Austrian skiing great Toni Sailer, who in 1956 became the first to win all three Alpine gold medals at a Winter Olympics, has died at age 73.
Sailer passed away in Innsbruck on Monday after a long illness, his Kitzbuehel Ski Club said Tuesday.
In Austria, where skiing is a national pastime, Sailer's death symbolized the end of an era.
Austrian President Heinz Fischer issued a statement paying tribute to Sailer as "a top athlete who already became a legend during his lifetime."
Sailer won the downhill, slalom and giant slalom at the 1956 Cortina Olympics in Italy. At the world championships there, he took gold in the downhill, slalom, giant slalom and combined.
Sailer _ who reportedly strapped on skis for the first time at the age of 2 _ also won gold in the downhill, giant slalom and combined, as well as silver in the slalom, at the world championships in Bad Gastein, Austria two years later. Due to his speed, he became known as "the black lightning bolt from Kitz."
After retiring from competition in 1959, Sailer became a singer and an actor. He also produced skis in Canada and served as technical director of the Austrian Ski Federation between 1972 and 1976. He also served as the race director of the prestigious Hahnenkamm competition, where he won the downhill race in 1957 and the giant slalom in 1958. In both years, he also won downhill gold at Switzerland's Lauberhorn piste.
Sailer was awarded the Olympic Order by the International Olympic Committee in 1985. In 1999, Sailer was honored as Austria's sportsman of the century.
Other Austrian ski stars expressed sadness at the news of Sailer's death.
Franz Klammer, the 1976 Olympic downhill gold medalist, said he idolized Sailer as a child.
"As a small boy, I wanted to be just like him," he was quoted as saying by the Austria Press Agency.
Four-time World Cup overall champion Hermann Maier said he would never forget his encounters with Sailer and admired the way he dealt with his unidentified illness.
"Toni did great things for Austria and for skiing as a sport," Maier told APA.
Sport Minister Norbert Darabos said Sailer, as one of the country's most successful athletes, set an example for the young.
"Sailer's achievements for Austrian sports will live on," Darabos said.