LEUKERBAD, SWITZERLAND -- Few Americans will ever forget the sight of Billy Johnson standing at the finish of the Sarajevo Winter Olympics downhill and raising his skis to the sky. On his face was a cocky grin that said, "Yes, I am the best in the world."
Not since the U.S. hockey team beat the Russians for the gold medal at Lake Placid in 1980 had there been a more surprising U.S. victory in the Winter Olympic Games. Johnson, then a 23-year-old former juvenile delinquent from Troutdale, Ore., had just done what no U.S. athlete before him had: beaten the proud Europeans at their glamorous winter speciality, the Alpine downhill race.
But it was the end rather than the beginning for Johnson. While his stunning victory momentarily delighted, his braggadocio on the winner's podium did not play well in the long run.
Johnson insulted his fellow racers on the World Cup circuit, quarreled with his coaches, thumbed a nose at his admirers, and bragged openly of the lucre his athletic triumph would generate.
Four years and another Olympics later, the star of the U.S. ski team at Sarajevo will not even make the U.S. team, according to U.S. team officials on the World Cup ski circuit here. The team will be named next week.
"He is just not in shape and he hasn't had any results," says U.S. downhill coach Theo Nadig. "It is perhaps sad but there are just many younger skiers racing with us now that are consistently better than he."
Since that magnificent winning season of 1984 when Johnson also triumphed in such prestigious World Cup downhill races as the Lauberhorn at Wengen, he hasn't won a race.
His first ski racing season after the Olympics was an unmitigated disaster. A summer of partying and playing the celebrity kept him from training and he never got into shape. In l986 he tried to get serious and managed to place among the top 10 in a number of races but that December he crashed in a downhill at Val Gardena, Italy.
His left knee was a wreck that took 2 1/2 hours of surgery by Dr. Richard Steadman, the Tahoe sports surgeon, to repair. For Johnson, the season was over.
His effort to return to form this pre-Olympic season has been a failure. The best place he has managed was a 33rd in a downhill here earlier this month. When the Lauberhorn that first brought him to world attention four years ago was run here Sunday, he placed 63rd.
"It is a sad thing to see," said former U.S. Olympic ski coach and current sports announcer Bob Beatty. "I think he is only lying to himself to think he still can do it."
Johnson, always the rebel, disagrees. He insists his knee is getting stronger and so is the courage that his crash nearly destroyed.
"I haven't come back as quickly as I had hoped to," he said, "but each race I feel stronger and I'm moving up slowly.
"I'm not going to quit ski racing, not even if I fail to make the team. I won't go out a loser. I'll ski until I'm winning again."
Johnson was 73rd out of 88 finishers at the first downhill race at Val D'Isere, France, in December. He was 81 out of 83 a week later at Val Gardena, Italy, where the year before he injured himself.
This month he had another 88th place out of a field of 97 at a second race at Val D'Isere and a 76 out of 93 at Bad Kleinkirchheim, Austria.
"Johnson is nothing but a has-been," said Swiss downhill star Peter Mueller. "He just isn't any competition anymore."