Émile Allais 1912 - 2012
Ski+board's Arnie Wilson pays tribute to the great French skier
Émile Allais, quite simply the greatest French skier of all time, has died aged 100. He was the very first French world champion and a pioneering French ski instructor and pisteur.
By the time his “successor” Jean-Claude Killy was born, in 1943, Allais had already won four gold medals and four silver (all in the World Championships of 1935, ‘37 and ‘38) and bronze in the infamous 1936 Winter Olympics at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, where he met Hitler. "He came to congratulate me and we shook hands” he recalled. “He looked harmless enough. When I realised later who he really was, it was a strange feeling."
Although a collision with a snowboarder when he was 90 broke his shoulder, Allais continued skiing, even betting his heart doctor that they would descend the celebrated Vallée Blanche together on his 100th birthday. But it was not to be.
His two daughters, Karen and Kathleen, were both regulars in the French national team.
Allais’ biographer, Gilles Chappaz said: “It’s the glacier blue eyes you notice first. They hold your attention and don’t leave you…the white hair contrasting with a ski instructor's tan. He had everything: la chance, le flair, le feeling, le talent.”
Four times world champion, he was also behind many technological innovations in equipment and technique, daring to depart from the almost sacrosanct “Arlberg” method devised by the great Austrian innovator Hannes Schneider. Allais established the École du Ski Français (ESF), the largest ski school in the world, which has branches in every French ski resort.
He also came up with the Allais 60 – Rossignol’s first metal skis, used to devastating effect by Jean Vuarnet in the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley.
Allais was also an important influence on the development of the classic French ski resorts of Méribel, Courchevel, La Plagne and Flaine.
In 1917, his uncle, Hilaire Morand, a mountain guide, returned from the Russian front with a pair of skis, and started teaching wealthy tourists how to ski. He made a pair for young Émile.
Allais took part in his first ski race in 1929, and “loved the sense of speed and freedom.”
His racing career was interrupted in 1932 by a year’s national service in the 27th Bataillon de Chasseurs Alpins, the crack French ski troops.
When he returned to ski racing, he found it even more bewitching. “At St Moritz in 1933, I arrived late at my hotel and I was introduced to everybody, including beautiful women in evening dress” he said. “I had never seen such clothes, and asked my team captain ‘Why are they in their night gowns?’ I had entered a new world.”
In 1934, he earned his first victory - in the “Combined” event on the Hahnenkamm at Kitzbühel - the first major French victory in history. The following year, at the FIS World Championships, he finished a narrow second. He was second again in 1936, in the celebrated Lauberhorn race at Wengen.
At the notorious 1936 Olympics in Garmisch, he won bronze in the Combined. Then, in the Arlberg-Kandahar at St Anton, he won the downhill.
The following year he won the World Championship downhill in Chamonix , setting a new course record. He also took gold in slalom and Combined, commenting: “From that point onwards we were no longer the petits garçons of ski racing.”
In 1946, he was invited to Quebec to coach the Canadian national team, then headed south to help set up the Chilean resort of Portillo.
Sun Valley, Idaho – where he taught Cary Grant and Darryl Zanuck - was next, soon to be eclipsed, in 1949, by Squaw Valley, California. He was snapped up as US team coach for the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo.
Back home, he turned his attention to developing Courchevel. He spent 10 years there, and among the many celebrities he taught was Brigitte Bardot. He was almost as famous as her - a couloir there is named after him.
By Arnie Wilson.
Emile Allais born 25 February 1912 died 17 October 2012.
Sadly the sign for the couloir was removed a few years ago.
It gives me great pleasure to have skied the couloir bearing his name, though the first time I did not know who he was and only later learned of his huge contributions to skiing. He was 100 in Feb last whilst I was on the PE Chamonix week and I was delighted to read a tribute to him in the free newspaper.
By all accounts he was a modest, true sportsman, by relation to whose achievements we can place our stumbling efforts in some perspective.
In La Plagne there is a piste named after the great man- from Aime 2000- to honour his contribution in developing the ski station.
What a guy! Megeve also has a piste named after him.
I suspect that the sign was removed when Courchevel was having second thoughts - for safety reasons - about leaving the three couloirs (incuding Emile's run) on the piste map Alan. Either way, the cognoscenti will always refer to it as his run!
related ski news
- Fonna - the making of a world-class summer ski area
- Running a summer ski centre in a region that sees more than 15m of snow fall each winter might seem relatively easy, but as the Ski Club's content editor Chris Madoc-Jones found out on his recent...
- Summer skiing in style in Les 2 Alpes
- The latest stop in our summer skiing odyssey is the French resort of Les 2 Alpes (L2A) that we'll be visiting over the coming days to test out the world-class park, rub shoulders with aspiring young...
- NZ Summer Series Part 4: North Island Ski Itinerary
- Our final itinerary takes in three very different ski areas on the iconic Mt Ruapehu - and as Ocean Belcher down in NZ tells us, skiing on a volcano makes for a very special trip!
- NZ Summer Series Part 5: Club Fields
- As our Kiwi expert Ocean Belcher explains, these smaller club fields embrace what skiing used to be like - before hectic lifestyles and commercial interests took over!