By Gabriel Kuhn
I spent most of my childhood in the Austrian Alps where a local saying claims that infants “learn to ski before they learn to walk”. While this, obviously, is an exaggeration, the role that Alpine skiing plays in the region must not be underestimated. It’s the people’s sport as well as the mainstay of the economy, and the success of local ski racers serves as an enormous source of local pride. On top of that, I come from a skiing family. My grandfather once was president of the Austrian Skiing Association, one of the country’s most influential administrative bodies. This was before the association was turned into a money-making machine by business-savvy leaders, but I was still able to visit the World Cup races in Kitzbühel or St. Anton, which belonged to the highlights of my youth.
This brings me to a different kind of World Cup race I attended last week at my new home, Stockholm, Sweden. Just like any other venture under neoliberal capitalism – sports or not – the International Skiing Federation is trying to increase the popularity (that is, revenue) of its main product, the World Cup. That’s why, among other innovations (more attractive racing formats, TV-compatible hours, styling sessions for women racers), it conceived “City Events”. The idea is to take the best skiers to short slopes in big cities (“where the people are”) and have them battle it out one-on-one in a parallel slalom instead of racing against the clock. The winner takes it all, the loser is done and gone. Possibly athletic contest at its worst, but, as they say, it’s a good show. It doesn’t seem to matter that the competitive value is questionable: the runs are extremely short (about twenty seconds), the start from behind gates with a mechanical release unusual (but crucial for the outcome), and the included jumps alien to any regular slalom (but spectacular and ideal for advertisements). Despite all this, the public loves the City Events and they seem here to stay. The Stockholm race had been sold out for weeks. The skiers’ skepticism is appeased with generous World Cup points and more-than-average prize money.
For politically interested sports fans, Alpine skiing – and, for that matter, most winter sports – is dire terrain. There is neither enough money nor fame around for individual athletes to gain much independence and challenge the practices of skiing associations and sponsors. Most rely on the financial support they receive from these sources, which therefore wield enormous influence. If conflicts of some political interest arise, they usually concern the relationship between the two. Among top-ranked skiers, Austrian Anna Veith (formerly Fenninger) and Norwegian Henrik Kristoffersen have in recent years stood up for “athletes’ rights”, which meant that they wanted to change the logos on their equipment: from those of their national skiing associations’ sponsors to those of better paying private ones. Other skiers with a public standing high enough to grant them some leeway in what they can and cannot do use their relative freedom for similar purposes. Lindsey Vonn declares in a commercial for a product I can’t remember that she “never goes for second or third place” (only first will do, of course), while “bad boy” Bode Miller calls for press conferences announcing unlikely comebacks in order to promote his new ski company, Bomber.
It’s hard to blame the individual athletes. Money makes skiing go round, too. But it’d be nice if one day a Roberto Clemente or Billie Jean King of the trade appeared.
The men’s event in Stockholm was won by the German Linus Strasser, ranked 22nd in the season’s slalom standings before the race. It was Strasser’s first ever World Cup win. The women’s event ended with the world’s best slalom racer, Mikaela Shiffrin, taking the title. With City Events, you never know.
(February 6, 2017)