TV Slalom

A Teeth-Rattling Trip Down The Women’s Super-G World Cup Course in Cortina

DATELINE Cortina D’Amprezzo, Saturday, Jan. 19. I’m watching the Ski World Cup Women’s Slalom Super-G Qualifier on television.  That’s in Italy – although you’d never know from the Austrian sports commentators. It’s the Süd Tyrol, bitte schön. And that’s that.

We learn that it was 0 degrees on the “Tofana Felden,” the night before, and that the foundation snow was now over a month old, with only a thin cover of artificial white stuff to smooth the way for all these dreams of glory.

Then they show us an aerial shot of craggy mountainsides, crusted with rock, dusted here and there with thin strips of white, outlining the protrusions like the layers of a Mannerschnitte. Two skiers in racing togs are sitting on the rocks sunning themselves, their stiff boots jutting up at right angles.

Just the day before, American Julia Mancuso had careened to a wild victory, looking as if she was only barely connected to the flying boards beneath her. So today, with Austrians Marlies Schild and Nicole Hosp in 1st and 2nd place overall, just ahead of Mancuso, the Alpine goddess Renate Götschl close behind, and American Lindsey Kildow and Austrian Kathrin Zettel hovering nearby, it looks as if it will be a fine race, packed with partisan fervor.

Sweeping down to the base of the mountain, the camera shows us a disarming scene of alpine village charm, chalets with sloping roofs and carved wooden porches nestled together on the hillside between the trees, as protection against the elements. Which is all lovely until you realized how green everything is.

In fact, the ski conditions are far from perfect; there has been no fresh snow for a month. What is there has held since then, because of the cold, it is now effectively ice, and the artificial top layer gets scraped off each morning in short order. Winter on this warming planet is a disappointing thing.

The start is delayed while final repairs are made to the course. I head for the kitchen for a second cup of coffee.

I return to a television screen jiggling manically before my eyes, a stuttering mass of streaky white.. What’s this? Somehow we’re on the slope, barrelling down at break neck speed, taking every ripple in the packed ice like a blow to the jaw.

A man’s voice is shouting out of nowhere: “The snow’s relatively fast… aaoouuph!” a massive groan explodes from the tube, as the picture goes thumping around the first curve, and flies off into space before rattling back to earth, continuing on, shuttering and bouncing down the hill, slalom poles grazing just past the right ear.

Some mad man is taking us pelting down the course, squawking advice at us through what are clearly impossible difficulties, so we’ll have more sympathy for the racers who all make it look so easy.

“Es ist grandios!” the disembodied voice shouts, gasping for breath, as we go clattering along with teeth rattling in our skulls to the reverberations of the camera that seems to be going through massive morphine withdrawal.

Jaw clenched and knuckles white, I realize I am choking all life out of the helpless arm of the sofa. My neck and shoulders are absolutely rigid, while my feet are making funny twisting dance movements below me.

It dawns on me that I am wedel-ing on the carpet.

I realize I am absolutely terrified.

Later, I find out that the mad man is Thomas Sykora, former Austrian ski champion with nine world cup victories to his name, nephew of Olympic athletes Maria Sykora and the late Austrian Interior Minister Liese Prokop.  Following repeated knee injuries, he gave up racing and became a commentator for ORF, and makes a practice of taking the fans down the course before the race.

Which in this case, I never did see. I was in a state of shock. But I read later that Götschl the Goddess was back on top, with blond bomber Julia Mancuso just 16 tenths of a second behind. Poor Lindsey Kildow had a crash landing and didn’t finish. No matter. I had long since retreated to my bed, wrapped in a comforter and the blissful oblivion of a good book.

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