Emile Allais is a legend in French skiing - a great champion but also a pioneer, an inventor, an inspirational figure in world skiing - a true visionary. Emile's home town of Megève joined with him to celebrate his 100th birthday and OnTheSnow was lucky enough to be invited to the party.
Who is Emile Allais?
- First French World Champion and first French Olympic medallist
- First qualified French ski instructor and the inventor of the official 'French ski method'
- First French pisteur and the inventor of modern mechanical slope maintenance
- Planner and developer of many ski resorts in France and abroad - including Portillo and La Parva in Chili, Squaw Valley, Sun Valley and Baldy in the US, and Sierra Nevada in Spain
- Designer of the first aerodynamic ski clothing
- Ski designer including the very successful metal Rossignol Allais 60
100th birthday celebrations
[R1085R, Megève] celebrated Emile's birthday on Feb. 25 with a spectacular demonstration of how skiing evolved through the life and work of Emile. The 400 instructors from the Megève ski school organised the event on the snow covered slopes of the Chemin du Calvaire in the town. The terrace and the open-air ice rink below was an ideal area for the large crowd that came to watch the event and greet their skiing hero. The programme included demonstrations of skiing through the years showing how it had changed, interspersed with old films of Emile and other skiers, all accompanied by vin chaud and speeches. The high-speed descent by Emile's grand children, looking like future ski champions, was a surprise and a great end to a picturesque evening.
The biggest surprise of the evening was the starring role of Emile Allais himself. The centurion astonished everybody by his vigorous participation in the celebrations. This amazing old man has kept his brain, his athletic figure, broad shoulders and the famous piercing blue eyes. He skied until last year and still trains on a cycling machine every day. He began the evening with a full blown press conference, complete with TV and radio interviews. Emile answered all the questions, with his usual patience and courtesy and just a touch of irony here and there.
100th birthday celebrations in Megeve. Credit Martine Gillet
What does it feel like to be 100 years old?
Emile Allais: Well, really very good thank you. I am delighted to have got here.
What is the secret of living so long?
Emile Allais: Live a natural life, avoid aggravation, good health is the main thing . . . No cigarettes, you should avoid tobacco. I am convinced that smoking shortens your life by 10 or 15 years. I had two brothers younger than me and they both smoked a lot and they are both dead.
What do you have to do to be a champion?
Emile Allais: Well first you have to be talented, after that to be any good you have to train, but everyone has the same opportunity. When I learnt to ski there were no lifts and the slopes were not maintained as they are now. Today the ski slopes are like carpets.
After the press conference he talked to Onthesnow about his time in America. He said, "Yes I have very happy memories of my time in America. They are very hospitable people . . . Over there they really like top athletes . . . Everything was very well organised. We built some very fine resorts. I really enjoyed my time over there and trained the US Olympic ski team for the Winter Olympics at Oslo in 1952. For me to go to America in those days was a dream."
After the press conference there was a packed reception at the Mairie attended by Megeve's finest and anybody else who could squeeze in. Then it was on to the ski demonstrations on the slopes and only then did the centurion go home. Altogether an amazing performance.
The headlines of his career and exchanges with journalists only scratch the surface of his achievements and everything he has done for skiing.
Emile Allais at the press conference on his 100th birthday. Credit Martine Gillet
A lucky war orphan
Emile was born in Megève, the son of a baker, where his otherwise happy childhood was saddened and disrupted by the death of his father on the Western Front in the First World War. Even so he had a lot of luck. First of all he was endowed with great physical ability and excelled in several sports - cycling, ice hockey and athletics, including pole vaulting. He was invited to train as a top professional cyclist but preferred the mountains.
His second stroke of luck was his uncle Hilaire Morand. Uncle Hilaire came back from service on the Russian front an accomplished skier bringing with him a pair of skis. He was one of the few in the area in those days who knew how to ski. The third lucky element for Emile was the arrival in Megève of Baronne Néomie de Rotschild fanatical skier and determined to turn Megève into a smart skiing resort to rival St Moritz.
When la Baronne brought her rich friends to Megève, Uncle Hilaire took them skiing and Emile tagged along to help. He quickly learned to ski and was able to improve his technique with the help of Otto Lantschner one of the Austrian instructors then in vogue at Megève. Before long he was a match for most of the top Austrian instructors then in charge of skiing in Megève.
Emile Allais with daughters and grandchildren. Credit Martine Gillet
A great skiing champion
After doing his National Service in the mountain regiment, the Chasseurs Alpins, Emile was chosen as a member of the French alpine skiing team. In 1936 he won a bronze medal at the Winter Olympics. Despite being the first Frenchman to win a winter Olympic medal the result was greeted with a certain lack of enthusiasm in his native Megève, where they thought he should have won. In 1937 he won a triple gold medal in the World Cup in the downhill, slalom and combined, winning the downhill by an amazing 13 seconds. In 1938, despite ill health he was again world champion in the combined competition.
Crusader for the French ski style
At this early stage in his career the difference between the 26-year-old French star and other champions was already clear. Despite minimal education he thought deeply about the problems of his sport. He was the first to design and wear relatively aerodynamic ski pants - known in the French as the ‘fuseau'. To win he had invented his own style of skiing different to the Austrians who dominated international skiing at the time. Not content with winning medals, he wanted to get everyone in France skiing his way.
Emile quickly became the force behind the new Ecole de Ski Française. His instructor's diploma is number one. Backed up by his reputation as world champion he published Ski Français a book on his new skiing technique - effectively parallel skiing. If his first career in skiing was as a racer, his second was that of teacher. At this time he was also called on to advise Scotsman David Lindsay on the planning of the new resort at Méribel. Lindsay wanted to create a new resort away from the Nazi influences prevailing in the then fashionable German and Austrian ski resorts.
A broken ankle and the outbreak of World War Two ended his career as a competitive skier. However he continued his crusade to impose his style of skiing in France despite two interruptions for active service in the French army in 1939-40 and 1944-45. His wide interest in all things skiing are reflected in his time immediately after the armistice in 1940 when he found himself without work - he became a high-altitude cable layer on the highest cable car in the world, the Aiguilles du Midi at [R106R, Chamonix]. He also accepted an invitation to spend a whole summer working in a factory making skis for the Norwegian company Tangwall in Paris. By the end of the war he was Technical Director of French skiing but like many champions of his day, had very little money - greatly respected and seriously underpaid.
Emile Allais talking at press conference. Credit: Martine Gillet
The Americas and resort building
As well as being under paid, Emile Allais was without any formal educational qualifications in a France where diplomas were essential for a successful well paid career. In 1945 he received a colourful invitation to go to Chile and organise skiing at the new resort of [R756R, Portillo] and at the same time train the Chilean Olympic team. All his expenses would be paid but he would receive no pay. At the same time he received an invitation to go to Quebec's Val Cartier and do the same job in Canada but with pay. After a quick look in the atlas, the idea of skiing in the Andes convinced him to go to Chile.
After a year in Chile, he took up the appointment in Canada and from there was invited to go to [R440R, Sun Valley] in the United States. After Sun Valley he was persuaded by Peter Cushing the promoter of [R419R, Squaw Valley] to join him as technical adviser on how the resort should be designed and run. He also coached the US Olympic team. It was at Squaw Valley that he invented the first caterpillar snow grooming machine. He also designed and popularised the first quilted anorak for skiing. It is a tribute to his work that within 10 years of opening Squaw Valley was ready to receive the 1960 Winter Olympics. For the eight years that he was in the Americas, Emile spent the northern hemisphere summers in Chile but it was in the United States that his third career as a resort designer and planner really took off. It was there that he reinforced his knowledge of the whole world of winter sports and developed his philosophy towards the skiing public. Everything should be done to make sure that all skiers at all levels have a good and safe time on the slopes.
Return to France
With the knowledge and ideas that he had developed in the Americas, in 1954, he accepted an invitation to return to France as Resort Director of the new resort at [R117R, Courchevel]. His mission was to turn it into a top international resort. There he introduced the function of the ‘pisteur sécourist' specially employed to maintain the slopes and introduced the levels of grooming he had achieved in the States. His ideas and methods were quickly copied in other resorts. He moved on to work at [R206R, La Plagne], [R591R, Vars], [R1564R, Les Ménuires] and [R1310R, Flaine]. At the same time he advised on the development of many other resorts all over France and abroad. At the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley (the resort Emile had created) Frenchman, Jean Varnuet won the gold medal in the downhill using metal skis that Emile had designed with Rossignol, the 'Allais 60'. His prestige was at its height. Finally Emile finished his career quietly concentrating on his ski clothing shop.
Ideas for skiing
All his life he has never stopped thinking about the future development of skiing and later snowboarding. In an interview at the age of 95, he suggested that skiers should be like golfers and have a collection of pairs of skis for different purposes and urged that car parking arrangements needed to be improved. He pointed out that ski lift capacity had been greatly increased without a matching effort to improve the capacity of the ski runs with the inevitable risk of collisions. He wanted resorts to install seats so that people had somewhere to sit to watch the skiing. He has remained a constant source of ideas for improving his obsession, the well being of the skiing public.