Excerpted from 'The Fall Line' by Nathaniel Vinton. Copyright © 2015 by Nathaniel Vinton. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
Check out Bill Littlefield's review and conversation with Vinton here.
The story of the renaissance in American skiing coincides with another. In the three years after Torino, existential threats to the sport itself became apparent. First among these was climate change. The winter of 2006–07 was at that point the warmest ever recorded in the Alps, and possibly the warmest in the last five hundred years. Hundreds of races were canceled, including Kitzbühel, underscoring the reality that the mountains where alpine skiing thrives are thawing, with winters getting wetter and shorter on average. The glaciers where ski racing was born are shrinking at an accelerating pace, and with them the available training space for elite skiers at key moments in the season. If average temperatures continue to rise, ski areas will be forced to raise prices or go out of business, limiting the number of young people with access to the sport, particularly in the -lower--elevation hotbeds of American ski culture like New England and the upper Midwest, which gave rise to Miller and Vonn.
Snowy winters returned to the Alps in 2008, but by then there was another troubling trend: a spate of gruesome injuries to prominent racers including Aksel Lund Svindal, Dane Spencer, Scott Macartney, Matthias Lanzinger and Daniel Albrecht. Though none of these skiers died, the severity of their injuries—-and the morbid viral appeal of the accident footage online—-spurred organizers and administrators of alpine skiing to address the inherent danger of the sport in dramatic ways.
The link between global warming and downhill racing’s carnage issues was evident in the increased speeds, and their consequences. Warm air softens the snow, eventually making a course unraceable, so to protect race organizers and television -broadcast--rights holders from cancellation, organizers have perfected various -snow--hardening techniques. Where rain or warm winds could once have made racing impossible, today’s World Cup hosts manufacture a deep base of ice weeks before the event to insure their sponsors and partners against millions in losses.
Dexterity on ice had always been part of ski racing, but by 2009 a World Cup skier was expected to race on a surface that would be unrecognizable to a previous generation. Organizers injected water into the snow with special nozzles fitted onto fire hoses. The shallow cuts the skis make in a World Cup slope mean reduced drag, and contributed to the rise in downhill speeds. The trend is alarming to the sport’s governing body, the Fédération Internationale de Ski (FIS), where top officials would like to see speeds reduced as much as possible.
“We are convinced that speed is not spectacular,” says FIS president Gian Franco Kasper, who argues that a racer hitting 120 kilometers per hour is dull viewing if he or she is sitting in a tuck. “The normal television viewer does not realize if you have 110 or 120. It’s rather the fight of the man against the mountain. That, you see, that’s spectacular, but if they just sit down like this, like in speed skiing, that doesn’t bring anything. That’s why we always said let’s keep the speed down as much as we can. It’s not easy to do.”
In the years after Torino the FIS redoubled its efforts. Hard, fast snow was here to stay, but the FIS instituted a new set of equipment regulations and course redesigns. These prompted a bitter backlash from many racers, including Bode Miller, who felt that the new restrictions were robbing the sport of its anarchist soul. But neither the athletes nor the officials could see an easy way to reconcile the sometimes conflicting desire to preserve the formats and liberties of a sport that reveres tradition while minimizing the danger that had the potential to turn it into something inhumane.
Like climate change, the new safety measures posed a philosophical question to the next generation of downhillers. Would they get a chance to test their skills and courage against the same mountains their predecessors had raced on? Or would this be the last generation of real downhillers? It is a conundrum that mystifies the sport’s leaders, like Bernhard Russi, now a top course designer and FIS race official, who argues that the feared homogenization of ski racing will not extinguish the omnipresent danger that gives the sport its power and, to great athletes, its allure.
“We try to control more and more and more and more,” says Russi. “In downhill, we even try to control danger, and then it becomes more dangerous. Because if danger is not obvious anymore, it’s getting dangerous.”