Couttet Champion | The Skier

Couttet Champion

French champion at 20 | first French international skier

Couttet Champion, the first French civilian ski champion at the age of 20

French Ski Champion 1909

1909 • The competitions for the French Championships were held in Morez in the Jura from 31 January to 2 February. With consistent results in all the events in both disciplines (jumping and cross-country) that counted towards the title, Alfred COUTTET won his first French Championship title and even finished first overall in the jumping events. At the age of 19, he overtook Lieutenant Alloix (French Military Champion in 1907 and 1908) to become the first French Ski Champion civilian ski champion in the history of French skiing.

In those days, to win the title, skiers had to achieve the best performances throughout the competition season, both in jumping and in cross-country races (10 to 30 km) and, from 1913 onwards, in long-distance races (60 km). While the French jumpers passed the springboard rather than actually jumping it, it was recognised that the style and attitude of the young and new Champion were absolutely correct and there was no longer any question of jumps of a few metres, but of 18 to 20 metres, while the Scandinavians, the undisputed masters of world skiing, remained out of the competition with jumps of 25 to 27.50 metres. With jumps like these, COUTTET CHAMPION could have been the outsider representing France in the International Competitions.

His skiing exploits were heard as far away as Paris and crossed borders. And so, for the first time, a French skier was invited by the King of Norway himself to come and compete against the Scandinavians in the legendary Holmenkollen races. The French government supported its Champion and Alfred COUTTET was accompanied on the occasion by a whole official delegation led by the French Ambassador.

Competing against the 60 best Scandinavians in the 18/20 age category, our CHAMPION achieved the incredible feat of finishing 11th and 12th in the jumping competition on the famous Holmenkollen ski jump!

In Norway, at the Holmenkollrennen, the foreign competitors distinguished themselves, despite the large number of Norwegian runners against whom they were competing. Among the front runners were Dr Biehler, Bruno Biehler, Dr K. Gruber, Iklé, from St Gallen, and Alfred Couttet, from Chamonix, our French champion. Mr Huitfeld, appreciative of the riders, said of the latter:
The spectators were astonished to see the Frenchman, M. Couttet, from Chamonix. Considering that the sport of skiing has only been practised in France for a few short years, and that in such a short time it has been possible to acquire all its finer points, we firmly believe that we should take note of this and prepare ourselves for future struggles. Without falling over, Mr Couttet made a virtually irreproachable jump. His bearing and the way he steered his skis were hardly inferior to the jumps and procedures of our best compatriots. The participation of these foreigners in our competitions is an event that will go down in the history of our national sport. We thank them once again for coming to take part and hope to see them again on the next occasion.

[passage taken from the monthly review of the Club Alpin Français pages 242/243 | La Montagne - Nouvelle Série - 5ème année - N°1 - 20 janvier 1909]

1910 • That year, COUTTET CHAMPION took first place in the national and international jumping rankings, which were held in Eaux-Bonnes, Gourette and Cauterets from 21 to 30 January. Unfortunately, this was not enough to retain the title, as his results in cross-country were mixed.

1911I couldn't find any information about that year.

1912 • This year, Alfred is in the army. Skiing competitions are held in teams and between armies. Ce sont les courses These are patrols races with weapons, loads and food on their backs. Promoted to the rank of Corporal, he ran alongside Lieutenant Ance and chasseurs Mangard and Belin in the 11th BCA team. It was his team that won the competition for the French teams in a time of 4 h 42'34", while the first Swedish team without weapons or loads took 4 h 13'32". In other words, the competition was literally crushed.

Couttet Champion, French Ski Champion 19099 - 1913 - 1914

French Ski Champion in 1913 and 1914

1913 • Gérardmer from 1st to 4th February - COUTTET CHAMPION reclaims his title.

1914 • Pontrésina in Switzerland - 17th and 18th January - For the first time, a French team was sent to the annual competition of the Swiss Association of Ski Clubs. The French team included the Jurassiens Vandelle and Vuillet, the Parisian Jacques Weiss for the jump only and of course the champion Alfred COUTTET. The latter finished just off the podium, while Vuillet came 8th and Vandelle finished 17th after breaking his poles 2/3 of the way through the race. As for Weiss, he managed a superb jump of 31m, the best jump of the competition having been 33m.
That year, the VIIIth International Ski Competition was due to take place in Briançon-Montgenèvre from 6 to 9 February, but the lack of snow meant that the competition had to be postponed. Chamonix, which had plenty of snow, spontaneously offered to organise the French Championships, which were reduced to two events in which all competitors had to take part. The date was set for 24 February, with the cross-country event in the morning and the jumping event in the afternoon. Alfred COUTTET placed 5th in the jumping event despite an injury.
At the end of the competition season, COUTTET CHAMPION finished 1st in the general ranking of cross-country events and his results in jumping were excellent, making him French Champion once again…
just before the Great War (14/18) forced him to give up his career as a top-level skier.

Couttet Champion, Captain of the French Ski Teams at the first Winter Olympics in Chamonix in 1924

Captain of the French ski teams at the 1st Winter Olympics in Chamonix in 1924

1924 • Return of the Champion. The annual competition took place in Briançon on 16 and 17 January and served as a qualifier for the First Winter Olympic Games in Chamonix. Alfred COUTTET, who had never left the world of skiing, took part in this event. Gilbert Ravanel, Payot, Kleber Balmat, Vandelle and COUTTET CHAMPION took first place in the cross-country and jumping events. Chamonix was the first city to organise the Winter Games. Supported by extremely favourable weather, the organisation was perfect. France needed a coach for its skiers, and Alfred COUTTET was appointed Captain of the French Ski Teams. In accepting this position, he relinquished his participation in the games as a competitor with a heavy heart.

In terms of training, what have we done? That's where the praise ends. I met Alfred Couttet, three times French champion, our best man on skis. Couttet is sorry. We asked him to captain the French team and coach our competitors. But if he accepts, he will have to give up taking part in the various events himself. Are we so rich in champions and hopefuls that we can afford to deprive ourselves of his effective services? Alas!
« I don't see anyone to fight me back home," he said, tears welling up in his eyes. Why should I be forced to remain inactive? I was injured last year, but this year I could do better than good.
« — What resources are you given to train yourself and others?
« — none. We're all just poor buggers, living off lessons or our job as guides. Are we reimbursed for our loss of earnings? No, they don't. What's more, I'm told: "You'll go to such and such a place to train". And I don't have the right to say that the place is too far away or that the snow is bad.

« — What's up?
« — So, out of 40 competitors for the whole thing, for example, we'll probably finish in the bottom ten.
« — And for the ski race, what chance do we have?
« — To be ranked in tenth place.
« — France will hardly shine…
« — Yes, in figure skating competitions… It's meagre, obviously. What do you expect, in other countries they have other means. Look at Switzerland. They have a famous champion: Girarlbile, but this is a boy who gets a lot of help and support. He's not paid, of course, but he's welcomed with open arms in all the hotels: yet he's given an allowance of 100 francs a day for his expenses. You'd be a champion if you didn't! »
The French champion breathed out his bitterness softly. I couldn't give him any relief. I felt all too well that he was right and that all his goodwill would always come up against the inertia of… But let's not name anyone; there are too many people responsible!
However, to console myself, I thought that if the French didn't have a chance of shining at the Olympic winter sports in January-February 1924, at least France would have won a good reputation for the beauty of the site and the excellence of the organisation.

[passage taken from a press article by Serge Yeber entitled "Les Jeux Olympiques, le décor et les artistes" | Journal L'auto, Thursday 18 October 1923].

He was also asked to contribute his experience to the organisation of the Games. This is how he came to take part in the design of the first Olympic ski jump to be built at the Mont, by drawing the curve of the runway. For these very first Games, six sports were on the Olympic programme: ice hockey, speed skating, figure skating, curling, bobsleigh and, of course, skiing, where only the men's Nordic disciplines were on offer. A solid team of skiers with a strong Chamonix flavour had the honour of defending the French colours in the 5 events of the time: the long-distance race (50 km), the cross-country race (18 km), the jump, the combined race (jump + cross-country), and the military race in teams of 4 (30 km). This last Olympic discipline was in a way the ancestor of the current Biathlon event.
Alfred COUTTET was in charge of training these first-time jumpers and cross-country skiers. But the valiant pioneers arrived in rather poor shape at H-hour. The Captain explains:

"I was unable to check whether I had been an effective trainer, because having been housed in a barracks where an entire battalion had been decimated by influenza, the French runners turned up at the start of the long-distance race, coughing, spitting, handkerchiefs in hand. They were in such a sorry state that they did no good."

Couttet Champion, capitaine des équipes de France de ski, effectuant le saut d'ouverture du tremplin du Mont Olympique lors des premiers Jeux Olympiques d'hiver à Chamonix en 1924

Above, Couttet Champion performing the opening jump of the ski jumping events on the Mont Blanc Olympic ski jump.

The best places for the French will be taken by:

  • Grand Fond by Pouteil-Noble, 15th, 1h14 behind the winner Thorleig Haug, Norwegian,
  • in the Fond by Gilbert Ravanel, 21st. Winner Thorleig Haug,
  • Jumping: Klébert Balmat, 15th, with jumps at 36 and 39 m, compared with 2 jumps at 49 m by the winner, Norwegian Jacob Thams,
  • in the Combined event by Kléber Balmat, who took a fine 10th place behind Thorleig Haug, winner for the third time and undoubted star of these First Winter Games,
  • And finally, in the Military Race, Captain Mandrillon and his team-mates Berthet and Vandelle took third place on the first Olympic podium in the history of French skiing.

1973 • I wasn't even 10 years old when my grandfather, COUTTET CHAMPION, once again took the start of a ski race. It was a giant slalom. Among the competitors was James COUTTET, his pupil from the very beginning, World Speed Champion at the age of 16 and Silver Medallist at the 1948 Olympic Games in Saint-Moritz. COUTTET CHAMPION finished 1st and the only competitor in the 80-84 age category: he's 84 years old!

And although he had no direct rivals given his age, his time was far from ridiculous, as in pure speed he beat much younger competitors!

History of the Olympic Winter Games: the legendary life of Alfred Couttet

Interview with Bruno Couttet by Chinese journalist Jinjin Ma of CCTV (China Central Televison) on 7 December 2021 in Chamonix
Broadcast in French on 19 December 2021 on the Chinese 24-hour international news channel CGTN (China Global Television Network).