The long list of alpine ski racers who chose not to compete at this past weekend’s World Cup parallel event in Lech-Zuers, Austria, reads like a list of, well, the world’s best ski racers: Mikaela Shiffrin, Petra Vlhova, Marco Odermatt, Alexander Aamodt Kilde, Mauro Caviezel, Loic Meillard, Federica Brignone, Sofia Goggia, Tessa Worley, Alice Robinson, among others.
Instead, most of those racers, opted to travel for an early season taste of Colorado’s coveted hero snow and sun-drenched slopes in the Rockies, to gain valuable pre-season speed training, ahead of upcoming downhill and super-G races in Lake Louise, Canada, and Beaver Creek, Colorado.
The excited athletes, returning to North America for races for the first time since late 2019, considering the cancellation of all events last year due to coronavirus travel restrictions, were posting “Rocky Mountain High” Instagram photos fast and furiously, just like they fearlessly hurtle down Beaver Creeks’ technically demanding “Birds of Prey” track. All cool, but what about the parallel race in Austria?
Lech-Zuers race director and Austrian 1992 Olympic downhill champion Patrick Ortlieb tossed a virtual snowball in the face of Odermatt, insisting that if the new Swiss star is serious about winning his first overall World Cup title this season, he should be competing in Austria’s Arlberg. Of course, Ortlieb’s unexpected comments could also be chalked up to the decades-old Swiss-Austrian rivalry.
While parallel races have a history on the World Cup circuit dating to 1975, albeit contested sporadically, for a variety of reasons they remain a tough sell to the world’s premier racers – considered a novelty, not pure ski racing, contested on side-by-side courses that are not equal, technical inadequacies, an element of causing knee injuries unlike other disciplines, being purely gate bashing and probably more accompanied by the most descriptive curse words that the athletes can conjure away from the cameras.
In our current global sporting world, aren’t athletes rights, ideas and opinions paramount, critical to the integrity of sport? Is FIS listening?
FIS deserves to be applauded for effort – parallel races have been held in a variety of formats – both individual and team – and have been staged in non-traditional locations and venues, including on an enormous ramp constructed in downtown Moscow, on a city slope overlooking Stockholm, in Munich’s 1972 Olympic Park and now in Austria’s fabled Arlberg region, the cradle of modern skiing.
These events have been part of a creative effort to promote and market the sport to a larger, non-skiing crowd. Something along the lines of “if you can’t bring the city slickers to the ski slopes, then bring the slopes to the cities.”
However, the results have been mixed at best, despite attracting sufficient crowds, as many ski racers consider these races promotional events that should be contested without valuable World Cup points on the line. In fairness to the genre, plenty of racers also convey that they enjoy the spectacle, excitement and unpredictability of head-to-head racing, while FIS organizers claim the event is both fan and TV friendly.
Considering the many no shows at the Lech-Zuers event, both the male and female races allowed for fresh faces to shine in the spotlight: Austrian Christian Hirschbuehl, 21, and Slovenian Andreja Slokar, 24, both carved turns to their maiden World Cup victories.
Part of the challenge facing FIS, and ultimately concerning the International Olympic Committee, is that in Beijing 2022, the mixed team parallel event is on the Olympic program for just the second time, following its debut in PyeongChang 2018. And mixed gender team events, as we all know, are the latest trend. But the parallel races should have momentum leading up to the Olympics and the Lech-Zuers event this past weekend is the only one on this season’s World Cup calendar. It’s a bit strange for sure.
International Ski Federation president Gian-Franco Kasper lobbied hard for the parallel team event to become Olympic, particularly at the inaugural 2012 Winter Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck, as IOC president Jacques Rogge was not immediately swayed, standing up to Kasper and insisting that the event is not yet ready for the larger stage. Rogge eventually gave in to Kasper’s wishes and the parallel team event made the cut for PyeongChang 2018. Switzerland defeated Austria in the finals to bring home the first gold.
Considering the latest snub in Austria, and general lack of enthusiasm by many, but certainly not all, perhaps we are back to square one? How can the broken event be fixed? Wish we could have Mr. Kasper and Dr. Rogge back to help solve these problems. They’d have solutions.
There were two significant problems encountered this past weekend in Lech-Zuers.
Technically, there were major issues during women’s qualifications on Saturday, as on three occasions one gate failed to open as the side-by-side skiers were given the green light. Despite causing unexpected acrobatic moves stuck in the enclosed start gate, no one was injured. The three racers were then given solo runs, strange since it is a “dual” event, to clock a time.
Both Paula Moltzan and Norwegian Maria Therese Tverberg appeared flustered, and the U.S. ski racer lost an edge and crashed near the bottom of the course. The third skier, Austrian Stephanie Brunner, advanced to the knock-out round of 16, but that was all she could muster. The faulty start gate was replaced before the finals under the lights.
It was another credibility issue on Sunday with the men, albeit one they are accustomed, unfortunately, to dealing with – two race courses that are mountains apart as the red course was substantially faster then the adjacent blue course. This same problem was also a contentious issue at the February world championships in Cortina, Italy. While each racer is afforded one run on each course to determine who advances, supposedly creating a level playing field, the unequal courses still provides for an awkward and arguably unfair setup.
Norwegian Henrik Kristoffersen, one of the few top guns who showed up, found himself trailing Hirschbuehel by 0.5 seconds in the semifinals, the maximum advantage allowed after the first run. However, the Norwegian racing on the visibly slower course, lost significant time and was upset by the young Austrian. Kudos to Hirschbuehel for a hard-charging run, however to educated ski racing fans, the victory certainly had plenty to do with the vastly contrasting courses.
FIS must be careful because, ultimately, when you’re unable or unwilling to fix problems that fundamentally impact the outcome of races and results, the integrity of those races will undoubtedly be questioned. That should be a major concern, which must be addressed immediately.
Viable solutions may be tough to come by, in lieu of dropping the relatively unpopular event, and for the foreseeable future, parallel racing appears here to stay, considering the event’s Olympic status. For events to remain on the Olympic program, they must be contested annually, at least on occasion, on the World Cup tour or at other reputable events.
Although, some may argue that the Alpine Combined – combining runs of downhill and slalom – which has been a mainstay on the Olympic program for decades, has been left off this season’s World Cup program.
The retired Croatian racer Ivica Kostelic, a three-time Olympic medalist in combined, was highly critical of FIS’ peculiar scheduling and lack of an Alpine Combined this winter, outside of the Olympics, with its future in doubt. “Why are you destroying 100 years of ski racing history?,” Kostelic asked rhetorically
However, those 100 years of ski racing history, are best left for another lengthy debate, perhaps on a snowy afternoon, beside a cozy fireplace, warm beverage in hand. For the moment, FIS is up to their ears in great quantities of powder snow, concerning the parallel event. Skiing out of it might not be so easy.
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