Film on Johnson filled with swagger, sadness

Bill Johnson backed up his bluster at the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo, winning the gold medal in downhill skiing. Bill Johnson backed up his bluster at the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo, winning the gold medal in downhill skiing. (1984 File/AFP/Getty Images)
By Tony Chamberlain
Globe Correspondent / February 17, 2011

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Anybody remotely connected with ski racing and/or the Winter Olympics knows the Bill Johnson story, and in fact may have some confusion about where the real racer begins and the fictitious character in “Downhill Racer’’ ends.

To straighten the timeline, “Downhill Racer,’’ the story of a brash American skier who often snarls at his coach because he doesn’t race for a team but for himself, was made in 1969, well before Johnson showed up at the 1984 Games in Sarajevo and told competitors they were “all racing for second place because the gold medal belongs to me.’’ Clearly Johnson had designed his life after the film.

In this age of trash talking jocks, that does not sound as outrageous as it did 27 years ago to Austrian downhiller Franz Klammer or even to US champion Phil Mahre. And after the antics of Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) and Joe Namath, how could a kid ski racer predicting victory sound brash? As a matter of fact, it sounded downright American.

In covering the 1984 Games, I talked to Johnson many times then and afterward. I can’t recall exactly what I thought of him before Feb. 16, 1984. But as he glided seamlessly over the downhill course to beat Swiss champion Peter Mueller by .27 seconds, I was delighted and inspired, as were most of my American colleagues. Were we homers? You bet. This was the first time an American man won Olympic gold in Alpine skiing.

Just imagine some Austrian coming to the US and pitching a no-hitter in the World Series — beating us at our own game in our own country! Johnson’s win was that stunning.

Gracious in defeat? When it was repeated to him that Europeans said he won because the course was too easy, Johnson responded with a simple truth that landed like a knee in the gut: “If it was so easy, why didn’t they win it?’’

And the smirk. Oh, that smirk. If you went to central casting to find a schoolboy to get caned by the master for general troublemaking, gave him acting lessons to get a perfect expression of youthful haughtiness, you could not improve on the smirk that so often lit up Johnson’s face like irreverent sunshine.

Then, as life after ski racing crumbled fast, Johnson was driven to an amazing delusion that if he could just put the genie back in the bottle and win one more major medal at age 40, his life would be suddenly fixed. His wife, Gina, would come back, the family come together again, and the money he so badly needed would roll in. In that attempt in March 2001, skiing a downhill at Big Mountain Montana to try to qualify for the 2002 Olympics, Johnson nearly killed himself in a crash, and suffered severe brain damage.

If that sounds like the stuff of a movie, you’re not alone. California filmmaker Zeke Piestrup was amazed the subject had not been touched except in one TV special. What appealed to Piestrup — aside from the obvious glamour of high stakes ski racing — is that Johnson’s story follows a nearly perfect arc of Greek tragedy.

Piestrup’s film, “Downhill: The Bill Johnson Story,’’ doesn’t just replow old, familiar grounds. We get a portrait of Gina, who retells the story of their 13-month-old son’s drowning in a hot tub, and makes it resoundingly clear that even had Johnson won a gold medal at the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, nothing would change. She is astounded at the depth of Johnson’s delusion that skiing could “fix’’ his life or bring her back with two other sons the couple had before they divorced.

Of those two boys, Taylor and Nick, now teenagers, we see just enough interaction with their father to make an obvious comparison — they had reached a level of maturity and civility their father never did, and that ironically crowned them as the real high point of his life, even if Johnson is not quite aware of it. An especially moving scene of Taylor playing cribbage with his father, then hugging him as they part, makes this point powerfully.

Piestrup’s film does not overwhelm with ski footage because Johnson’s entire meteoric career rests on less than eight minutes of downhill action. But the repeated video of the Olympic run and other wins are certainly an uplifting contrast to the rest of the tale. The repetition of them throughout the movie does not feel repetitive.

The interviews pull together some of Johnson’s early critics and fellow skiers. There’s Klammer explaining why he was so dismissive of the kid he called a “nose picker’’ at the Games. And Mahre, who never approved of Johnson’s brashness, even becomes emotional, tearing up when talking about Johnson, who he says belongs to a most exclusive club of just 21 ski racers who ever won the Olympic downhill gold medal. Mahre’s attitude now: Nothing can take that away from him.

We hear a fascinating technical theory (with much graphic evidence) for Johnson’s performance in a downhill tuck, and word from the most famous ski tech of his day, Blake Lewis, who was suspected of having found some breakthrough wax formula that made Johnson’s skis faster than anyone else’s in Sarajevo.

This compelling film has been shown at selected venues in the West, but, said Piestrup, should be available in the months ahead.