Vladimir Putin: Russian 'poorly treated,' says ski great Jean-Claude Killy

Story highlights

  • Jean-Claude Killy gave Vladimir Putin skiing tips
  • Pair became friends and holidayed together
  • Triple Olympic medalist last skied in 1988
  • Killy surprised at Olympic host city drop-outs

(CNN)He's very much Russia's man of action, whether it's flying a plane, riding a horse, or practicing martial arts -- pursuits more often than not carried out bare chested.

Vladimir Putin is also an accomplished skier, so much so that he has made quite an impression on one of the sport's greatest speedsters.
And if the Russian president's style of government might have its critics, skiing legend Jean-Claude Killy isn't joining in the chorus of disapproval. Far from it, telling CNN's Alpine Edge show that the Kremlin leader is a "friend" with a "big heart" who is "poorly treated in the world today."
    The 72-year-old Killy got to know Putin in the run-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, visiting the Games' sites over 40 times as chief supervisor for the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
    He says he met Putin "almost every time" and often the pair would go skiing -- or more accurately, Putin would test out the slopes and three-time Olympic champion Killy would watch from the bottom of the run.
    "He's a terrific skier," said the Frenchman, who last clicked into a pair of skis in 1988 because, as a "100% in everything" kind of guy, he finds it hard to do something at less than his best.
    "I looked at him from the bottom because I don't ski. He was very mad at me because I didn't ski. I would watch him come down and then we'd have a shot of vodka."
    Killy spent seven years traveling back and forth to Russia to check on the progress Sochi was making as an estimated $50 billion was invested in the Games.
    "It was absolutely extraordinary because it was such a different world altogether -- different people, rules, habits, food, way of working," Killy recalls of his trips to Russia.
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    Killy and the 63-year-old Putin got on so well that they even holidayed together.
    "Mr. Putin ... almost managed the Games himself. We became very good friends. We went to this summer vacation with him in Siberia -- very discreetly. Russians welcome you with big arms if they think you are a good man."
    Killy's view of Putin is at something of a variance with some of the Russian president's opponents who claim it isn't a coincidence that critics of the powerful leader and his government have been killed or landed behind bars.
    The Kremlin has staunchly denied accusations that it targets political opponents or had anything to do with the deaths of opposition figures such as Boris Nemtsov.
    "He's straight," Killy said of Putin. "He has a big heart, he makes very good decisions. He's very smart. I think he's poorly treated today in the world. I feel bad about it. I feel very sorry about him because I believe it is unfair.
    "It's politically a mistake not to keep Russia in our arms," added Killy. "It's a big mistake."

    Early retirement

    Born in the Paris suburb of Saint-Cloud in 1943, Killy moved with his family to the small Savoie farming village of Val d'Isere immediately after World War II.
    Growing up on skis, he exploded onto the international stage as an exciting but often reckless 18-year-old in 1961, cementing his iconic status with a record-equaling three golds -- in downhill, giant slalom and slalom -- at the 1968 Winter Games in Grenoble.
    Only Austria's Toni Sailer has achieved the same feat, winning the treble at Cortina in Italy in 1956.
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    But Killy, whose name now adorns the vast ski area -- known as l'Espace Killy -- of Val d'Isere and neighboring Tignes, was itching to test himself in other arenas and promptly retired from the sport at the age of 24.
    "The season before '68, I won 25 races out of 30 -- it was a lot more difficult than winning three Olympic gold medals. But somehow no one noticed that," said Killy.
    "I knew I couldn't win three gold medals anymore, and since the age of three all I knew how to do was skiing. So at the age of 24 I thought it was time to see if I could do something else."
    It turned out this remarkably driven man could do plenty more.
    Careers followed as actor, racing driver, founder of an eponymous sportswear company, head of the 1992 Albertville Games, longtime member of the IOC, director of cycling's Tour de France and chief executive of Coca-Cola France.
    Killy resigned from the IOC in 2014, but still has plenty to say about the Olympic movement -- notably he's baffled why seven nations pulled out of the race to host the 2022 Games.
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    Norwegian capital Oslo withdrew in 2014 to join Ukraine's Lviv, Poland's Krakow, Swedish capital Stockholm and potential bids from Germany and Switzerland on the sidelines.
    "When countries like Norway refused the Games, I couldn't understand because there's no danger of over budgeting if you run the thing properly," said Killy, who believes the Olympics must embrace countries without a traditional winter sports pedigree as well as the more established heartlands.
    "They had nothing in Russia, nothing at all," he said. "They had to build power stations, trains, you name it.
    "All of this was decided before the Games but was needed for the next 100 years. That $50 billion will be amortized over 100 years because it will be used by the people for 100 years."
    Killy said he's happy that the 2018 Winter Olympics will take place in Pyeongchang, South Korea, before Beijing in China hosts the 2022 edition.
    "The people doing the bids have been better, or they show more desire, because they never had the Games -- like South Korea, or China," he explained.
    "And it makes more sense to have the Winter Games in China than in Austria for the moment because you have more potential for winter sports in China."
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    Killy did more than anyone to bring skiing into the mainstream. After retiring he embarked on a whirlwind tour of product endorsements, capitalizing on his Olympic success and the profile it brought his sport.
    Ever the perfectionist, Killy's only regret is he did not win skiing's most famed downhill race -- the Hahnekamm at Kitzbuehel -- by a greater margin in 1967.
    "The year I won I made a big mistake, it cost me a lot of time," he said. "It would have been a much better first place, a much better and bigger success."
    Having moved to Geneva after quitting skiing, Killy says he rarely returns to Val d'Isere.
    Keeping his eye firmly on the future, he is now looking for the next big project in his high-speed life.
    "I don't know what it is. But it's going to be the most important, I believe."