Directed by Michael Ritchie, U.S., (1969), 101 minutes

Life may not be about whether you win or lose but how you play the game but professional and most amateur sports are definitely about winning. In this celebrity culture, the cheering crowds, the media attention, and the lucrative commercial contracts are all a heady attractions; however, winners may reap the awards of fame and fortune without ever expressing humility or even honest emotions in public. Based on a screenplay by novelist James Salter, Michael Ritchie’s first feature Downhill Racer is a character study about a competitive downhill skier, an athlete of extraordinary skills, but one whose talents are not matched by his character and decency.

Now on a Criterion DVD, Downhill Racer contains fast-paced action, stunning alpine photography, and excellent performances from a young Robert Redford as skier David Chappellet and Gene Hackman as Coach Eugene Claire, both at the top of their game. Chappellet, while embodying competitiveness and determination, two attributes needed for success, is also cocky, brusque, and arrogant with an attitude of entitlement. His teammate Johnny Creech (Jim McMullan) soon learns that he is also not a team player as he constantly complains about his number out of the starting position. This discord is especially troubling since the American team is regarded as outsiders and long shots to begin with by a condescending European press accustomed to winning.

At one point, David is accused by a fellow American of not being a good "team man." Another skier replies: "Well, this isn't exactly a team sport." Actually, there is truth in that downhill skiing is a very individual sport but, as for any team, the success of one member is normally regarded as the success of all. Apart from being a psychological profile of an athlete with an attitude problem, this is also a film about the ins and outs of skiing. Filmed in Austria, many races are shot with a hand-held camera from the point of view of the racer and we hurtle down the mountain at up to 80 mph with him or her, fighting vertigo, experiencing the exhilaration of the fresh air and the wind in our faces, feeling both ecstasy and fear in the same breath.

These moments of heart-stopping action are contrasted with the daily routine of the athlete as they go from one country to the other, one hotel to the next, and one practice session to the next. Long hours of practice and physical conditioning lead to a run of only several minutes but that run requires perfect balance and any wrong move can result in permanent physical damage. While the athletes are in training, the coach must try to hold the team together, while continuing to raise money for their support.

Coach Claire and Chappellet are at loggerheads almost from the beginning. In a powerful scene, Coach Claire confronts the young American from Idaho for taking unnecessary risks when he challenged another team member to a race down the mountain. We do not learn exactly what makes Chappellet tick but we get a hint in seeing how he relates to two young women. On his trip home, he hangs out with an old girl friend but is all business, displaying no interest in helping her with her problems. The other girl (Camilla Sparv) is sort of a ski groupie who works for a ski manufacturer. She is quite taken with David yet his interaction with her is extremely shallow, showing little capacity for understanding even her minimal needs.

In another sequence, he visits his rural Idaho home town on a break and his father (Walter Stroud) shows no interest in what he actually does, only being concerned about the lack of money his son is bringing home. Their conversation is minimal and there is no warmth exhibited on either side. At one point, he asks David why he does what he does and the skier replies that he wants to win, to be a champion. To which, his father replies, “world’s full of ‘em”.

While the message of Downhill Racer seems to be that, in competitive sports today, victory is a much more of a prized commodity than sportsmanship or civility, one wonders if the director has not set up a straw man in his attempt to deconstruct the athlete as hero. While it is true that many celebrities and famous athletes are self-centered and out for themselves, it is surely the case with people in many different areas of today’s society as well. As author Dave Zirin points out, “It is absolute truth that sports can bring out the worst in athletes, fans, parents, and coaches. But it can also bring out the best. Sports are where many people - particularly young people - find confidence, friendship, and a sense of self. For many it's where the deeply segregated dynamics of our society are broken down.”