Tuesday, May 12, 1998

Where's yesteryear's excitement at the races?

Once again, from November 19 to 21, the Alpine Ski World Cup made its annual stop in Park City for the 1998 America's Opening. This year, I watched the races from a variety of vantage points. From inside the arena to the sidelines and from a distance, uncovering the whole course, using my binoculars. One thing I found, in spite of the "official spin", was that the number of spectators watching these races is dwindling.

Aside from some isolated spectators who go there for the first time and make a genuine effort to understand what goes on the hill, the traveling fan-club members or a few nationals who live near Park City and Salt Lake and want to cheer their countrymen and women, the majority of spectators are the racers, their coaches, their support staff, suppliers or sponsors... The ski business gives a big party, the world is invited, but only a handful of insiders come. What an irony! Some will argue that the time picked for the events was too early in the season, that BYU was playing the University of Utah on that very week-end, or that the weather could have been better. In my opinion none of that is true: Skiing as a sport is no longer fit for spectators.

I take this assessment at heart. Skiing has been one of my life's great passion. Since I was a little boy growing up in the French Alps, this sport has been a magnet of tremendous strength. From as long as I can recall, I was a staunch admirer of the French Ski Team, "L'Équipe" as we called it. I still can vividly remember the parade given to my hometown's hero, Jean Vuarnet, upon winning the Squaw Valley's Olympic downhill in 1960. Then there were Adrien Duvillard and Guy Périllat's victories who started to challenge the incredible lock the Austrian ski team had upon competitive skiing at that time.

In those same years, TV made its way into the French households eager to follow this alpine action. In boarding school then, I wouldn't miss a beat of the 1962 FIS world championships in Chamonix, the 1964 Innsbruck Olympic and, in between, all the "Classics" like the Hannenkahm, the Lauberhorn, or the Kandahar. Then came the grandeur of the "Killy's years" during which Honoré Bonnet, a diminutive but disciplinarian French coach, started to clean up the Austrians' clocks.

Without succumbing to nostalgia, these years had an incredible impact on my entire adult life. Among other things, they would lead me to pick the ski industry as a career with the same kind of devotion required to enter priesthood. This was my way, my vocation. As I have said before, my life's vision was to live in a place where snow would never melt and skiing would be grand. Perhaps this was the ideal "Snow Country" way before its time. After spending ten hours a day teaching skiing for five full years, including a few winter seasons down under in Australia, I got a first glimpse at the world cup when I became director of racing services for a French binding company. This was back in the mid-seventies. At that time, racing was already starting to take a turn to the worst. Its glory years had just started to slip...

The deterioration came under the guise of fairness and safety. Fairness first; the nature of snow which is not quite like asphalt: Its surface and properties can change dramatically after the passage of several competitors. It also mirror all the bumps and other imperfections of terrain beneath when snow cover is thin. Combine this with changes in weather ranging from fog to snow, humidity, dryness, extreme cold or even freezing rain and you have the most changing environment. Safety concerns came in second. Downhills then, were narrow gullies lined up with trees and other obstacles; as a result, accidents did happen. To protect from that risk, runs were widened, nets installed and everyone felt a little better.

At that point, skiers could barrel down the hill faster and to accommodate the higher speeds, runs were again made even smoother and wider. The Fédération Internationale de Ski (FIS), skiing governing body worked relentlessly at making ski less risky and more consistant. When you bring both safety and predictability into the picture, you also remove excitement and sprinkle boredom over the whole picture. Back in the 60s, downhills used to be thrilling spectacles. This was the main reason why this event was the centerpiece of skiing and was so cherished by spectators.

In Europe, most downhill courses were downright scary. To this day, I still can picture two of my hometown downhills in Morzine, France. One was "Nyon", the other "La Vaineuve". They were both vicious versions of Kitzbuehel's infamous "Hannenkahm". The same was true of "La Verte" in Les Houches, near Chamonix. On these courses something happened all the time. Unpredictability was the norm, strong emotions were guaranteed, and fear was part and parcel of the event. In these days, speed was just one component of the event. Uncertainty, risk, luck and unadulterated courage made for the rest. On these narrow, speedy ribbons, the natural reliefs of terrain were omnipresent to unsettle racers, the bumps were tricky to negotiate, the compressions crushing, and the total lack of transition between blinding winter light and complete darkness in those shady and steep gullies, were all traps leaving no place for cruising on automatic pilot...

As we moved into the 70s, Val Gardena and Schladming offered the kind of courses that would set new speed records and reshaped downhill runs after the German "autobahns". By that time, alpine downhills had literally cleaned up their act and things would never be the same again. Sure, and thanks to Bernhard Russi, attempts were made through "designer's downhill courses" to bring back excitement at the last Olympiads. These new runs attempted to recreate the "excitement" of the past but still with the FIS' blessing. The attempt was nice but failed to restore the charm and the spontaneity of natural courses. Yet, spectators crave on spontaneity! Hermann Maier's flight in Nagano is a vivid proof of that... Today, the world has forgotten Crétier's Olympic victory in that downhill, but the flight of the "Herminator", like Klammer's near-fall at the 1976 Olympics will remain engraved forever in aficionados' memories.

What is clear is that the "cleansing" and "sanitizing" of Downhill courses succeeded in removing whatever the last doses of thrills and excitement that were inherent with that event. The emasculation of the downhill let to the invention of the Super G, a hybrid but useless race somewhere between GS and downhill. Incidentally the proliferation of events is a sure recipe for dulling bona-fide competitions. The International Olympic Committee has become an expert at diluting its own Games by adding more an more events and, in the process, by robbing from legitimate, "classic" disciplines.

On the surface, Giant Slalom appears to have best weathered the "emasculation" process of alpine skiing, but this might be just an other illusion. GS courses have become so polished that it is has become increasingly difficult to miss a gate or make huge mistakes. Again, the overall smoothness of the terrain has become the great equalizer. In addition, super-sidecut skis and binding platforms are now stearing skiers instead of the other way around... A more obvious victim however was the Slalom since the advent of break-away gates. The end result of that move has been a "robotization" of the spectacle resulting in racers mowing down a line of break-away poles.

This may sound like an oversimplification; technical challenges are still many in slalom, but a great deal of suspense and a lack of predictability went south the day the first break-away pole was tightly secured into the snow... In all cases, the uniform surface, the new equipment and a consistent snow did a great job at eliminating the chance factor built into the choice of a specific line and did a great job at homogenizing all the racers' styles.

Over the years, these attempts to perfect the sport just did the opposite by dulling the "edge" that made it so exciting in the past. Further, it acted as the ultimate "leveler" in bringing together the style of athletes that could -- in the past -- be easily spotted with the naked eye and without much understanding of ski racing. Today, racers look pretty much all the same. You've seen one, you've seen them all. Their style is stereotyped and technical differences are very hard to spot... Based on these observations, it now make more sense that spectators have deserted the finish areas and their TV sets, not just in America, but also in Europe.

I remember vividly a Sunday of March 1975 when some 40,000 excited spectators came to Val Gardena to watch the World Cup Finals between Thoeni, Stenmark and Klammer. One dual slalom would decide everything! The explosive atmosphere of that day and the incredible energy that was floating in the air is no longer felt at major winter sports events. Of course all the various race formats offered by the(FIS) are not made for TV and this sport action was never designed to be framed on the small screen and be entertainment-packed.

Bob Beattie and Honoré Bonnet -- Killy's coach -- had understood this caveat when they tried to introduce dual races. The concept had great promises but the dinosaurs running FIS did very little to allow this format to evolve and gain in strength or popularity. Today, and in order to appeal to the masses, a sport has to be conceived so it can fit and entertain within that same TV screen. It is indeed very hard to "torture" a sport event to fit the requirements of modern television. As a result, I believe that after perfecting the race conditions, while ignoring the formulas used in the most popular sport marketing events like the NFL or the NBA, the FIS did a remarkable job at softly killing competitive skiing.

Of course, the changes made to the runs, the equipment and the technique are not the sole factors responsible for the decline in ski racing's popularity. There have been quantum changes in attitudes in the racing circles and among spectators. When in the 70s sports marketing became a business reality, it had some terrible effects on "small" sports like ski racing.

As it is said: "A fish always rot from the head." All probably started with the officials working at the national and international ski federations levels and then filtered down to the coaches and finally to the athletes. These people saw the worldly image of skiing, but forgot its tiny resources and limited audience. Skiing will never be like football, golfing or even tennis; a huge abyss exists between Michael Jordan and Hermann Maier...

When compared to most other sports, its total number of participants is minuscule, its attraction very limited and its promotional resources quite modest. It is therefore not appropriate to develop attitudes that belong in the upper league of sports and hope that the skiing public will put up with it. To gain support and attract, ski racing should remain fun, close to the people and for the people.

Let's now talk about the spectators and the way things are viewed through their eyes. Winters used to be long, dreary and devoid of any fun. One way to create some more pleasant experience was to go outdoors and slide or watch people have fun in the snow or on the ice... Since 1960, winter entertainment has evolved by leaps and bounds. Technologies, that couldn't have been even imagined thirty years ago, have appeared and multiplied. From mini-cassettes to CDs, from TV to videos, from radio to computer games, from cheap airfares to sun and beach destinations, recreational options are now endless...

In the meantime, Hollywood has become the world's new spiritual leader and cranks out products that are perfectly fitted to mass consumption. Gray winter days don't necessarily require a ski race to bring excitement. Today, faraway exotic places or up to the minute entertainment are at one's fingertips, or better yet, at the touch of the remote control, with the proliferation of televised options. Video, electronic games or the web are perfect outlets for literally eating-up long winter afternoons.

With this plethora of options, these last thirty years have spoiled our ski spectators. These have become more demanding and would like to see more than a succession of ski racers who look all the same, do the same motions, all in a blustery cold environment. An adjustment to this dying format is long overdue. Maybe that before cloning one single sheep, we successfully cloned our contemporary ski racers as well...

In an upcoming article, I will now explore ideas that might be poised to reviving the interest for our great sport of skiing.