Before Bode Miller, before Ted Ligety, before Tommy Moe, came the first American men’s champion in Olympics alpine skiing: Oregon’s Bill Johnson.
The 1984 downhill gold-medal winner in Sarajevo died yesterday in Gresham, where he had been in assisted living for several years after a series of strokes. Johnson was 55.
Sarajevo marked a breakthrough for the U.S. ski team, which until then always had been pretty much mediocre in Winter Olympics alpine events.
But in 1984, Yakima’s Phil Mahre won gold in the men’s slalom while twin brother Steve took silver. Seattle’s Debbie Armstrong earned Sarajevo gold in the women’s giant slalom, and Idaho’s Christin Cooper won silver.
And in figure skating, American Scott Hamilton won the men’s singles gold while Edmond’s Rosalynn Sumners took silver.
But it was the brash Johnson whose mad dash gave America its first-ever gold medal in the prestigious downhill race.
“Brash” often preceded Johnson’s name in media reports because of his troubled youth, strong opinions, scuffles with coaches, and for him predicting his Sarajevo victory.
Annoyed at Johnson’s bravado, Austrian Olympic champ Franz Klammer famously called Johnson a “nose picker.”
Americans today, used to star skiing performances by the likes of Lindsey Vonn, Julia Mancuso, Miller, and even Picabo Street in the 1990s, might not grasp the significance Johnson’s Sarajevo gold. But it shook the sports world at the time. Read the Associated Press story.