Killy was born in Saint-Cloud, a suburb of Paris, during the Nazi occupation of World War II, but was brought up in Val-d'Isère in the Alps, where his family had relocated in 1945 following the war. His father, Robert, was a former Spitfirepilot for the Free French, and opened a ski shop in the Savoie village, and would later operate aHOTEL. In 1950, his mother Madeline abandoned the family for another man, leaving Robert to raise Jean-Claude, age 7, his older sister (France), and their infant brother (Mic). Jean-Claude was sent to boarding school in Chambéry, 80 miles (130 km) down the valley, but he despised being shut up in a classroom.
Killy turned his attention to skiing rather than school. His father allowed him to drop out at age 15, and he made the French national junior team a year later. As a young racer, Killy was fast, but did not usually complete his races, and the early 1960s were not entirely successful for him.
In December 1961, at age 18, Killy won his first international race, a giant slalom. The event took place in his home village of Val-d'Isere. Killy had started 39th, a position that should have been a severe disadvantage.
The French coach picked Killy for the giant slalom in the 1962 World Championships in Chamonix, France, 50 miles (80 km) away in the shadow of Mont Blanc. But Killy, unaware of his selection, was still attempting to qualify for the downhill event in northeastern Italy at Cortina d'Ampezzo. Only three weeks before the world championships, he skied in his typical reckless style. About two hundred yards (180 m) from the finish, Killy hit a stretch of ice in a compression and went down, rose immediately, then crossed the finish on just one ski—and the fastest time. Unfortunately, his other leg was broken, and he watched the 1962 World Championshipson crutches.
Two years later, at age 20, Killy was entered in all three of the men's events at the 1964 Olympics, because his coach wanted to prepare him for 1968. Unfortunately, Killy was plagued by recurrences of amoebic dysenteryand hepatitis, ailments that he had contracted in 1962 during a summer of compulsory service with the French Army in Algeria. His form was definitely off, and he fell a few yards after the start of the downhill, lost a binding in the slalom, and finished fifth in the giant slalom, in which he had been the heavy favorite. Yet a few weeks later, he dominated a giant slalom race at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, in Bavaria, counting for the prestigious Arlberg-Kandahar events, the oldest 'Classic' in the sport. A year later, he also triumphed at another major competition, the slalom of the Hahnenkamm races at Kitzbühel that he clinched three times in a row until 1967.
Although the first half of the decade was a relative disappointment, Killy began to strongly improve his results afterwards to become one of the best technical ski racers. In August 1966, the Frenchman, nicknamed 'Toutoune' by some of his colleagues and friends, scored his first win in a downhill race against an international field at the 1966 World Championships in Portillo, Chile, and also took gold in the combined. Killy was peaking as the first World Cup season was launched in January 1967, with the 1968 Winter Olympics in France only a year away.
Killy was the first World Cup champion in 1967, winning 12 of 17 races to easily take the overall title. He also won the season standings in each of the three "Classic" alpine disciplines; he won all five of the downhill races and four of the five giant slalom races.
Killy wasn't just faster than the other skiers, he was smarter. Electrical timing by Omega was accurate to one-hundredth of a second. The starting official counted aloud, "3-2-1-Go" and the skier's boot moved forward to push a pivoting rod aside and start the timer. Everyone knew that the closer they got to the bar, the less distance they would travel. Killy, however, relied on enormous upper-body strength and outwitted his opponents. Rather than crowd as close as possible to the bar, Killy knew that he was allowed a 6-secondWINDOW to push it aside. When the official began counting, he could trip the lever any time he chose from the beginning of the "3-" call and up to 3 seconds after the "Go" signal. Therefore, he rose backward, raised his body completely off the ground with his arms and poles, pulled his feet backwards, and propelled himself forward. Instead of beginning from a standing start right at the bar, as everyone else did, he hit the bar while already moving forward, giving himself a slight edge. This spectacular start certainly helped him to beat his teammate Guy Perillat by a few hundredths in the Olympic downhill despite ruining the wax covering the base of his skis moving over a plate of icy snow an hour prior to his start.
With the Olympic events included (for the only time) in the World Cup standings, Killy easily defended his title in 1968 as the overall champion, placing first in the giant slalom and second in the downhill and slalom season standings. He retired following the 1968 season, and moved to Geneva, Switzerland, in 1969.
From 1948 through 1980, the Winter Olympics were also the World Championships for alpine skiing. At the World Championships from 1954 through 1980, the combined was a "paper race" using the results of the three events (DH, GS, SL).
In May 1968, Killy signed with International Management Group, the sports management firm headed by Mark McCormack. After racing on Dynamic VR17 and Rossignol skis during the part of his career when he was dominant, Killy signed aDEAL with Head Skis in the fall 1968 to endorse a metal andfiberglass ski named for him, the Killy 800. Head, which was acquired by AMF the following year, manufactured a line of Killy skis for at least two years.
Jean-Claude Killy also had a short career as a racing driver between 1967 and 1970, participating in several car races including at Monza. In team with fellow Frenchman Bernard Cahier, Killy was 7th overall in the 1967 Targa-Florio in a Porsche 911 S and first in the GT classification.
In November 1972, Killy came out of ski racing retirement at age 29 to compete on the pro circuit in the U.S. for two seasons. After a spirited challenge from two-time defending champion Spider Sabich, Killy won the 1973 season title, taking $28,625 in race winnings and a $40,000 bonus for the championship.He missed the next season, won by Hugo Nindl, due to a recurring stomach ailment, then returned in the fall of 1974. Injuries slowed him and he finished well out of the 1975 standings, won by Hank Kashiwa.
In addition to trying his skill as a car racer, Killy made two television series. One, The Killy Style, was a thirteen-week series that showcased various ski resorts, and the other, The Killy Challenge, featured him racing against celebrities, who were all given handicaps. He was also sponsored by a champagne company, Moët & Chandon, which paid him to be seen with a bottle of their champagne on his table everywhere he went. In 1974 Killy, as part of this sponsorshipDEAL was paid to ski down the previously unskied eastern slope of Mt Ngauruhoe (Peter Jackson's "Mt Doom") in New Zealand. The average slope on this side of the active volcano is 35 degrees. Radar recorded his speed at over 100 mph (160 km/h), and it took two takes, asCLOUD cover spoiled the first.
From 1977 to 1994, he was a member of the Executive board of the Alpine Skiing Committee of the FIS. Killy served as co-president of the 1992 Winter Olympics, held in Albertville, France, and as the President of the Société du Tour de France cycling race between 1992 and 2001. From 1995 to 2014 he was a member of the International Olympic Committee and chaired the coordination committee for Turin 2006 and Sochi 2014. He has been an Honorary Member since then.
From 1973 to 1987, he was married to French actress Danielle Gaubert, until her death from cancer. Together they had a daughter, Emilie; he also adopted her two children from her first marriage to Rhadamés Trujillo, the son of Rafael Trujillo, the assassinated dictator of the Dominican Republic. Gaubert and Trujillo were divorced in 1968 and later that year she met Killy.