From the age of 15 I have devoted everything to that."

At the Bergerie, the hotel owned by Killy's father at Val d'Is√®re, about a four-hour drive from Geneva—perhaps only two and a half hours for Jean-Claude in a sports car—there are mementos of Jean-Claude's travels and achievements. He lives in the basement of the Bergerie with his books and skis and hi-fi and his boomerang from Australia, his record albums from the U.S., his beads from Tahiti, a lot of funny hats and caps and maps, trophies, pins and patches, souvenirs not only from skiing but from having done 18 months in the French army in Algeria (where he caught jaundice) and from having been a frontier customs guard in Chamonix (where he caught tourists).

Val d'Isère is one of the better ski resorts in the Alps, and it has produced not only Killy but those wonderfully rowdy sisters, Marielle and Christine Goitschel. Since they both won gold medals in the last Olympics, Marielle has become the foremost girl skier in the world, practically unbeatable. At times she is as big a clown as Killy, and once, at Innsbruck, she shocked the press by announcing as a private joke that she and Jean-Claude were engaged.

"We have known each other since children," Killy says. "Often we ski together. She is a great competitor, and, ah, sometimes she acts crazy, no?"

The Bergerie, in the middle of Val d'Isère, is built of pine, stone and cement. It rises three floors, with a front balcony, and has 17 rooms, a French flag draped below a steep, slate roof and trout swimming in an aquarium in the dining room. It is a popular place, and just the kind Jean-Claude's father had wanted to own since the time he left Saint-Cloud, a Paris suburb, after World War II. Jean-Claude was born in Saint-Cloud in 1943 while his father was a combat pilot for the Allies. The family moved to Val d'Isère in 1946 and struggled along for 15 years while Robert Killy operated first a sporting goods store, then a small restaurant, and spent his spare time wondering where Jean-Claude was. He was skiing "far too much," says the father. "I once had to demand that the lift operators not let Toutoune [a nickname Jean-Claude cannot shed] go up more than two or three times in a day. From the age of 3, he would disappear on his skis for hours. I always thought he would become a great skier. He was a natural. Usually a boy wins his chamois medal at the age of 13 or 14. Toutoune won his at 9. Even then he was skiing slalom only one second behind the instructors."

No one can ski as much or as recklessly as Killy does and not break a few things, so he has done that, too. At 14 he broke his left leg in a junior slalom in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, and in 1962, shortly before the world championships, Killy broke his right leg in a downhill race—again at Cortina.

"I have many scars from skiing," he says, "but you cannot worry and do well. One thing I would like to do is race again at Cortina and break this time the jinx instead of my leg."

Killy believes that one of the nicest things that has happened to him through ski racing is his close friendship with the Americans, particularly with Jimmy Heuga. Killy and Heuga became friends in 1964, before, during and after the Winter Olympics, as the teams frequently traveled together and lived together. Then Killy spoke no English, except the little Heuga taught him, and Heuga spoke no French, except what Jean-Claude taught him.

But Killy needed few words for the kind of pranks he and the Americans both enjoy. One evening during a pre-Olympic race stop in Madonna de Campiglio in the Dolomites, Killy and some other racers shoved a Volkswagen into the lobby of the Golf Hotel there. They thought it was just about the funniest thing that ever happened. During the incident Killy kept leaping around like a monkey and hollering, "Look, Jeemie, look, Jeemie," no doubt hoping to obtain Heuga's approval. He did.

"Killy is really funny," says Heuga. "He doesn't say anything funny, he just acts funny a lot. He really knows himself. He can cut up a lot and still race fantastically."

Killy and Heuga correspond regularly. They have made several trips together, not just around Europe for minor ski races but also in the U.S., where Killy has twice visited his American pal.

"We have much fun, the Americans and the French," says Killy. "We are closer than the others. The Austrians," he says, displaying a long, glum face and straightening his shoulders in imitation of them, "are very serious and quiet. They act like they want to win more than anyone, but that is not true. We all want to win."

An event which probably did more than anything to solidify the friendship of Killy and the Americans occurred in 1964 in Garmisch at the awards banquet for the Kandahar races. This was an important race which followed the Innsbruck Olympics, and it was a joyous one for both the French and Americans. They won everything. Killy won the giant slalom, and Heuga won both the slalom and combined (first time ever for a U.S. skier), and the season was now over. The party in the Garmisch Municipal Theater was lavish. It had a combo, dancing, huge platters of food, wine, speeches and dozens of dignified skiing people, not the least of whom was Sir Arnold Lunn, the elderly "father" of ski racing and originator of the Kandahar, skiing's oldest major event.

Part way through the proceedings Killy was sitting quietly at a table when a stream of water hit him in the face. It had been shot, rather skillfully, from a seltzer bottle two tables away by a U.S. racer named Rip McManus. Killy at first pretended not to know who did it. But in a few moments he got up to receive his award, and as he did so he picked up a seltzer bottle of his own. As he passed Rip's table he let go, straight into McManus' face, and kept walking to the podium. Any casual observer who witnessed all of this playful nonsense and figured it was over simply did not know either Killy or McManus.

When Jean-Claude stepped down from accepting his trophy and started back to his table, he was immediately confronted from behind a pillar by Rip, fully armed. One squirt, then two. Then a couple from Killy. By now all of the French and Americans were laughing riotously, but dozens of others in the big room were totally unaware of the battle in progress. Well, Jean-Claude began chasing McManus, and Rip chased Killy, spewing seltzer water every step. They romped to the top of an overhanging balcony that circled the ballroom, leaped off, one after the other, onto some tables below and continued The Great Kandahar Water Fight over the dance floor, through aisles, around corners, between pillars. In one joyous moment of it the Frenchman, like Belmondo himself, went bounding over the top of Sir Arnold Lunn's table.

The reaction of the British septuagenarian to this indignity is not recorded, but a bold man might guess that the man who invented the slalom felt considerable kinship with the crazy kid who was soon to become the world's best slalom racer—even when Killy was performing his specialty across the slopes of Sir Arnold's ice cream.