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Australia’s oldest living Olympian debuted 61 years ago

29 January 2017

AOC: On this day 29 January, Australia’s oldest current Olympian, Frank Prihoda, made his Olympic debut at the 1956 Winter Games in Italy.

Prihoda, now 95-year-old, has a vivid memory of his preparation and competition in just the second Games Australia set a team too. In part two of this article, Prihoda tells us about his life outside skiing and how he came to immigrate to Australia from Czechoslovakia.

“When it became known that there would be an Olympic team in the 1956 Games the dream of being a member of it took a more real form as I considered myself having a good chance,” recalled Prihoda from his home in Thredbo this week.

“The winter of 1955 was full of expectations for many skiers. There were trials, mainly in the form of various state championships, Victoria, NSW, ACT and Tasmania. I participated in some of them but was absolved from the ACT and Tasmanian ones as my nomination was assured due to my known ability. The skiing community was a small one and it was known to the selectors ‘who is who’.”

Over 60 years ago it was a different structure for elite sport in Australia. There were no institutes of sport or AIS.

“There was training but by private and personal effort not by any official bodies none being in existence at that time. I was in my own business, although in partnership, so I could make my own plans and fortunately my sister, Sasha, could temporarily fill my position.”

In an era where PE teachers were deemed professional and unable to compete in the Olympics, Frank’s sister, Sasha, who was a ski instructor was ruled professional and ineligible for the Olympics. She was the best in Australia and had represented Czechoslovakia in the 1948 Winter Olympics.

Prihoda was a migrant and did not fulfil the strict five years residence requirement for naturalization, but wheels were put in motion and he received his Naturalization Certificate in May 1955. Now eligible Prihoda, a downhill skier, was selected along with William Day, Anthony Aslangul, James Walker and Christine Davy.

“It being the year of the Melbourne Games the AOC was more generous and we received a blazer made to measure but for the pocket to be embroidered, we all had to pay three Guineas.”

The Australian team left on the ship Iberia on 8 November 1955.

“I did not travel on the Iberia. I undertook an airplane trip around the world on my own as I wanted to make good use of my being able to fly. I went via USA, Canada to Europe and met the team in Zurs in Austria, about two weeks before Christmas 1955. It was the training location of our coach Leonhard Erharter. He was an outstanding Austrian racer who due to severe injuries had to give up racing and devote himself to coaching and ski instructing. “

Europe was experiencing problems with a lack of snow in many countries.

“During that time good snowfall came, but that unfortunately did not eventuate in other resorts we skied. From Zurs, we left straight for Kirchberg near Kitzbuhel in Tirol. There we skied/trained and took part in the famous Hahnenkamm downhill race.

"Next we travelled to Badgastein, where we trained and tested ourselves on a Super Giant Slalom course. From there it was a run to Cortina, Italy, the venue for the Olympics. All the travelling was by VW minibus which (Robert) George Chisholm generously provided for team travel. We paid our own accommodation and lift rates were provided by host resorts.”

The Australian team arrived at the Winter Olympics on 22 January 1956, four day before the opening ceremony.

“Cortina was a lovely, charming mountain village, more of a small town or township, with luxurious shops and entertainment venues, provided everything for the successful conduct of the Games. They had a new stadium, general improvements in infrastructure and buildings except the very important ingredient - snow. The situation was to say the least, most unsatisfactory.

"The conditions were better farther up the mountains but snow cover was very thin. Very often small stones, being mostly whitish, were not very visible and would crunch under your skis. Also conditions were a bit dangerous as any fall was painful. The Italian hosts were very generous, our hotel Roma was a first class family establishment, accommodation being two or three to a room.

“The opening ceremony took place on Thursday 26th January 1956 on a bright sunny winter day. After a march through the streets of Cortina we entered the stadium at the head of the column. Flag bearer was a young Italian athlete as ours was a small team and an agreement could not be reached, who of us it should be. I was walking with pride being able to represent my new country and also with a little fear of the tasks ahead.”

Three days later, January 29, Prihoda would compete in his first event, the Giant Slalom

“My first race was the Giant Slalom, in nature more like Super G - very long. In those days there were no pliable slalom poles, small, sufficiently long saplings were used. They were very solid. The day was beautiful. Due to pre-racing nerves I had a fall in the first gate, not a bad one, but I had to climb back on the course and it cost me a lot of seconds, hence my placing.”

Prihoda placed 80th from the 95 competitors. Two days later he was again in action, competing in the Giant Slalom

“My second race, the Slalom, usually my best discipline took place on Tuesday 31st January and it was run on a slope close to the village.”

But lack of snow was again a problem.

“As it had only thin cover of snow, two days before the local fire brigade sprayed the whole slope with water which froze into a sheet of ice. It was the only way to provide a skiable surface for all runners. There were 114 competitors and I had a number 112. My second run was near 4.00 pm, almost in the dark. The course was extremely long, with many gates 79 and 92 I think, consequently running times were quite long, close to almost double of present day times.

"The course, especially its top part, was very demanding as it was glassy ice, very slippery. One gate, had quite a sharp turn was the downfall of many top racers, taking it too fast they slid off course and could not stop until way down, too far to return. I managed to stay on course only just. My placing 54th was somewhat disappointing to me, as I fancied myself to be able to finish somewhere around 35th.”

Prihoda was placed 60th after the first run with a time of 2:54.3, but improved 10 second on his second run, clocking 2:43.2 for 51st place. He had performed well just to finish the event, as 31 out of the competitors failed to complete the course.

The Australian team was entered in the final event, the Downhill on 3 February, but it was consider unsafe. The team manager, Robert (George) Chisholm wrote.

“Owing to the conditions of the course I withdrew Aslangul and Prihoda from the Downhill.”

At the end of the Games, Prihoda felt letdown like so many athletes do.

“After the closing ceremony came a flat feeling of disappointment, feeling that one could have done better and maybe tried harder. However, at the end of the Games all was done and could not be changed. For more than a month I was living on a constant ‘high’. I went to Denmark, Germany, Austria, Italy, partly on business, also visiting friends, then to Hong Kong before returning to Australia in May 1956.

David Tarbotton

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