Snow Bound

Professional skiing gives Austria relief from their dismal football performance

The Obertauern resort, south of Salzburg, boasts more than 100km of slopes | Photo: Dustin Cook

The Obertauern resort, south of Salzburg, boasts more than 100km of slopes | Photo: Dustin Cook

Along with the arrival of winter temperatures, just in time for the Christmas markets and Punsch, comes an introduction to one of the country’s many passions: skiing.

For newcomers, this introduction often comes whether you like it or not. If you’ve just arrived in the country and find yourself talking to a native, you will quickly learn that a favorite question is, “do you ski?”  After a couple beers, they might even ask you twice. Indeed, in a land covered in Alpine peaks, it only makes sense that Austria’s inhabitants would appreciate a sport that allows them to exploit their landscape for their personal amusement. Watching the competitive side of skiing just goes hand in hand with actually doing the sport.

We newcomers may find ourselves sneaking a peek at the television when World Cup Skiing is aired – though without a clue of what’s going on. This writer hailing from the U.S. found himself nonplussed and embarrassed four years ago when asked if he knew who Bode Miller was – a recent American addition to the sports’ hall of fame.  Skiing, as a spectator sport, does not reach the grandeur and hegemonic status that football has in many parts of the world, and that basketball, baseball and NFL football have in the U.S. Yet, the Alpine Skiing World Cup feeds the athletic appetites of Austrians.

Given the success Austria has had in recent years (and historically) one can understand why.  Seven of the nine men’s champions from 1998 to 2006 were Austrian, as were four of the women’s champions between 1999 and 2007.  With all this success, a sense of relief washes over the country when skiing replaces football during its winter break, and natives aren’t confronted with the embarrassing performance of their footballers.

But lately, the Austrians have been challenged by the improved performance of American skiers. Names like Bode Miller and Lindsey Vonn have become household names in the U.S., thanks to the championships in 2005 and 2008 of the former, and the latter’s in 2008. In fact, American skiers had not swept both the men’s and women’s Cups since Phil Mahre and Tamara McKinney took first place at the end of the season in 1983.

For those of us who are not familiar with competition format, here are the basics:  The men’s season is composed of 38 races occurring at 18 resorts in the five largest Alpine countries, Scandinavia, Croatia, Canada and the U.S. from October 8th to March 15th, 2009.  The women’s season is composed of 36 races at 16 resorts. Men and women compete separately, and usually at separate resorts, in five different disciplines: slalom, giant slalom, super-G, downhill and super-combi.

Slalom and giant slalom are seen as the more “technical” disciplines, requiring more maneuvering between pairs of poles, or gates.  In giant slalom the gates are wider apart. The “speed” events, Super G and downhill, require a great deal more strength, especially when the skier reaches a speed of over 90 km/h. Introduced in 2005, as a variation of the combined event, the super-combi integrates slalom and either downhill or super G, depending upon the competition.

The fastest time after two runs merits the highest number of points (100), while second, third, and fourth place receive 80, 60, 50, 45 and so forth.

In addition to the World Cup the skiers also compete in the biennial World Championships being held this season in the first half of February 2009, at the French resort of Val d’Isère.

After the opening giant slalom in Sölden, Austria and the slalom in Levi, Finland, Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Grange has displayed his skill in the technical disciplines, by coming out on top of the men’s table, with defending champion Bode Miller currently sitting in second. The third race in Lake Louise, Canada will test Grange’s strength in the downhill.

As for the Austrians, sixth place Mario Matt finished third in Levi, whereas hopefuls Benjamin “Benni” Raich and Reinfried Herbst failed to complete their second run. Ski hero Hermann Maier has recovered from a back injury, and looks to celebrate his birthday on December 7 in Beaver Creek, with a win after missing the first two competitions.

On the ladies’ side, defending champion Lindsey Vonn won her first slalom, maintaining her lead in the standings and dedicating her win to former coach and Austrian-born Erich Sailer.

Austrian Kathrin Zettel came in first on her home turf at the debut in Sölden, but failed to finish in Levi, Finland. Other compatriot hopefuls include Andrea Fischbacher and Nicole Hosp, who sit seventh and eighth respectively.

Throughout December, the men’s tour makes stops each weekend in Beaver Creek (Colorado, USA), Val d’Isère (France), and the Italian resorts of Val Gardena-Groeden, Alta Badia and Bormio.  The ladies’ tour travels to Lake Louise in Canada, La Molina in the Spanish Pyrenees, and the Swiss resort of St. Moritz before finishing 2008 in Semmering, Austria.

So, each weekend from December to March, don’t be surprised to see Austrians glued to the television clutching a Glühwein, as their Alpine hopefuls look to bring the Cup back home. And with Hermann Maier’s first-place-finish in the Super G on November 30, Austrians have a lot to look forward to this season.

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