I thought it was slipping away.
It has been a couple of decades now since big-air ski and aerial competitions, colliding snowboarders, double-flipping snowmobiles — with the explosion of gravity-defying trickery on the slopes — made ordinary ski racing look pretty tame by comparison. Yesterday stuff. Popularity slipping away.
Not just technical, but speed events — downhill and super-G — seem rooted in ye goode olde days of long hickory skis and leather boots.
Indeed, the very alpine race format — one skier interminably after another descending the same course, rounding the same gates, racing against the clock — seemed dated. Viewers and spectators seemed to be voting with their eyeballs and would rather be watching almost anything else on snow than alpine racing.
When the snowboard World Championships descended on Stratton Mountain a few years ago, crowds as large as 20,000 jammed into the event to roar their approval at the high-flying magic of Shaun White, Kelly Clark, et al.
Standing there in that tumult one night, it occurred to me (with a little sadness) that ski racing used to look like this — at the Olympics, in Europe, even in the Rockies — but that the scene had passed on. I remembered a crowd like this at Cannon Mountain in 1967 when Jean-Claude Killy, winner of three Olympic gold medals, appeared at a World Cup there. Undoubtedly, a 10-year-old Bode Miller was there at his home mountain taking in the scene.
But again, that seemed ancient history now. Snowsports seemed to have moved away from what was once considered the fresh antics of young daredevils when alpine first entered the Olympics in 1936.
And then, a huge surprise. Though alpine skiing’s national organizations have moved from New England to the Rockies over the past decades, leaving us in a kind of backwater, suddenly the roar was back. One weekend this November some 30,000 fans over two days came out to watch women’s World Cup technical racing at Killington, once the heartland of New England skiing.
And here is the fact; It was the largest crowd ever to see a women’s World Cup ski race.
They were boisterous, they had cowbells and flags, they looked like a crowd at Kitzbühel, Austria. Hundreds of volunteers came from all over Vermont ski areas to help pull off these wonderful races. The reason there had not been any major World Cups in New England is that, before the last two years at Killington, the FIS had not granted one since 1991 in Waterville Valley.
Sure, the next weekend at Beaver Creek, enormous crowds turned out for the men’s speed races, but at Vail and Beaver Creek — a huge ski city stretching about 10 miles down I-70 — one comes to expect such huge events. And the Birds of Prey downhill race is staged on one of the great speed mountains on the entire worldwide racing circuit.
Of course there is the possibility that the sheer star power of Mikaela Shiffrin, who high schooled in Vermont at Burke Mountain Academy, drew the huge fan turnout to support her almost inevitable podium finishes.
But I prefer to agree with John Fry, the longtime dean of ski journalism, co-founder of
NASTAR and author of the award-winning book “Story of Modern Skiing,” who wrote recently:
“… in New England, cradle of American skiing, love of the sport has never waned. The heartbeat is strong. If you include the amount of skiing they do in Colorado in the total, Northeastern skiers account for fully a third of the national skier days. They also purchase about a quarter of the alpine equipment. They were the ones who thronged the spectator stands and the roads leading to Killington.”
Of course staging ski racing events on the World Cup level costs huge sums of money, making it risky. Both the ski area and the FIS can lose big unless the crowds turn out as they did at Killington.
So whether it was star power, the Big K’s sheer party power, the essential army of volunteers, the great courses and conditions for an early season event, let’s hope the FIS noticed the November races at Killington and will never pass by New England again for a quarter century without a major league ski race.