Peter Shelton

In Aspen, snow played the villain

Posted in Ski evolution, Watch columns by pshelton on December 1, 2009

The play-by-play guy at Sunday’s World Cup race in Aspen must have mispronounced the last name of Maria and Suzanne Riesch two dozen times. The sisters pronounce their name “Reesh.” The rules of “ie” and “ei” in German are unambiguous. But the P.A. guy kept saying it with a long “i” sound, so that it rimed with Third Reich.

The real villain of the weekend, though, if you listened to disappointed Americans, was the snow.

The snow? The snow was the bad guy on an otherwise perfect, blue-sky, banner-waving, stadium-stomping, live-broadcasting, best-in-the-world slalom race?

But back to getting the names right for just a minute. Our disembodied, amplified cheerleader also botched the name of the eventual winner, Sarka Zahrobska, from Czech Republic. He kept calling her “Zahbroska.”

These are not mortal sins. But they did make me cringe, and they no doubt grated the ears of the hundreds of Europeans, the coaches and technicians, the media and the racers themselves who travel with and make up the core of the White Circus. And it must have reinforced for some of these people the notion that the United States, still, is not ready to take an equal place beside the Alpine skiing nations.

I say still because we have on our side of the ledger, Lindsey Vonn, clearly the best lady skier in the world for the last two seasons. Vonn has captured the World Cup overall title, plus a handful of discipline crystal globes, two years running, edging her good friend Maria Riesch both times.

Positive and pretty and press-friendly, Vonn has become a star—she even has a “Vonntourage.” And she was the big draw at Aspen, the only World Cup races in the U.S. this year. So there was much disappointment when in the giant slalom on Saturday Lindsey clipped a rock mid-turn and skidded in to 39th place.

Oh well. There was always Sunday’s slalom, an even stronger discipline for Vonn. I watched from skier’s right of the finish line as one-by-one the top seeds sliced around the red and blue gates. Austrian Kathrin Zettel, who came second the day before, looked solid despite the brutally hard surface underfoot. Maria Riesch bobbled a bit but kept it together. Zahrobska came down fourth with a smoothly controlled run, making it look easy. Marlies Schild, an Austrian returning after a year off with a broken leg, put in a time just behind Zahrobska’s. Vonn started seventh.

She looked good in her white and pink suit, until half-way along she got sideways, missed a gate and that was that, it was over. DNF: did not finish. No time for the first run. No chance for a second run.

Afterwards Vonn told the press that the snow was too difficult, that it was “essentially like pond ice.” It’s not ski racing anymore when it’s like that, she said, “it’s ice skating. . . It doesn’t look good on TV.”

Nobody likes to see their heroes look bad. Sometimes the wind comes up at the British Open and Tiger Woods turns into a hacker. At Aspen 24 of the 73 starters either fell or slid off the first-run course (though all 30 second-run racers did manage to stand up). For only the second time in recent memory, no Americans made the second-run cut.

The snow was undeniably hard and slick. It had been injected with water in the days leading up to the races, an increasingly common practice on both the men’s and women’s tours. The idea is to guarantee a “fair racing surface.” In snow that is too soft, the early runners carve ruts around the gates that make it difficult for later starters to notch a good time.

(In one of the happiest stories from Sunday, French skier Anne-Sophie Barthet came all the way up to sixth place, from the 58th start position, and did a little dance in the finish area much to the delight of the crowd. Especially sweet for Barthet was the fact that she had broken her leg in the 2007 Aspen races, on snow that was belatedly deemed too soft.)

So, injection became the big story, in Aspen and in the blogosphere afterward. Should all courses be injected? Or should it be a last resort when Mother Nature (or global warming) isn’t cooperating? Should the fairer sex be spared injection where the heavier, stronger men really need it to keep things fair?  Shouldn’t regular-old high-density man-made snow be hard enough?

It was disappointing to hear Lindsey blame the snow—everybody had to ski the same conditions. Especially disappointing since Vonn had trained all week on a private slope in Vail (her home town) that had been injected just for her. And, to top it off, this is what she Tweeted her fans on Saturday night: “Just finished freeskiing on the race hill. It’s pretty icy but thankfully I had great grip! Excited to see the Vonntourage @ the race 2morrow!”

The World Cup has iced itself into a corner. In its drive for “fairness,” for perfectly consistent conditions from first racer to last, it has harnessed technologies that are still more art than science. With occasionally aberrant results.

Lindsey’s right about one thing: Ski racing is not the same game it used to be. (You and I would barely be able to stand up on one of those bulletproof tracks.) If the women want to get together and protest courses that have almost nothing to do with cloud-given crystals, with what we know as snow, then they should do that. In the meantime, Sarka Zahrobska had it right after her impressive victory: “If you want to win you have to know how to ski on every snow on every course.”

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